What is success in painting?

I have never surfed, I have been to the the sea a lot, watched surfing on the TV, even read about it but never actually surfed. This will become more relevant later, for now what is success in painting?

  • Having your picture hung on a gallery wall?
  • Sitting back and admiring every brushstroke and feeling satisfied the painting was a success?
  • Winning a painting competition?
  • Becoming well known as a painter of substance and quality?
  • Achieving a likeness or a photorealisitic rendition of a subject?

None of the above, in my opinion, none of those answers represent success in painting.

True success can only be found in the process of painting, not before or after, only in that moment.

It is that heightened awareness when the brain is quiet and focused, sharp like a needle, when the paint hits the canvas and by wonderful chance something happens which meets or even exceeds your expectations, just by the paint doing what it does and allowing it, not from what you did. That moment is success.

Close up of a hand painted by Velazquez

One in ten, one in hundred, one in a thousand? How many brushstrokes are like that? Have that unintended perfection?

I feel it doesn't even matter, what matters is that you are chasing that brushstroke and it will, it will occur eventually. Most likely when you finally give up trying to make it happen.

In my opinion that is what drives the painter, looking for that perfect moment, that application of paint when something focused, unexpected and perfect happens. For me that is the root of the motivation to paint and also the consistent element in 'great' painting. Think about it and it won't occur, plan for it and it won't occur, look at Rembrandt or Velazquez closely and it is utterly impossible they planned those brushstrokes in their entirety, they were letting the paint do it's thing with the belief it would work.

Close up of Rembrandt's Jewish Bride

Go very close up to one of those paintings and you have the most beautiful organic, painterly abstraction move further back an somehow it looks like a hand but badly painted, move even further back and in the context of the whole it becomes a hand with life, perfectly lit. You can't do that with the brain alone it takes faith in the materials and the process.

Close up of a Gerhard Richter painting

All this is like I guess the surfer waiting for that wave, going out at 4am every morning, day after day, spending the majority of time in freezing water, waiting and alert, doggedly returning with faith the wave will come. When that wave/brushstroke does come...then you are living, then you are truly alive in that moment.

The finished image produced through painting is supposed to be the result, the outcome, the goal and the paint the medium the means by which to get there.

In my opinion it is the other way round, the image providing ongoing guidance on how to hit upon that perfect brushstroke, the materials and process lead the way not the image.

Success for me is catching that perfect brushstroke, like the surfer catching the perfect wave. 


James Holman
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