Why paint? To paint, of course.

Cream Pitcher in Dining RoomAfter four decades of painting—actually a little more than that—it might be something of a mystery to a non-painter why I would put in five or six hours painting today, before or after three or four hours of doing work that brings in most of the money I need to pay bills. I sold seven paintings at my last show, so far my most successful show, measured in income, and yet through the sale of artwork I make only a small portion of the modest amount my wife and I need to continue living the way we do. Still, my ideal day is to paint for more than half of my working hours and then do what other work I need to do in order to keep my income at a level that sustains us. Why paint, though? Why not put those hours into something more lucrative? The short answer is, because I love it. It’s a necessity for me. But that’s little more than a tautology: I paint because I need to paint. Why do I love it? Why does any painter make pictures? What does it all mean? (And let’s be honest. I don’t love all of it. As Bill Santelli put it earlier today, there are long hours that feel like mowing the lawn with scissors.)

I’ve been circling around this question for several years here, getting glimpses of an answer from different angles, at least in my case. And, when I have some time, I want to write at length about why painting points to a way of being engaged with the world that seems in greater and greater peril, with the rise of technology. All genuine work is in peril now, but especially craftsmanship rooted in tradition. Matthew Crawford’s new book has much to say about this, as did his first one. What’s become clearer for me are the motivations that don’t drive me to paint. (I might be better off if these other motivations did drive me, but they don’t.) It doesn’t depend on making money, though the income helps considerably and makes it easier to do the work. The metaphor of the pinball game used by the engineers to describe their work in Soul of a New Machine applies here: winning the game is getting to play another free one. It’s self-perpetuating. It doesn’t depend on recognition or exhibitions. Last year, I had work in eight shows—five of them juried. I’ve applied to nine juried shows this year and got into only one. What does that mean? Nothing, in terms of my dedication to painting. I don’t need to hear people talking about me either: my dealer here, Jim Hall, put it succinctly when he said recently that so much art that continues to be made on the assumption that it’s possible to be “cutting edge” often seems to be work created in order to be talked about. Work that offers little purchase for a discursive mind is considered decorative or otherwise beneath consideration. Some of my favorite artists created pictures about which it’s hard to say anything useful other than write a poem to honor them: you see their world and want to live in it by looking at it or singing about it. The foremost example would be Van Gogh, of course, but there are dozens of others. So being talked about doesn’t motivate me—or rather not being talked about has little effect on my eagerness to make a painting.

So, my situation hasn’t changed since the long years when I painted and didn’t show my work. My eagerness hasn’t waned, because the act of making a painting is the point: it’s both the means and the end. When I sit down to paint, I still feel as if there is nothing else I would rather do than make a painting, until maybe, hours later, I get up to make a sandwich, and I’m motivated to start spreading peanut butter instead of paint. Whether I’m recognized or rewarded makes no difference. I painted for decades and rarely showed anything I was doing, partly because I didn’t want to and partly because my sort of representational work seemed to have no place in what was happening in the world of art. It wasn’t until the economy collapsed in 2008 that I got serious about showing and possibly selling work—a pretty funny and Quixotic bit of timing, given the economy since then. But it was a good indication that my motives didn’t grow out of whatever the world was going to give me in return for the work. I guess I’m saying that the motivation to paint is circular. Or is it recursive? I need to paint because I want to keep painting. I need to see what it shows me. Which will get me nowhere, other than where I already am, maybe to see it for the first time. So, for now, I’ll step out of that loop of thinking, and I get back to just doing it.

1 Response to “Why paint? To paint, of course.”

  1. Richard Harrington

    I’ve come to think that the only real reason to paint is that you can’t help yourself.