The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Artist’s Writings

Some Thoughts on Painting (1954) by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, Head of Frank Auerbach, 1976

My object in painting pictures is to try to move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice. Because of this, painting is the only art in which the intuitive qualities of the artist may be more valuable to him than actual knowledge or intelligence …
The painter’s obsession with his subject is all he needs to drive him to work. People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by which this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. Yet the painter needs to put himself at a certain emotional distance from the subject in order to allow it to speak. He may smother it if he lets his passion for it overwhelm him while in the act of painting …

Lucian Freud, Bella, 1981

A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure. The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accuarate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not, depends entirely what it is in itself, what is there to be seen. The model should only serve the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement. The picture is all he feels about it, all he thinks worth preserving of it, all he invests it with. If all the qualities which the painter took from the model were really taken, no person would be painted twice.
The aura given out by a person or object is as much a part of them as their flesh. The effect that they make in space is bound up with them as might might be their colour or smell. The effect in space of two different human individuals can be as different as a candle and an electric light bulb. Therefore the painter must be as concerned with the air surrounding his subject as with the subject itself. It is through observation and perception of atmosphere that he can register the feeling that he wishes his painting to give out.
A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency which drives him on. Thus the process of creation becomes necessary to the painter perhaps more than is the picture. The process in fact is quite habit-forming. (Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 219 – 221)

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995


Marlene Dumas: Woman and Painting

I found this statement by Marlene Dumas in the book Painting, (p.94-95), edited by Terry R. Myers, published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.

Marlene Dumas, The Visitor. 1995

Woman and Painting


I paint because I am a woman.
(It’s a logical necessity.)
If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.


I paint because I am an artificial blonde woman.
(Brunettes have no excuse.)
If all good painting is about colour then bad painting is about having the wrong colour. But bad things can be good excuses. As Sharon Stone said: ‘Being blonde is a great excuse. When you’re having a bad day you can say, I can’t help it, I’m just feeling blonde today.’


I paint because I am a country girl.
(Clever, talented big-city girls don’t paint.)
I grew up on a wine farm in southern Africa. When I was a child I drew bikini girls for male guests on the back of their cigarette packs. Now I am a mother and I live in another place that reminds me a lot of a farm – Amsterdam. (It’s a good place for painters.) Come to think about it, I’m still busy with those types of images and imagination.


I paint because I am a religious woman.
(I believe in eternity.)
Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who were first might be last. Painting is a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light.
That’s why dead painters shine so bright.
It’s ok to be the second sex.
It’s ok to be second best.
Painting is not a progressive activity.


I paint because I am an old-fashioned woman.
(I believe in witchcraft.)
I don’t have Freudian hang-ups. A brush does not remind me of a phallic symbol.
If anything, the domestic aspect of a painter’s studio (being ‘locked up’ in a room) reminds me a bit of a housewife with her broom. If you’re a witch you still know how to use it. Otherwise it’s obvious that you’ll prefer the vacuum cleaner.


I paint because I am a dirty woman.
(Painting is messy business.)
It cannot ever be a pure conceptual medium, The more ‘conceptual’ or cleaner the art, the more the head can be separated from the body, and the more labour can be done by others. Painting is the only manual labour I do.


I paint because I like to be bought and sold.
Painting is about the human touch. It is about the skin of a surface. A painting is not a postcard. The content of a painting cannot be separated from the feel of its surface. Therefore, in spite of everything, Cezanne is more than vegetation and Picasso more than an anus and Matisse is not a pimp.

Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave, 2003

Seeing It

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain (Open), 1989 - 1991

I paint because it’s my work. And I paint because I believe it’s the best way that I can spend my time as a human being. I paint for myself. I paint for my wife. And I paint for anybody that wants to look at it. Really at heart, for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it. Well, I do everything I can in terms of what I put out for people to look at. I mean I supply them with all of the information I possibly can. And they just have to take care of it from there on in. As in anything, you know, like the more responsive, the more open, the more imaginative you are when you deal with something, the better the experience it will be. (Brice Marden, quoted by Gary Garrels in Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, p.17)

I know / You might roll your eyes at this / But I’m so glad that you exist (The Weakerthans, “The Reasons”, from the album Reconstruction Site)

Last week my teaching semester came to an end, and now I’m marking and giving students last bits of feedback. This process can be both rewarding and daunting, because it puts into stark relief the results of one’s teaching methods.

What is worth engaging as an artist? a teacher? a student? I worry about what I teach students and what I fail to teach them. I worry that students’ misunderstanding or a lack of clarity on my part can be needlessly deforming. I worry that my own enthusiasm waxes and wanes and that this might be reflected in students’ loss of interest or love of what they do in the studio. I worry that the system of education that I am part of and the system of legitimation (the art world) that students will enter on graduating are deeply flawed and reward the wrong things.

If I believe that teaching is a worthwhile pursuit, and I do, what tools should I be trying to pass on to students? Where my own work has failed has been in lapses of nerve, in succumbing to cynicism, in taking for granted my own assumptions, in the suppression of joy in favour of cool distance. But this observation leaves me with the uneasy feeling that the tools students need most are beyond the reach of my teaching.

Making art demands some sort of empathy towards the world. It isn’t only the critical gaze of analysis that fosters understanding, but also the acknowledgment of the things one loves. I think this is something like what Brice Marden has in mind when he says that his painting is “for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it.”

“Seeing it” is an affirmation of existence, and the evidence upon which one can find another “good” or “wonderful”. “Without such preceding experience, no impulse of the will can exist in any meaningful way. That is, without such experience we cannot love at all, not anything or anyone. First of all, what is lovable must have revealed itself to our eyes, to our sensuous as well as mental faculty of perception: ‘visio est quaedam causa amoris’, seeing is a kind of cause of love” (Joseph Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 197).

Marden’s simple evocation is the kind of thing that art sophisticates often roll their eyes at. It sounds naive or cliché or sentimental, seems to lack intellectual rigor, even to evade responsibility. It is the kind of thing that would be surprising to see in an artist statement, because it lacks reference to any kind of theoretical or critical language. Marden’s position would be difficult to defend in academic contexts which tend to privilege oppositional posturing. And yet, it also feels intuitively right, adequate, whole.

For the moment, I am content to follow this intuition, but it raises questions for my teaching practice. Is it possible to teach bravery? curiosity? openness? love? More to the point, how to protect and cultivate these qualities in the face of crushing antagonism?

Perhaps it is necessary to constantly assert the difference between art training and art making. Although in many ways students are learning how to “be” artists, it seems inappropriate to claim that I am teaching them to occupy an existential position; at best, art training may foster an understanding of the need to do so.

A comparison might be made to the difference between religious studies and religious practice. It seems reasonable to think that an academic, scholarly understanding of religious systems across cultures might enhance personal religious practice. It is entirely unreasonable to think that it could function as a substitute. Likewise, “art studies” (art education/history/theory) are supplemental, not primary, to artistic practice. Instead, it is the “impulse of the will” to say “I’m so glad that you exist” which provides fundamental motivation.

Brice Marden, The Muses, 1993

Words and Pictures

In my art I tried to explain life and its meaning to myself. I also intended to help others to understand life better. (Edvard Munch)

Edvard Munch, Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-42

I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say. I think one ought to use everything one can use, all of the energy wasted in painting it, so that one hasn’t the reserve of energy which is able to use this thing. One shouldn’t really know what to do with it, because it should match what one is already; it shouldn’t just be something one likes. (Jasper Johns)

Jasper Johns, According to What, 1964

A painting feels lived out to me, not painted. That’s why one is changed by painting. In a rare magical moment, I never feel myself to be more than a trusting accomplice. So paintings aren’t pictures, but evidence – maybe documents, along the road you have not chosen, but are on nevertheless. (Philip Guston)

Philip Guston, The Pit, 1976

Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that—if we know how to interpret it—we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work. Just as we may observe the movements of an unknown animal without understanding the law that inhabits and controls them, so Cezanne’s observers did not divine the transmutations he imposed on events and experiences; they were blind to his significance, to that glow from out of nowhere which surrounded him from time to time. But he himself was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration. Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was from the approval of others that he had to await the proof of his worth. That is why he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see ideas or freedom face to face. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Cezanne’s Doubt)

Paul Cézanne, Mont Ste. Victoire and Chateau Noir, 1904-1906

Artist and Critic

Fairfield Porter, Forsythia and Pear in Bloom, 1968

I have recently been reading Art in its Own Terms: selected criticism 1936 – 1975, by Fairfield Porter. It is refreshing to read criticism which derives from a practitioner’s perspective. The bulk of the book takes the form of reviews and short essays written for various periodicals and is edited and introduced by painter, Rackstraw Downes.

What I have found most interesting is the way that ideas are elaborated over the course of several pieces, so that the sense of his pressing concerns comes through without being imposed on his subjects arbitrarily. Notable entries are a letter to the Partisan Review, on Clement Greenberg’s essay “‘American-type’ Painting” as well as a letter to the Kenyon Review lambasting Wyndham Lewis’ essay on Picasso. In both of these letters he takes issue with the way that art is treated through the language of the critic and also with the implicit assumption that the critic is somehow in a position to tell artists what they ought to be concerned with. An example:

Greenberg seems to think that the artist today must give up the figure: the figure has been done and nothing new remains. It was also done by the Greeks, but the success of the ancients was imitated, not shunned, during the Renaissance. American painters have not been supreme in figure painting; perhaps from shyness they have felt more at ease in landscape. There is now figure painting being done by Americans, but Greenberg doubts its validity, telling them in effect to stick to their old provincialism; and this misunderstanding of value is also provincial … as a war is not won by brilliant retreats, so creativeness is not advanced by imposed limitations.  (p. 235-6)

and on Wyndham Lewis:

Your article on Picasso by Wyndham Lewis was very bad. I think that like many literary people you have an indirect understanding of the visual arts, and that since Lewis is both a painter and a writer you thought he must be an art critic.

The criticism shows about Lewis, first, that he looks at paintings through the spectacles of words, and without these spectacles would be blind. He does not know the difference between the pictures and his talk about them, and his talk is about many things that are quite true and relate to the pictures, but are non-essential … Second, the article shows that Lewis paints from a written program, concocted in advance. He is a manifesto painter. In the end of his article he compares Picasso with his manifesto, and finds Picasso lacking. Picasso is not a manifesto painter, and the end of the article shows that what is at issue is the manifesto by Lewis, nothing else. It serves as an advertisement for the work Lewis is planning to do. (p. 239)

Although I don’t necessarily agree with Porter’s evaluations of the work he reviews,  what I admire most is his commitment to an independent point of view, as well as his terse impatience for the critical platitudes of his time. Part of his impatience comes from a desire to encounter art, as the title states, in its own terms, as artistic experience, not through an extrinsic theoretical platform:

Art can be known best in its own terms, artistically. The experience of art is inhibited if it is considered something to be “understood”, something, like juvenile delinquency, that resists social control, but whose prevalence requires a sympathetic and tolerant attitude in order that society or individuals may manipulate it for social benefit or private ends. (p. 146)

His opposition to Greenberg is distinct from postmodern critique. It doesn’t seek to replace the work that Greenberg champions with a more theoretically correct version. Instead it seeks to give the work at hand a closer and more sensitive hearing, trying to determine what it proposes about the world rather than how it might fit into a conceptual schema. There is no attempt to generalize into an idealized theory of history, just attentiveness to his own experience.

Downes sums up this position in his introduction:

In the critical disputes of his time his was one of the sharp minds, and this is where independence became an issue. It was not that Porter liked contention: he loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully. Mainly he was at odds with a criticism which, ignoring the evidence that actually surrounded it, purported to deduce art’s future from its immediate past; and so control it, as Porter put it, by imitating ‘the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.’ (p. 19-20)

A useful and timely model for artists and critics alike.

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