The Importance Of Fearlessness In Painting
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Be courageous. Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a little beyond. You must show conviction yourself, if you would convince others. One of our best painters recently assured me that cheek was his only technical asset. This was not true, but it was half true.
The public loves to be dictated to in matters of art--to feel that the painter is "onto his job." It will pass by the man who says "I think," and stand rapt every time before the picture of the man who says "I know." Aim to tell the truth; but if you have to lie, lie courageously. A courageous lie has often more virtue than a timid truth. My brother, the marine painter, was once asked by a mutual friend to criticise two marines upon which the latter was at work. He went without enthusiasm, for the man had never attempted a sea-piece in his life—and it takes years to understand the ocean. On his return, I asked about it. "Why it was simply astounding," was the reply. "They were false of course. But they were so cheeky that they would convince any one but a marine painter." When you know that this man was color-blind, and that he had compassed success in spite of his handicap, you will under-stand the kind of courage he dealt in.
Use plenty of pigment also—great "gobs" of it. A well-furnished palette is half the battle. Squeeze out twice as much color as you think you can possibly need, and then use it all. Look at the work of our friends Redfield, Sorolla, Foster, Schofield, Dougherty, Dearth, Chase—all the good painters. It shows clearly that they have plenty of paint upon their palettes. Never count the cost of your pigments. Use them as if they were the very dirt under your feet. There are difficulties enough in art without adding another to the list. At best (or worst) you can hardly use more than twenty dollars' worth of pigment on any one canvas, and that is a bagatelle in comparison to the thousands which you propose to ask for your picture. Paint with house paints if you are too poor to have a generous supply of the tube variety, but for Heaven's sake, don't stint your palette.
When I was working in France, some twenty years ago, one of the younger painters asked me for a criticism on his "Salon." I found him at work upon quite a large canvas, using a palette which was dotted with mere pin-points of color. The picture was well arranged and well "seen," but with that palette of course good painting was impossible. Carroll was a poor man. We were all aware that his allowance was barely sufficient to pay for the simplest of food and lodging; and the cost of artist's materials must have been a serious drain upon his slender resources. So I hesitated long before asking for his color-box. There was but one thing to do, however; so, resolutely smothering all compunctions, I seized upon the precious tube of madder and squeezed out a most generous supply. Carroll jumped nearly out of his boots.
" Good gracious ! " he exclaimed, " why that amount would last me two weeks at least."
My only reply was to follow suit with the cobalt, the cadmium, and the ultra-marine. In less than two minutes I had a palette as generously furnished as the most extravagant impressionist could desire.
"There, Carroll," I said, "that is the best criticism I can possibly give you. Use all those pigments this morning, and the result will be such a piece of painting as you have never done in your life."
It was a seemingly heartless piece of surgery. But I felt that, like many another surgical operation, it was necessary to save life. Carroll was first of all a painter. He could dispense with food for a while, but he could not dispense with the materials of his craft. Well! the paint was out of the tubes, and it must either be utilized or wasted. So Carroll used it, with the result that his picture was not only well hung, but was sold for enough to repay the cost of the colors fifty-fold. Not long since I met him again, and he assured me that his whole success as a painter dated from that lesson.
But there is another form of courage which is more important than either of those referred to—and that is moral courage—the ability to stand squarely upon your own feet and say, "Thus do I see the thing, and thus will I paint it." Look at Winslow Homer and at Whistler. Do you imagine for an instant that either of these masters ever concerned himself with the question of how any one else saw nature ? Their pictures say, hardily, "This is the way that I see it." Stick to your own vision therefore, if you would rise above the throng. Stand aloof ! and force the note, if possible—your own personal note. But first of all, be sure that you have something to say ; for an empty boast awakes only a smile, and a bluff is soon called.