What Makes A Good Painting?

A couple of years ago one of my collectors came to my studio and offered me a house in exchange for the picture above. The same picture was on two separate  occasions offered for exhibition at the annual ROI competition in London and refused both times. How am I to understand these two very different reactions to the work?

This puzzled me for years, and bears examination for the benefit of all of the young and aspiring artists out there.

I decided to start painting in 2000 after a moderately successful  but unfulfilling career in advertising and marketing. I never reckoned that I was any good at it, nor did I suffer from a need to have my ego massaged by well meaning friends, but I knew what I liked and my work sold.

The above picture – Buttermere and Crummock Water (Oil 40×30″) – was the last , and I think best, of the pictures which I painted for my own selfish pleasure, it depicts how the fells feel rather than just how they look. I was pleased with it in 2005 and it pleases me in a different way today, however I understand and accept that it could never be accepted into a serious art show, because it’s not painted in an ‘approved’ style.

What do I mean by approved style? To paraphrase Betjeman , ‘approval of what is approved of is no approval at all’. Approval is being praised for reaffirming what is currently popular.

In other words art juries like to see other painters affirming how they choose to paint by producing similar works, while ‘ordinary people’ like what they like.

So it’s catch 22 for new artists – work in an popular, accepted and conventional style and become a critical success or do your own thing and take the consequences. One only has to look at the number of young artists scrabbling to be the next Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter with lookalike ‘original work’ to see just how damaging this critical imperative to conform can be.

A note from an occasionally exciting gallery in the SW dropped into my e-mail last week with what looked at a glance to be more of the same from the often brilliant Kurt Jackson. At first I thought he’d dropped his game a bit until I realised that their latest prodigy isn’t Kurt at all but a ‘Kurt-a -like’ parachuted in to meet the expectations (one assumes) of their clients (and creditors) who are used to benefiting from their relationship with Kurt; as on closer inspection I saw that he is no longer on their ‘represented artists’ list.

The new man – I forget his name – isn’t a bad painter at all,  but it’s all so bloody unoriginal and depressing that he feels he has no option but to crank out pastiches of another artist’s work. If a director of this gallery finds themselves on a jury then it’s pretty clear which kind of work they will favour.

Kurt of course wasn’t always the great original artist he is today, and it’s easy to see where he drew his inspiration from, however is it a great idea for aspiring artists to ape his style? I’m not certain it’s in his interests, in those of the gallery, their clients and certainly not their ‘new Kurt’.  Left to run its course, where will this kind of thinking bring us?

The big and cyclic problem for art, is that it is predestined to become self referential and stale, as successful art professionals select and promote the next generation of successful art professionals.

This is such a big deal that we are still dealing with the stylistic fallout of Impressionism; a style which brought down the methods of the French Academy, loosing the direct link they had forged to the masters the late renaissance.

That we can’t decide what good painting is anymore, that traditional ateliers are thriving, that it’s valid to paint anything, that everybody’s style is equally valid ; these are all symptoms of our inability to put visual art in a societal context.  Make it useful then we make it important. Make it important then we make it work for us again; it’s a big angsty chicken with a fairly rotten egg…

My advice? Avoid art societies, they’ll simply turn you into their successors. Avoid galleries unless you need the money and can avoid swallowing the bullshit enough to do your own thing one day. The only safe bet is to paint what you like.

Oh yes – Buttermere? Why didn’t it take off?

Well in fact it did, I ignored the critics, embraced the public and the picture allowed me to start a business which enables me to live and work 5 minutes from a Georgian house on the beautiful north norfolk coast and paint what I like.  You can argue it’s old fashioned, it’s in a received style, it’s  a ‘brown painting’, and all of those things; but I never sold out, I bought in.

I bought in to the ideas and principles that Art should be underpinned by the craft of painting, that Art should be explicable to everybody and that good painters must first steal from great ones before developing their own style, and in this context the worse place to start is by aiming for parity with existing artists and societies.

I never kidded myself that I could be original in the first ten years of my practice, as Mozart said  ‘ It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me…there is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.’

I dare to believe my current show The Painted Garden is original, or as original as any body of visual art can be, but I don’t kid myself that it will ever be critically approved.

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