Quality Over Quantity

Self portrait, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1790).

The most frequent piece of advice I have given students over the years is to slow down on art assignments. It is very easy to become impatient in the studio and want to skip steps or move forward prematurely. Admittedly, I am guilty of often becoming impatient in my work as well. When I reflect on paintings that have went in an undesirable direction, it is usually the result of rushing through a necessary part of the process. We can learn a great deal about patience from the old masters who usually spent a significant amount of time on each work.

Prior to the Modern Art movement, artists regularly worked on paintings for extended periods of time that could take years or even decades to finish. There are certainly examples of more abbreviated work (e.g., Pontormo’s gesture drawings or Rubens’ oil sketches, to name a few) that we can find, but generally the creation of art was understood to be a slow steady process that required much patience and perseverance. This is a difficult concept for many students to understand and implement in the present-day classroom. We live in a fast-paced world that is often in opposition to the concept of slowing down. Over the years, I have observed many students wanting to rush through a project simply to check off a box in their head that it was completed. Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t normally work well in the visual arts and simply completing an assignment does not necessarily make it good or beautiful.   

Excerpt of an oil sketch by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

The benefits of slowing down and taking additional time and effort on assignments can be truly astounding. Of course, there can be merit in having students complete quicker, more direct assignments and exercises. But students should be taught the importance of working slowly and carefully as well. There is a reason contemporary ateliers and academies typically have students spend a month or more on the majority of their assignments. The road to greatness has no shortcuts and requires a sustained long-term effort and level of focus to achieve.

Years ago, I was working on a series of outdoor figure paintings that I desperately wanted to feel fresh and fluid. I mistakenly thought I needed to paint the figures very quickly for them to feel lively. The result was the figures became sloppy since I was working too quickly to be accurate. When I expressed my frustrations to an artist friend and mentor, he gave me some excellent advice and said, “A painting does not necessarily have to be painted in a quick and spontaneous way to feel fresh. Rather, a painting only needs to appear as though it was painted spontaneously or with little struggle to feel fresh”. After hearing this, I immediately thought about Rubens’ large-scale Baroque paintings and Michelangelo’s figurative sculptures that are full energy but were obviously created over an extended length of time.

A piece of art should almost never be evaluated by how long it took to complete, but rather by the final result of the work.