Realism is Dead! Long Live Realism!

Why can’t we just get along? You know, the realist painters and the contemporary art world. The zombie-formalists and the zombie romanticists. The former clad in the armor of ironic cynicism and the latter wielding the shield of authentic emotion, both resurrected from a by-gone era.


Zombie Formalism – Leslie Wayne

I’ve been wondering that lately. Why is the art world so divided? I’m speaking of the local art world. The world where pretty babbaling brook paintings run up against abstract  de Kooning-esque angst-filled oils for consideration in the same show. How do they compare?  Inevitably the judge of the show is in one camp or the other and his or her camp naturally wins. When people speak candidly about the “other camp” it’s not very polite. Let’s take a look at what happened.

First a disclaimer

I’m no art historian. I’m a realist painter born in the age of irony. I went to art school and found my home in the illustration department because realism was frowned upon in the fine art department. During my years at Pratt Institute Andrew Wyeth had a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum. This was an outrage and all the fine artists I knew boycotted the museum. I saw the show but kept my nose at a slight tilt so that if anyone saw me looking they would know it was with distain. I didn’t want to look naive.

Let’s go back in time to 1839.

A baby was just born in the South of France to an affluent family. A family that could afford to have a portrait done with the new amazing technology of the day. A photograph! By that time Daguerreotypes were all the rage of the up and coming middle class. Artists were already using the photograph as a tool, but only on the sly! One artist caught using a photo ended up in a lawsuit.By the time that baby was a young man perhaps the idea of creating a likeness in paint seemed a bit redundant. Photographs were beautiful in-and-of themselves and any silly could copy a photograph. What was the value of a painting beyond a likeness? Texture, color, composition….these were avenues worth exploring.

So that baby, Paul Cezanne, did that and changed the art world forever.  I recently read a quote of his from a much loved art newsletter by Robert Glenn, “Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us the taste of her eternity.” (Paul Cezanne) This is certainly a bigger challenge than rendering an accurate portrait, don’t you think? I just have to add that Cezanne used photography as reference too!


Paul Cezanne

Of course the world was changing in vast ways at that time so we can’t pin the modernist movement in art solely on the introduction of the photograph. Cities were growing, the industrial revolution was changing daily life and World War One had people reexamining their beliefs.


George Bellows

Meanwhile realists still worked on depicting the new life: George Bellows, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Grant Wood and the ever popular Edward Hopper. But the world’s attention was mainly on those deeply influenced by Cezanne: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Giacometti, Morandi and many many more.



It’s interesting to me to read a quote by Bonnard about Cezanne: “The painter who was most powerfully armed in front of nature, the strongest, the most sincere.”

What is interesting about this is soon the Post Modernest’s response was a blatant dislike of anything sincere. As I understand it, “Skeptics reject sincerity because ….blind belief can led to evils like the Klu Klux Klan.” Does sincerity lead to a lack of critical awareness? Does it lead to sentimentality? James Bauldwin said, “Sentimentality is the mask of cruelty, as it is dishonest.”

Meanwhile realists were still out there…or were they? Well, we did have Andrew Wyeth just dripping with that evil sentimentality, but in a sincere way I think.(Am I being ironic?)

Much of the realism that has been done over the past 20- 50 years is illustration or commercial painting for home decor. Of course, some of it is very beautifully and insightfully painted and some of it is pretty trite. For instance the ubiquitous  naked woman draped across the couch or worse still, the naked woman draped across the Victorian era couch. (You know the era when we could marginalize and sexually objectify women and get away with it.)  One of my students asked why painters paint the same few things over and over again. Good question! One answer is because many buyers want to be comfortable with the paintings he or she buys. They want to have already seen it. And the gallery wants the artist to paint something similar to what they sold last week, because that is what they have marketed. And of course the artist needs to eat so she paints the same pear for the 54th time. (If you know me you know what I’m talking about!)

The Fine Art World has no concerns about sales. It has always been a dialogue of responses  to itself. Over the years it has become more and more difficult for me to understand though. If you read about contemporary art you must be verse in that incomprehensible “artspeak” language. Sometimes it seems that the art world has become a case of the Emperor’s Clothes. It appears to me to be spiraling with nowhere to go but self destruction, evisceration. Perhaps in the post-apocalyptic art world there will be the possibility again for sincerity without shame, where we can all live in harmony with whatever expression a person decides to pursue. Where Traditional Realists, Photo-Realists, Avant-garde, Conceptual, Digital, Environmental, Installation, Interactive, Video, Performance, Pop, Post-whatever, Neo whatever, Commercial,  and even those damn nudes on couches can coexist without malice, because all have been produced honestly and with (God forbid) sincerity.


Jeremy Lipking

Thank you to John Seed who has a rock’n contemporary realist art blog, to Matt Asby and Brendan Carroll for the NY Times article on Irony in Art and to my friends at Wikipedia who are always a big help.


You are invited!

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” 
― Galileo Galilei

I started teaching a couple years ago. Eventually I dubbed the group that faithfully schleped heavy boxes and bags of art supplies to my studio each Monday evening the “Monday Night Masters”.


Currently I have 5 very dedicated students. As they have progressed I teach less and coach more. They are becoming capable artists and it’s a privilege to paint with them each week.


We are going to celebrate their achievements this Sunday at my studio from 3pm till 5pm with over 40 recent paintings.


Please come join us! 323 Harrison St. North Kingstown RI.



Could you scratch my back? A little to the left please.


Getting to know you.

Finally this painting started letting me know what it needs. I was the one doing all the talking this past week. Tonight it talked back. This is a good thing, for the most part.

The conversation went something like this: “I think my body needs to be darker.”  “OK” “Um,…not warm enough.” “Right”  “YIKES you added white – Uck.”  “Damn, that was an accident, I’ll wipe it off”. “You numbsckull” “Hey, enough from you.It’s late and I’m tired” But I need some shadow under these lines before you leave, and maybe more translucent white over to the left and when you are done with that don’t forget change the color of the stem, it’s hideious.”

It’s still yammering but I had to come blog to you.

What I know now is that this painting is way too immature to be finished by Monday.

Getting to know you again

When an artist works intensely on a painting for a period of time, it becomes hard to make judgement calls. The same thing is true in all aspects of life; your brain normalizes things. It’s a fact. The first time you eat crazy spicy food you’ll put a dent in the ceiling but after a while it will seem fairly normal to you.

If you are staring at a painting for hours or days or weeks or in my case sometimes months it becomes hard to see it objectively. Those 3 eyes on that face seem just about right.

There are tricks to seeing a painting with fresh eyes. One thing I do is look at it in a mirror. The faults usually jump out and give you a stomach punch BAM!

Another trick is to take a photo of it and post it on your blog. Wow, that’s what I did tonight?

But the best thing is just not to look at it for a long time. Ideally when I finish a painting I like to take some time off from it and give it another look before it heads off to a  gallery or a buyer. There may be some changes I need to make. Hopefully not any major ones.

I’m just bringing this up because if I did manage to finish this painting by Monday I wouldn’t have that luxury of getting to see it with fresh eyes before it goes out into the world.


Fear of Fear of Failure!

I recently read somewhere that painting only starts when fear of doing nothing exceeds fear of failure. What’s with that? Why are we so afraid to fail?  I also have read that you learn best from your failures. Well, only if you are paying attention.

With painting there are plenty of areas that can go bad: you started with an uninteresting or just bad composition, your color harmony was off key, your edges were boring, your values didn’t make sense, you had trouble with your materials, your model kept moving (my problem! Look at her now!)

or you were actually not inspired and were painting for some other reason (any of which would be the wrong reason). Most of the time failure happens when your vision doesn’t match the reality you created. You, the artist, are the only person who would know this. So is it a failure for anyone besides you? If every other person in the entire world loved it and it was a failure to you is it a failure?

My friend Mike asked me if it is really freedom to fail. I guess I wouldn’t say that’s the definition of freedom, but I do think that if you don’t allow for the possibility you are not free to attempt anything new. And that brings me to my painting.

There is an area in this painting that doesn’t make me happy. (Isn’t that always the way.) I don’t have a good reference for it. My vision of how cool it was going to look isn’t yet realized and I’ve spend many hours now on this one area yet it kind-a looks like it did days ago. As I worked it this morning I painted much thicker than I ever do. Opaque thick paint. I liked what was happening with the brushwork. It doesn’t look like a “Lorena Pugh” to me; it’s different. The fact that this painting isn’t destined for anyone with a preconceived notion of what it should look like is definitely freedom.


I will work on this more tonight and then I have 4 days left to meet my goal.


What would Caravaggio do?

Sometime around 3:00AM I had the thought, “What would Caravaggio do?”. What would he do next if he were painting this pear? I wonder if he ever fretted over a painting. He seemed to crank them out pretty well, even while he was running from the law. How does that work? Palette, easel, paints ,brushes, models ducking into corners…I don’t get it.

So what would Caravaggio do with my pear? I figure he would add a lot of really low value chroma and intensify the lights. Then he would have the subject wounded, maybe with a paring knife sticking out of her. Juice staining the wrapper….

work in progress

It may not seem like it, but I did work for hours on this painting today. I’m happier with it and actually managed to get my pear and wrapper model to give me a little better reference, so I have a better idea where I’m going than I did yesterday. Do you see my model there on the left with the unlit light behind her? Unfortunately she’s getting a bit old and may not last another day. If I did stick a knife in her she’s probably end up an oozing puddle on my table.

It’s 5 days and counting, Not sure I can do all I want in 5 days, but I’ll stick with the program and see how far I can get. Where am I on the scale? Hum…back at #5.



The ugly truth about my art.

To show work in process, unfinished work, to me is like strolling down Main St. in my skivvies.

Many artists have lovely videos showing how they methodically and beautifully go though the stages of a painting culminating in a miraculous finished piece. I don’t take that direct route very often with my work. I paint the way I grew up, with some very awkward and ugly stages. For me painting is like wandering through a maze. I usually find the way out but only after a number of dead ends.

Why on earth would I show you this process?

Well, for a few reasons.

#1 I want to show you that I’m a vulnerable human being like most people. That I wasn’t born with the ability to paint, I work my ass off for it.

#2 I thought you might find it interesting

#3 (Now for the real reason) I have given myself a challenge and I need your support. Most of the time I am trying to finish up a painting for either my gallery or a patron. I don’t have current work (besides some plein air pieces) sitting around the studio. Once done they are off to either their new forever home or to a spot on the gallery wall where they can vie for the attention of the public, kind of like an orphan when perspective parents arrive at the orphanage. This is all well and good but it doesn’t allow for a lot of creative experimentation on my part and it doesn’t allow me to enter pieces in juried shows and competitions.

Having just feed my gallery and a patron last week, and since the other patrons are hemming and hawing at the moment about the particulars of the commissioned piece, (something that is good and right to do) I have a little time to do something that can fail.  Also there happens to be a show that I would like to enter a piece in (if they will have it). The only catch is, the entry form has to be postmarked April 15th. (No it’s not the IRS that’s offering the show.) So if the painting doesn’t fail, I have….let’s see….about 6 days and 15 hrs to complete it.

Remember what I said about 200 words ago? All that dead ending and reworking stuff really slows me down so this is a huge challenge for me. Did I mention the painting is four feet, by two and a half feet? Yep.

I’ll post a photo of it each day for the next week and give you a report on where I am in the creative process as described by the list below:

creative process list

Please click the “follow” button if you want to join me on this journey and are not a following my blog yet.

Alright, The first image is the underpainting I started with. I really liked the image in a sketch but once it was 4 feet across I slid down to #3 on the creative process list. I sanded down the stem area and reworked it, (the 2nd image) bringing me to #5. . The 3rd photo is where it is tonight. Right now I’m at #2 on the list above. I slip up and down that list with great speed and agility.



Off to the gallery!

Pear # 53 Pear # 54 Wave #3 Wave #4


I’m finally dropping some paintings off to Renjeau Gallery today.