Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pitfalls of Virtuosity

Many people say they love a vigorous and direct brushwork that shows the touch of the hand. We all take pleasure in dazzling technique. But there’s a risk in making the brushstrokes the main subject of painting.

Above is a detail from “Pigs in a Wood, Cornwall” by Sir Alfred J. Munnings. Evidently he painted this from life with the pigs moving around in front of him in the dappled light of a forest. The technique is impressive, because every brushstroke describes form, movement, light, and local color.

Good technique like this happens when you try to convey the most complete illusion in the least time with the simplest means. The goal should be to make an accurate statement in the time allotted, not to dash off some eye-catching brushstrokes.

Above is another example of fine paint handling, this time by Anders Zorn. It’s painted with urgency and directness. He worked from life in a limited amount of time, probably an hour or two. We see beyond the paint surface to the musician’s chiseled face, the rosin from his bow, the cool light from the window.

Here’s a small detail from a magazine illustration in gouache by Harry Anderson from the 1950s, showing a group of sisters conferring about their grieving mother. It’s another example of a functional bravura that stops short of being self-indulgent. There’s no wasted effort. Most of the passages are kept wet together, softening the modeling and immersing most of the strokes.

All of these are quick paintings, all virtuoso efforts. Great paint technique can also be manifest in a carefully crafted month-long effort. In this case, the brushwork can still be economical, but it’s evident on a smaller scale of reference.

For example, here’s a painting from 1885 called “Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach” by Stanhope Forbes, along with a detail of the fish. Click to enlarge.

The painting took Forbes weeks to complete. He worked entirely outdoors from life. When you look at the painting, you see more than just the paint. You practically smell the fish.

Good technique always draws attention beyond the surface of the painting and toward something else, something intangible, something invisible—light, atmosphere, character, or story.

OK, so if these are examples of true virtuosity, where is the pitfall?

Unfortunately, by the end of the 19th Century, many artists became concerned primarily with the paint surface as an end in itself.

Here’s a detail of a painting by Frederick Frieseke from 1913. The paint strokes have taken on a life of their own. It’s a bit hard to tell what the strokes are trying to represent. They’re painted in a completely different style from the woman’s knees.

This detail is from a painting by Childe Hassam called “The Bricklayers.” Hassam seems to be stuck on the surface, too, as if he was just frosting a cake. What has he told us about these bricklayers, or about the environment they’re in, or about the light shining on them? Not much, because the paint gets in the way. It's not a problem with a lack of drawing ability. Both of these guys could draw well if they wanted to. The problem is with the thought process.

It’s easy to make a painting look like paint. But it’s a lifelong challenge to use paint to evoke the chill of autumn or the smell of a rose.

A century and a half ago, Asher B. Durand wrote that when execution “becomes conspicuous as a principal feature of the picture, it is presumptive evidence, at least, of a deficiency in some higher qualities.”


Anonymous said...

Mr. Gurney,

I am so happy I found your blog. I've admired your work since I first read Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time in the 4th grade back in 1993. Your book opened my eyes to the most fascinating world I had ever encountered. When I was in 6th grade I entered a drawing contest through Scholastic I believe in which we had to illustrate how we would welcome Dinotopians if they ever came to our home town. I won the nationwide contest along with a few children and to this day it's one of the most wonderful memories of my life. Originally we were supposed to be painted by you into a carousel but you changed that into a parade. I was wondering if you still have copies of that painting. I would like to have a copy of my own since I left the original you sent at my parent's home. I've looked everywhere online for it with no avail.
Again Mr Gurney thank you for creating your wonderful books. Your imagination is a wonderful gift along with your artistic talent that will awe many generations to come.
Laura Blanco

Anonymous said...

Hi James

thanks again for so nice blog..... Allow me be in your flow as quoting :
-) about fishes : " three fishes " attributed to Liou
T' Sai ( around 1068), Philadelphia Museum of Arts.... this drawing. masterpiece..
-) Natural History, by Jessye Wilcox Smith ' rhymes of the real child " , Boston Museum of Fine Arts..

have a nice day....

Anonymous said...

Ooo, can of worms!!! I hope you don't mind a little discussion. I agree with your comments about the paintings inasmuch as their purpose was to represent the illusion of life. Other painters, however, may have as their purpose the symbolism (Picasso), or the process even (Jackson Pollock). Art doesn't have to be representative to be art.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Anonymous, it's a controversial topic, but I welcome discussion, especially if we confine criticism to the art of dead artists.

It's an old, old debate, but I think it's still relevant, particularly now with representational painting making a comeback and finding its bearings.

Anonymous said...

Laura Blanco!! (first comment) I am so happy to hear from you, and I'm touched by your recollections. I've heard from two other winners from the contest 12 years ago. If you email me your mailing address to, I will happily send you a signed poster.

For those of you with Journey to Chandara, Laura is the one in the middle of the page spread between page 62 and 63, riding a Lambeosaurus and holding the feathered cap.

Michael Dooney said...

I think that in most cases it's artists themselves who are most impressed and inspired by masterful brush work. One surprising thing that I've learned over the years is that many artists whose work appears to be done loosely and fast actually work very slowly and methodically. I've seen Richard Schmid paint and he works very deliberately, not at all the freewheeling approach that you might expect from seeing his looser finished work. He's convinced that painters like Zorn and Sargent worked in the same manner and they didn't just "dash it off" as many people believe.

indiaartist said...

Thanks for this blog. I just discovered it. I'm a new artist and I have a lot to learn but I agree with your 'pitfalls of Virtuosity' and enjoyed this illustrius posting.
Happy New Year to you.

Erik Bongers said...

Even though I was very critical about european art schools (perhaps I generalized to much and should have referred to Belgian art schools only).
But as I was saying, even though critical about the fact that I believe the art schools I know are too much focused on art as an egocentric development and thereby ignoring to educate art as a much more humble and technical thing, I don't agree with your point of view here.

In fact I like all the paintings you show in this post.

About the one with the knees.
Imagine that the knees are placed on a completely white background (one could do this in photoshop): they will appear rough and dirty !
But the artist has chosen to put them in front of a brutal and almost abstract background, thereby making the knees look pale and so very fragile, if not sensual. The knees are the only really immediately recognizable thing in this painting and as such get all the attention from the viewer. I could go on and on about this but essentially I really like this contrast and it must be pointed out (I think) that this contrast is vital for the impression the knees have on the viewer.

About the "Brick Folk" I'll be a bit more brief. The rough surface of the painting will remind everyone whom has ever handbuild a brick wall to the skinscraping roughness of the bricks and the pain in the back at the end of the day.

I LOVE realistic art because it's something that feels very familiar, but I also like to wander through more unfamiliar terrain. Difficult to explain as it's all between the ears I guess.

Erik Bongers said...

Come to think about it..
This morning I was paging through the 1st Dinotopia book.
Something struck me when looking at the painting of the farm (egg-hatching facility - I have a dutch version, so I don't know the actual page or title of the painting).

If you look at the bottom of that painting (especially the righthand side) it's as abstract as you can get !
One can IMAGINE grass, soil, etc, but it isn't there is it ?
Crop to those two bottom inches of the painting and what do you have? Brush strokes, nothing more !

I dare say those abstract brush strokes serve exactly the same purpase as those paint-splashes around the knees in that example painting : avoid attracting attention and enhancing the recognizable details of the painting.

Hehe...a can of worms indeed ;)

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed your blog and am thankful the open sharing of your life and techniques. The one thing I think you should stick to is your continued (until now) lack of criticism of others. I have yet to meet the person who is in the position of stating what is 'right' or 'wrong' with art. It is a fundamental error to feel art has any absolute meaning or any technique has value over another. I am always at a loss when an artist suddenly gets it into their head that they have some special insight into the 'absolutes' of art. All you have, and ever will have, is your own interpretations. Art is a relative experience and 'right' and 'wrong' only tells us about the person talking - not the art.

Art critics are a dime a dozen because it doesn't require anything but a mouth and an attitude.

Artists are a dime a dozen because it just requires a canvus and paint.

Inspirational people are very rare and that is what you are.

Don't forget your true value and how you achieved it.

Dan Gurney said...

Is it your experience, too, that discussions about visual arts tend to heat up more quickly than parallel discussions in the realm of music or dance? It's mine, and I have wondered why.

I have a theory: visual arts, being visual, have a greater appearance of permanence. So we take our thoughts about art to be more important, more significant, more lasting. We take our opinions more seriously.

Music, (and other live performing arts) by their nature, are more ephemeral. They appear and disappear and we're OK with that. So we allow our opinions about them to appear and disappear, without hanging on and getting as argumentative. I'm not saying people don't argue about music, obviously we do. But we tend to allow those who disagree with our views have their own opinions.

In regard to Eric's observations about the Egg Hatchery: I agree. I love paintings that combine careful detailed work in the areas the artist intends emphasize with simple, bold, brush strokes in the areas she wishes to deemphasize.

Both careful and loose areas are interesting to look at and, as an untrained, amateur viewer, I like having some variety for my eye to roam around in. That's one reason paintings are so interesting to study.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a million Mr. Gurney!

I am so exited to hear that I'm in A Journey to Chandra! I'll have to go out and get a copy as soon as possible.

I'm also going to the Central Library in Los Angeles to see your exhibition today. I live two blocks away and luckily I found out about it before it was over.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I found your post fascinating and satisfying -- I would ignore snarky anonymous #2. We're reading your blog for your opinions and your world-view on art, so I think we understand that everything you point out as "right" on your blog is "right" in your opinion. Shrug.

Personally, I agreed with this post on the level that I run across a lot of artists whose technique seems to be rather precious -- technique for the sake of impressing other artists or getting newspaper coverage on how they paint with dirty diapers. I like my art like I like my literature: just tell the story in the way it needs to be told. Some are gritty, some are arty, but damn few of them need to be filled with purple prose, the literary form of over-the-top brushstrokes.

Roca said...

Contrary to the anonymous post above, I find it fascinating to explore how other artists feel about art. I don't get upset at things I don't agree with anymore, rather I enjoy the mental stimulation open discussion brings. How else can we grow? I heard an anecdote that Norman Rockwell didn't consider himself an "artist" but an "illustrator." I don't know if it's true, but I think it's interesting how museums fall all over themselves these days to get a Rockwell painting.

ian said...

Dear Mr. Gurney,
I want to say that I love reading your blog. I am a big fan of your art but I must say that you seem to be as much teacher as artist. From reading your posts I feel as if I'm in a lecture class on technique and art history. It is a huge pleasure as someone trying to be an artist to find and read your blog.

Ian Ruff

Anonymous said...

Are you disavowing an entire century of modern art?

Impressionism, cubism, surrealism, to name a few? Agreed lots of modern art was self indulgent, but others expressed the depth of the experience of modern humanity, in a way that strict realism never could.

And why is it that some of the totems and art of the Pacific Northwest are every bit as profound and moving as the perfect marble statues and paintings in Florence? Primitive African art is what inspired Picasso. These art works present a different world, one of spirits and dreams that are perhaps taboo to the western mind, but not necessarily deficient, on the contrary in fact.

The imagination can be expressed in ways other that a fake form of "reality".

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all for your stimulating comments. You have definitely expanded my thinking, and I'm grateful for the lively discussion.

In answer to the last Anonymous, I am certainly not disavowing 20th Century art or the creations of the modern era. Far from it: as the readers of this blog know, I'm a champion of animation, comics, Escher, illustration, caricature, and many of the artists in the gallery/museum sphere.

The topic of my post was not about representational art vs. modern art. It's much, much narrower: simply dealing with the question of whether attracting the attention of the viewer to the surface features of a painting takes away from other qualities of the picture.

My jumping off point was the quote from Asher Durand from 1855, at least a decade before the Impressionists. By the way, the quote comes from his essay "Letters on Landscape Painting" which is reprinted in Linda Ferber's new book on Durand.

ZD said...

I know that gurney wasn't trying to put down impressionism, but that's the direction this discussion has taken so that's what I'm replying to.

I don't like how people are defending impressionism as modern art. Impressionism is a legitimate approach to representational art, it is not modern abstract art.

Impressionism is supposed to capture the state of mind when you first look at something, before you have time to digest every detail. The examples james gurney used didn't capture much though, here are a couple of better ones.

ZD said...

By the way I'm not saying they where bad examples, they where just paintings that didn't give a clear idea about the environment. So they're good examples for the point he's making. But maybe the paintings would look better if I saw the whole painting and not just the detail.

JP said...

I may be stepping into the Hornet's nest here, but I am of the mindset that most art I consider valuable contains a palpable sense of investment in the idea the artist was trying to communicate to the viewer. This goes for all art across all disciplines, be it visual, musical, or whatever. I agree with you Mr. Gurney that technique in and of itself tends to be suspicious. I find that technique based art, by and large, seems to leave a relatively short impression on the mind due to the fact that techniques wax as trends change.

Since visual art is ,in a sense, a dialogue with the viewer, I prefer an interesting "conversation". The execution can be masterful, or perhaps adequate, but if the meaning comes across, the piece holds my interest. Van Gogh tended to be messier than, say, Church, when painting a landscape but both are painters that create powerful energy and life in their landscapes. That energy transcends technique in both cases.

"The Scream" is a piece that I quite enjoy because it FEELS like a scream. It's not a "beautiful" as Caravaggio's David with Goliath's Head, but both pieces show torment, and again, both communicate equally.

Anonymous said...


Good topic. I think much of it depends on the goal of the artist and whether he or she has set out to 'describe' a scene or simply comment on it. Your analogy to music is a good one but I rarely hear anyone apply the same criteria to that particular art form in regards to technique vs approach. Sometimes the feedback of a guitar makes the point much better than a whole note might.

In the case of the knees I think the technique works well. The subject itself is abstract and simply rendering a pair of knees alongside some foliage would be entirely forgettable. However, I agree with your analysis in the case of the bricklayers. Although the textures do reference the roughness of the job itself, personally I feel as if it's getting in the way. Of course it's only a detail so I would withhold criticism until viewing the entire piece.

Personally, the more I paint the more interested I've become in the medium itself. I used to spend a lot of time faithfully rendering things in oils but over time, but decided to leave that to my camera. I find the language of paint and texture to be much more interesting in telling our stories in this way.

My 2 cents and keep up the great conversations!

childe hassam said...

a painter has two basic problems to solve ... 'what to paint and how to paint it'. keeping these to objectives in mind he must then decide if he is to either make an effort to contribute to the history of art or merely paint history. You happen to blessed with the painting equivalent of 'perfect pitch' and can render tones and colours very accurately. I'd say we all find security in the things we do well and you come across as being very secure in what you do. I'd also say that those who deserve most our admiration are those who are willing to take chances and go beyond their personal security zone....... and those of other people!
I admire your technique and your knowledge but unfortunately overall your work is very safe and for that reason one bad painting by Picasso is worth more than your entire life's work. (to date)