‘We can learn nothing from the Old Masters’

Coming to the end of a five day course it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve achieved.

Was it five days well spent helping people to realise their dream to become better painters, or five days I’ll never get back?

Ask the same question in most art tutors and you’ll get a quixotic answer, ‘Art cannot be taught’ . Leaving aside the obvious point that the whole aim of any college is to teach, does that mean I’m wasting my time?


What one can’t impart is that spark of original genius which animated the brushes of painters like Velasquez or the imagination of Picasso, but it’s all to easy to throw one’s hands in the air and say that these things cannot be taught, and therefore the whole thing shouldn’t be taught.


Aesop by Velasquez, technical skill is a solid basis for creative innovation, but there’s precious little of that here; this is bravura technical skill but not, I think, vision.


Watching me watching you. Las Meninas is a work of originality, insight and genius underpinned by years of unglamorous craft.

But where did artists of that calibre start? With the basics of course, for while ephemeral genius might come unbidden, its visualisation and realisation must be built on the  concrete skills of Painting (note the capital P), and it’s precisely these skills which art colleges need to turn their hands and energies to, rather than shooting straight for some kind of conceptual end game.


The style that launched a thousand representational ateliers. Too much craft is a bad thing. because flawless technique isn’t the point of Art if it doesn’t flower into visionary genius. Sorry John.

True, one can hardly expect every competent painter to turn those craft skills into a means of expressing some personal creative genius, but that equation doesn’t reverse. Even geniuses need the craft to express their ideas in a way we can all benefit from.


Creative vision will always trump technical skill, but you’ll always need a sound grasp of the latter. Bacon’s screaming pope might be visionary but its technically competent too.

I wonder  – I really do – if that’s not the central omission in our state Art education.

It’s commonplace to bemoan the fact that Art isn’t being taught because those who teach it were not themselves taught to paint, and certainly the growth of practical teaching studios such as mine do nothing if not bear witness to that sad fact.

Worse still, those who are taught to paint, often lack the plurality to embrace contemporary practice. Ateliers always teach great skills, but I wonder if the world really needs more classically trained painters? It’s not useful to impose a style upon creative minds by insisting this Art is valid and that type as not.

So I’m for a middle ground, although I understand compromise is so very unfashionable these days. Enough craft to enable creativity, but not a diktat on how those skills should be used; that attitude should have ended after 1874 and Impressionism.

How wonderful it would be if we could prepare young – would be – artists with the practical and technical skills they need to express themselves before they took on the very necessary and useful conceptual training on offer at university.

All that’s necessary are the basics:

  • The use and creation of grounds, boles and gesso
  • Ditto that of mediums
  • The central role of Value in creating the illusion of Form
  • The key processes of painting (direct, ebauche, indirect)
  • Understanding how to read and use a triadic colour wheel
  • How to use brushes, rags and knives

Learning the craft of painting so they can become artists. The trick is not to confuse the input with the output. The craft of painting is not an end in itself but an enabler.

Once one has the things inspiration if it comes can be expressed, and it can be done in just a week with a few willing minds. Over five years of high school and two of college it doesn’t seem much to ask, yet every week I work with people whose creative spark has been inhibited by their inability to put thoughts on canvas.

So not a week wasted, but a week seeding the ground in case originality and genius arrives to enable it to root and flower.

5 thoughts on “‘We can learn nothing from the Old Masters’

  1. This is a fascinating insight, Martin. One of your premises during the introduction to a course is that oil painting can be taught and it can be learned (sorry, I cannot put my hand on it to quote it accurately) and that thought has stayed with me.
    In preparation for a course to be enjoyed throughout 2017, I was pondering on what constituted a “great” work of Art (and I’m confining myself to oil paintings) because if I postulate that I’d like to achieve a really good work of Art then I need to know, very roughly, what I’m shooting for.
    I decided that listing out, and then carefully considering, those works that made me tingle with excitement and induced me to sit and examine them for an hour or so might do the trick. For example, if I go to the Courtauld Institute I can sit for an hour easily in front of Manet’s “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergeres” or Renoir’s “Le Bal” or Cezanne’s “Lac d’Annecy” – and that observation surprised me because I’m generally no fan of Manet or Renoir.
    A recent visit to the excellent Kroeller-Mueller at Otterlo had me devoting my time to Degouve de Nuncques and Cezanne but being quite disappointed at the Van Goghs and even the Mondrians (in the terms of this study, I’m not questioning their absolute contribution).
    What resulted from the the listing was nearly a hundred works by sixty artists (I allowed only one or two representative works per artist). Apart from a Zurbaran every work was after 1880 and there was next to nothing after 1960. Ooh, er.Those who did not feature was nearly as interesting as those who did – no Constable, no Monet, Turner only as reconstituted by Frankenthaler, and so it went on.
    I was forcefully reminded of the recent “Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse” exhibition at the RA where the works of Sorolla, Rusinol, Caillebotte, Kandinsky and Le Sidaner had, in my view, outshone those featured who are normally regarded as the greater painters.
    Further I looked up a listing of contemporary oil painters on dear old Wikipedia (so it must be right); many on the list were dead or long into drawing their pensions. Freud, Cuming, Richter and very few more was all I considered, even stretching the term contemporary. (My strategic marketing background says that that spells OPPORTUNITY but that’s another line of thought I shall not have time to explore.)
    An observation is that those whom I considered really great were at the forefront of radically new thought about art and what it had to say – hence 1880 to 1960.
    Where did this line of thought get me? Well, it’s led to a decision to focus my personal studies on some artists rather than others and, yes, you guessed, I’m no nearer defining “great works” in words but maybe one day I shall be more able to define it in a painting.


  2. Yes sowing seeds is what you do. What you say about keeping an open mind and being prepared to change is spot on! I’m leaving behind the old and embracing the new style learnt yesterday. Thanks for a brilliant week of inspirational demonstrations.


  3. And thanks for that, Martin.
    I may never say anything profound but you have given me the vocabulary to be able to say something of the visual thoughts in my head.
    All I want to do now is practice.
    From Lesley, who was on the 5 day course


  4. Is it the impact too of artists constantly using their iPhone images alongside the easel, and the over reliance of photoshopped images as source materials for painting, also having a ‘slowing down effect’ on artistic progress?


  5. I do so agree with your basic premise put forward so forcefully here. Lack of even the most basic skills is so evident in much that I see flaunted as art these days and it pisses me off that any criticism i might venture to make is taken as evidence of ignorance of what art is all really about these days.
    However, I can take that. My problem is almost the reverse. I feel quite well equipped skills-wise – thanks to you of course – but quite barren in the imagination department such that my stuff is representationally competent but devoid of creativity. Maybe, the subject will find me – as it did you in your garden at Shammer – but the clock is ticking and I’m getting quite depressed if I’m honest. Alizarin gives me hope.


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