Irwin Greenberg's Primer for Artists

Posted by Bethany Handfield on

“Like a lot of realist painters, I started teaching as a way to stabilize my income. I was amazed to discover that it would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Somehow everything I had learned in my life found a place in the studio classroom. In addition, teaching forced me to objectify my thoughts and make them comprehensible to my students. But the greatest reward by far was getting to know that special kind of person, the art student. Their hunger to learn, and commitment to what Henri called the art spirit, has been a never-ending inspiration to me. I’m sure I got the larger share in the exchange.

The list that follows was an effort to crystallize some of the things I’ve learned in over thirty years of teaching. It makes up a kind of horse wisdom about painting, practical advice rather than fancy aesthetics. This “survival kit” has proved useful to generations of young painters as well as its author. There is an awful lot of blather about art, not at all helpful to students. I hope these aphorisms are something of an antidote.

Several people have felt confused by number ten. By “drink a glass of water” I mean, “avoid running to the refrigerator every hour or so.” As I reread the list, I remembered the source of many of the ideas. So, here’s a “thank you” to Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Robert Henri, Howard Pyle, Abraham Ginsburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”
 -Irwin Greenberg

Irwin Greenberg circulated this primer to his students at the High School of Art & Design and the Art Students League of New York. He died, age 87, in 2009.

1. Paint every day.

2. Paint until you feel physical strain. Take a break and then paint some more.

3. Suggest.

4. When at an impasse, look at the work of masters.

5. Buy the best materials you can afford.

6. Let your enthusiasm show.

7. Find a way to support yourself.

8. Be your own toughest critic.

9. Develop a sense of humor about yourself.

10. Develop the habit of work. Start early every day. When you take a break, don’t eat. Instead, drink a glass of water.

11. Don’t settle for yourself at a mediocre level.

12. Don’t allow yourself to be crushed by failure. Rembrandt had failures. Success grows from failure.

13. Be a brother (or sister) to all struggling artists.

14. Keep it simple.

15. Know your art equipment and take care of it.

16. Have a set of materials ready wherever you go.

17. Always be on time for work, class, and appointments.

18. Meet deadlines. Be better than your word.

19. Find a mate who is really a mate.

20. Don’t be envious of anyone who is more talented than you. Be the best you can be.

21. Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with yesterday’s performance.

22. Give yourself room to fail and fight like hell to achieve.

23. Go to sleep thinking about what you’re going to do first thing tomorrow.

24. Analyze the work of great painters. Study how they emphasize and subordinate.

25. Find out the fewest material things you need to live.

26. Remember: Michelangelo was once a helpless baby. Great works are the result of heroic struggle.

27. There are no worthwhile tricks in art; find the answer.

28. Throw yourself into each painting heart and soul.

29. Commit yourself to a life in art.

30. No struggle, no progress.

31. Do rather than don’t.

32. Don’t say “I haven’t the time.” You have as much time everyday as the great masters.

33. Read. Be conversant with the great ideas.

34. No matter what you do for a living, nurture your art.

35. Ask. Be hungry to learn.

36. You are always the student in a one-person art school. You are also the teacher of that class.

37. Find the artists who are on your wavelength and constantly increase that list.

38. Take pride in your work.

39. Take pride in yourself.

40. No one is a better authority on your feelings than you are.

41. When painting, always keep in mind what your picture is about.

42. Be organized.

43. When you’re in trouble, study the lives of those who’ve done great things.

44. “Poor me” is no help at all.

45. Look for what you can learn from the great painters, not what’s wrong with them.

46. Look. Really look.

47. Overcome errors in observing by exaggerating the opposite.

48. Critics are painters who flunked out.

49. Stay away from put-down artists.

50. If you’re at a loss for what to do next, do a self-portrait.

51. Never say “I can’t.” It closes the door to potential development.

52. Be ingenious. Howard Pyle got his start in illustration by illustrating his own stories.

53. All doors open to a hard push.

54. If art is hard, it’s because you’re struggling to go beyond what you know you can do.

55. Draw everywhere and all the time. An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.

56. There is art in any endeavor done well.

57. If you’ve been able to put a personal response into your work, others will feel it and they will be your audience.

58. Money is O.K., but it isn’t what life is about.

59. Spend less than you earn.

60. Be modest; be self-critical, but aim for the highest.

61. Don’t hoard your knowledge, share it.

62. Try things against your grain to find out just what your grain really is.

63. Inspiration doesn’t come when you are idle. It comes when you have steeped yourself in work.

64. Habit is more powerful than will. If you get in the habit of painting every day, nothing will keep you from painting.

65. There are three ways to learn art: Study life, people and nature. Study the great painters. Paint.

66. Remember, Rembrandt wasn’t perfect. He had to fight mediocrity.

67. Don’t call yourself an artist. Let others name you that. “Artist” is a title of great weight.

68. Be humble; learn from everybody.

69. Paintings that you work hardest at are the ones you learn the most from, and are often your favorites.

70. Read values relatively. Find the lightest light and compare all other light values to it. Do the same with the darks.

71. Grit and guts are the magic ingredients to your success.

72. Let your picture welcome the viewer.

73. Add new painters to your list of favorites all the time.

74. Study artists who are dealing with the same problems that you’re trying to solve.

75. Have a positive mind-set when showing your work to galleries.

76. Don’t look for gimmicks to give your work style. You might be stuck with them for life. Or, worse yet, you might have to change your “style” every few years.

77. If what you have to say is from your deepest feelings, you’ll find an audience that responds.

78. Try to end a day’s work on a picture knowing how to proceed the next day.

79. Don’t envy others success. Be generous-spirited and congratulate whole-heartedly.

80. Your own standards have to be higher and more scrupulous than those of critics.

81. Howard Pyle said, “Throw your heart into a picture and jump in after it.”

82. Vermeer found a life’s work in the corner of a room.

83. Rembrandt was always clear about what is most important in a picture.

84. If, after study, the work of an artist remains obscure, the fault may not be yours.

85. Critics don’t matter. Who cares about Michelangelo’s critics?

86. Structure your day so you have time for painting, reading, exercising and resting.

87. Aim high, beyond your capacity.

88. Try not to finish too fast.

89. Take the theory of the “last inch” that holds as you approach the end of a painting, you must gather all your resources for the finish.

90. Build your painting solidly, working from big planes to small.

91. See the planes of light as shapes, the planes of shadows as shapes. Squint your eyes and find the big, fluent shapes.

92. Notice how, in a portrait, Rembrandt reduces the modeling of clothes to the essentials, emphasizing the head and the hands.

93. For all his artistic skills, what’s most important about Rembrandt is his deep compassion.

94. To emphasize something means that the other parts of a picture must be muted.

95. When painting outdoors, sit on your hands and look before starting.

96. When composing a picture, do many thumbnails, rejecting the obvious ones.

97. Study how Rembrandt creates flow of tone.

98. If you teach, teach the individual. Find out when he or she is having trouble and help at that point.

99. Painting is a practical art, using real materials—paints, brushes, canvas, and paper. Part of the practicality of it is earning a living in art.

100. Finally, don’t be an art snob. Most painters I know teach, do illustrations, or work in an art-related field. Survival is the game.


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