Painting 101

I took a short break right in the middle my painting project, a series of distractions kept me from the easel right as I was feeling particularly productive. But part of the process of painting involves a lot of waiting, staring at what work you’ve already done, trying to absorb any lessons you’ve learned in the process, and decide what you’re going to do next. Some artists are particularly involved with the process of creating their artwork, even more than their involvement with the final results. This project is particularly focused on exposing the most intimate part of a painter’s work process.

As I began this project, I thought back to a major incident that occurred during my first painting class in art school, almost 30 years ago. I was a photography major, and there was considerable disdain for “modern” art media like photography, the Dean thought the art school should only teach painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Students from the upstart photography department were sure to face difficulties with the traditionalist painting professors. But now I had to do my painting coursework as part of the BFA degree requirement, so here I was in Painting 101.

Our painting professors had a unique approach to teaching, they decided to not teach anything. It was considered a bad idea for painting teachers to actually teach or demonstrate specific techniques, it was feared that the students would learn to paint exactly like their professors, instead of developing their own imagery and methods. The result was a lot of novice students fumbling around and not knowing what they were doing, producing a lot of bad paintings. And my work was as crappy as anyone’s. I mostly applied paint right out of the tube, nobody ever told me that you were supposed to mix colors and add white pigments, or that solvents like turpentine and oil were standard methods, in fact, that’s what makes it oil painting. Time in the studio was scarce, we only had 1 hour 3 times a week, and we were expected to come in 3 more hours a week, but the studios were always occupied with other classes, and we were at the bottom of rung of the ladder.

But of course, being the enterprising young technologically-oriented artist that I was, I decided I could study and improve my technique by applying other tools to painting, tools I was already familar with: photography. My idea was simple. I never had enough time in the studio to just look at my painting and see what I’d done. So I would take a instant photo of my painting at the end of each class, using my nifty new Polaroid SX-70 camera. I could carry around the instant photo and study it until I got back into the studio, 2 days later. I had previously done this in sculpture class, photographing my clay models from different angles to study lighting and form.

Of course this was the perfect way to invoke the antagonism between photographers and painters that had been going on for decades. My professor had a fit. He accused me of cheating, he reacted just as if I was copying from a photo, which was considered to be an evil technique used only by the worst, laziest painters. The professor also accused me of flaunting my expensive camera equipment in front of the other starving students, that I had an unfair advantage, the other students without cameras could not compete. I offered to take photos of any other students’ works for merely the cost of the film, about 75 cents each, the other students could have prints without having to own a camera. The professor liked that idea even less. I was immediately snubbed and subjected to the harshest sanctions by the professor, he gave me an F for the class. I would have to repeat Painting 101, but it was only taught in the fall semester. Instead of graduating that year, I would have to wait until next year before I could even begin my senior year’s work in art school, and I could not afford it. My painting professor had essentially kicked me out of art school. It took me 25 years to come back and finish my BFA degree. I had to take Painting 101 all over again, and I got an A.

This Art Stunt stop-frame experiment is the logical extension of my fiddling around with a Polaroid camera, recording my own works while in the process of creating them. And the ultimate irony is that in the last 20 years, a considerable body of art historical evidence was discovered, indicating that some of the greatest painters, held up as paragons of natural virtuosity in painting and draftsmanship, were cheating with lenses and cameras.

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