Reasons to Paint

grandfather and granddaughter painting mural

 Caiaimage/Trevor Adeiline/Getty Images

It was the first day of class, a Monday morning. Bill Schultz, my teacher, was about to begin. He picked up his brush, then hesitated. He turned to the class and asked, “What is it when a human being makes a mark on a canvas?” We waited somewhat expectantly. Then he replied, "It’s a miracle."

In that answer is not just a truth, but an important truth. A truth that challenges a common assumption: that the most important thing about making paintings are the paintings. The painting is not the most important thing. Yes, it may win us a prize or even make us a living. It might even make us famous. But even more important than the painting we make is what happens to us when we make it.

What Happens to Us When We Make a Painting?

So let’s get back to that assumption: why do we think the painting itself is the end-all and be-all of our work, as opposed to what happens to us when we make the painting? A lot of it has to do with the culture we have inherited.

The contribution of the modern era – that is from the Renaissance forward – was that we became free from an understanding of the universe where we were defined in terms of some larger cosmic order which in turn, as was the assumption, manifested the word of God. The new modern view was, instead, that we are self-defining.

But therein lies the rub: this enlightenment view we still share is one where we, as subjects, picture the world as a set of neutral objects, which we then observe or measure or manipulate.

As artists, we became self-defining subjects – a historical accomplishment indeed. But we also became creative subjects that are separate from the objects which we paint, and that is the part of the achievement which is still troubling, for it means the task of the artist is rooted largely in observing or commenting on the world and recording our observations or commentary on canvas (or not).

The ‘miracle’ or important truth I’m talking about pushes this self-understanding of ourselves as self-defining subjects a very important step further.

In this understanding, our lives are seen as expressions where we realize in our work something we feel or desire by virtue of the activity itself. Or to put it more sharply, in our expressions we realize and become who we are because it is only through the effort of expressing that we clarify and make distinct who we are and who we are becoming.

The Real Reason We Paint: To Create Ourselves

In this view, when we make a mark on a canvas, it becomes possible not just to create a thing, but to become a human being. It becomes possible, then, not simply to make a picture of something, but to create ourselves. That is the miracle. That is the reason we paint.

If we were to look at a painting by Paul Cezanne, for example, we might see apples; but that is the superficial thing. No one cares about the apples or the sunset or the thing called a painting except insofar that it might move us, in a way that is rather inexplicable.

The value of the painting – and here I am not talking about the market value or investment value – is that through it Cezanne continues to speak to us.

Why Do We Paint?: The Final Answer

So this is an important truth: to make a mark on canvas is to open the door of possibility to be moved profoundly and to move others. That is what painting is all about. That is the heart and soul of painting.

This approach to painting, of course, does not originate with me. It comes directly out of what can only be described as a golden age of painting. It was the approach central to the Impressionist rejection of the academic demand that artists skillfully record the world or in a detached fashion create visual propaganda.

Certain American artists who found their way to Paris in the late 19th century returned home to pass along this set of beliefs as well as a set of practices and techniques expressing this view. The students of Robert Henri, perhaps the most passionate writer among them, captured many of these thoughts in The Art Spirit, a compilation of Henri’s thoughts and admonitions.

Where does that leave us? Well, for one thing, it compels us to be very cautious about careerism, the market, productivity, entrepreneurialism, and other features of our way of life.

I am not suggesting we ignore the fact that our work circulates in a market and that our ability to have a career turns on the realities of exhibitions and curriculum vitae. My point only is that we might want to be clear about the ways in which the career sometimes advances while the art recedes. One way of getting clear about these things is to keep in mind a fundamental question: why do we paint?

Answering the Question: "Why Do We Paint?"

There is the obvious – that we may wish to capture the experience of seeing something to which we respond, in some way, on canvas. But there is another – more important – reason.

Our visual experience continues further, becomes richer, deeper and fuller as we paint it. A dialogue, a conversation, begins. Our marks on the canvas are our response to the voice, the tastes, and the touches we see.

I know that sounds odd, but the real mistake we make as visual artists is to assume that what we see when we paint is something separate from us, that we simply observe or measure or record with our eyes. However, when we touch back or respond with our brush we begin something sensual, a dance of sorts, and a conversation.

The Miracle of Painting

We make a mark on the canvas and when we look back, we see something that seemingly was not there a moment ago. And there is that miracle: by virtue of making marks, we have created ourselves a tiny bit more – and we actually can see more, feel more, because we have become more, by that tiny bit.

Were we not making marks we would not be able to see much at all, except that which we are supposed to see, that which everyone sees – the expected, the names of things, trees, sky, house, person, the facts, the obvious.

You must see past these things. Taste with your eyes. Listen to them. Understand that the activity of painting is about the thrill, the enhanced moment you might realize. Then you will see. Then you will become.