That seems to be the one question we figurative painters get asked a lot... why do we paint in this manner? Why? It almost seems that the works we create can't be experienced if this question is not answered beforehand. As if the act of painting can't justify itself solely with the finished painting. I wonder if the opposite could be true - if you looked at a painting and absolutely loved it and later, after learning the reasoning behind it, you absolutely hated it. I can't believe this scenario is possible, and I also can't understand the first one where an instruction booklet is indispensable in order to enjoy a painting. It is in fact a moot point because the image has already been painted. I can imagine a conversation... well it never really feels like a conversation, it feels more like an interrogation. So, I can imagine the interrogation ending abruptly:

"Why did you chose to solve that problem through painting and not some other language?"

"Well... the paintings are done and are hanging in front of us at the moment, so lets not dwell upon it and lets judge the work accepting that the problem was attempted to be solved through painting."

Even if we don't want to accept it, we just try to find gentler ways if answering "because I want to." But the truth is that Art Schools and galleries and critics around the world will not accept such a simple answer. There has to be some sort of enchanting but intelligent reasoning behind such a daft act. Because we all know painting is something apparently ANYONE can do... it's so easy to comprehend, so quickly can one find its limitations, so rapidly can one bore one's self with painting, that it can never be a goal. Maybe a capricious whim, but never an objective in life.

"Oh, how cute, he made a painting."

"Don't worry honey, he'll grow out of it."

And I mention the word intelligent before, because it seems that as soon as a figure enters the realm of painting, it dumbs it down. Bouguereau's women might as well be blondes. I wonder if people have a checklist to establish how intelligent we are:

"Semblance of good drawing..."



"Thorough understanding of paint manipulation..."


"Harmonious sense of composition..."

"I'm sorry sir, 4 out of 4. You are legitimately stupid."

Truth is, we can't do much about it. I think it's ridiculous to try and convince someone that I am intelligent, or educated, nor am I willing to accept that my paintings should be judged on how much theory I can cram behind them. As long as there's people out there that will not give themselves a chance to experience a work of art in the way it was meant to be experienced (lets not forget, painting is a visual medium), we will be faced more and more with these sort of questions. What I have resorted to is blabbering the sort of answer the person wants to hear when they ask a stupid quetion. But in the end, just let them keep believing that dumb people are capable of making great paintings.


uccimaru said...

Yeah that is always the question. I hear that and ask that everyday. And I try to answer that daily too.

In my opinion, any dumb person can learn how to paint and paint beautifully. A clever, intelligent and educated person can also learn how to paint and convince everyone that there is a lot more to that painting than just beauty.. that it has so much metaphysics that The Met is offering millions to acquire it.

The line between a painter and an artist is all smudged. Every single painter I know consider themselves (secretly or not) artists. Bad painters and good painters alike. Dumb and intelligent too.

When I was a kid, I always liked Ingres and hated Bacon. I couldnt believe they would consider Bacon an artist AT ALL... he couldnt even paint a proper face!! Then I watched The Last Tango in Paris and on the title sequence there were 2 Bacons. I wanted to know the relationship between the film and the paintings so I went to investigate Bacons work and life. Only then I could really understand what, to me, define an artist. He is a difficult one, requires study that doesnt have anything to do with pigments and subsurface scattering. But gave me certainty of one thing: Ingres's women didnt tell me anything about the women, about Ingres or about myself...

I think thats the answer closer to acceptable to me nowadays.

Anonymous said...

The answer is simple. Because someone else already did it and they earned a good reputation for doing it. We just hope to earn a similar reputation to satisfy our pathetic little egos.

Sakievich said...

A lot of it, I think, has to do with the demand of the contemporary art world for novelty. If it's been done before then it's not worth doing again, unless it can be given some sort of literary reasoning and hopefully it can be ironic too. If the painting cannot be converted to words for a critic then it's not worth their effort or time.

Maybe we should explain to critics and professors of art that we've moved past verbal communication and now we're in an era of communication through the medium of raw materials mixed with oils and applied with animal hairs applied to woven plant material. That might make them interested...

WilliamWarrenG said...

I tend to lean on theory when I study much contemporary painting. In fact, much contemporary painting seems to require it. In a previous post you said "to hell with novelty for the sake of novelty" and I couldn't agree more. When I see novelty for the sake of novelty--that's when I demand more, that's when I demand theory. But the theory should be illuminated by the spectator in the case of novelty-for-novelty. We shouldn't look for generic, paid critics to do that work. If we appreciate something that feels like "novelty for novelty's" sake, perhaps we do need to justify it: after all, novelty for itself is narcissistic entertainment.

When I look at portrait painting, I'm looking at something too human to give a damn about theory.

Theory is for academia. Theory guards itself through abstraction.

Novelty typically cannot hold its own weight of justification, so we need theory to justify it for us. In certain cases, theory can justify it, though the theorist is putting in more work than the artist who dreams of explicit & intentional "novelty," (who dreams of celebrity.) See, when novelty is the goal, you must sacrifice a certain formal honesty. That doesn't mean the work must be dishonest, or what motivates the work is inherently dishonest, but it implies that "novelty" typically is an excuse for the absence of substance.

Back to portrait painting, figure painting, still life painting and the rest of it: It doesn't need to justify itself. When I look at these kinds of works and think highly of them, I say "What a beautiful portrayal. It's not what I see when I see the tangible flesh of a thing. I can think entirely new about the 'real' manifestation through this man made interpretation"

I think representational visual art may be putting the critical theorists out of work... there are these things they can't abstract... those things cause them trouble... so they ask the artist to abstract it for them.

The critical theorists of academic stripes are ruining every form of high art: poetry, painting, music. (They are even more troublesome in literature in poetry) Advice: Don't pay them any mind and decide carefully if you wish to attack or ignore. The critical theorists tend to be the ones who can't create, after all. They gravitate towards uselessness.

Keep doing what you do. You're one of the finest representational painters, young or aged, alive.

Nicolás Uribe said...

My point is, and I guess I want to make it clear, that there's obviously some sort of reasoning behind a good painting. And I'm not exclusively talking about technically well-executed paintings. But it seems funny how the theory behind an abstract expresionist work seems to be more legitimate than that of a contemporary classically grounded work.

There are as many good reasons to paint as there are good painters out there, and I'm going to venture to say that no two reasons are alike. That's why I think the question of "why" should be more of an appendix and never a justification.

And as far as reputation and self glorification goes... I still have to change my 3 year old's dirty diapers every day and I can´t be trusted with making a decent lunch. Glory days.

Anonymous said...

There's never any real reasoning behind a work of art. There's really only a rationalization process and pseudo-justification. If there was real reasoning behind art, it would be dry and totally transparent like science. People look at art to get away from reality. They want mystery and vagueness and superficiality (aesthetics). They don't want philosophy, they want pseudo-philosophy because that is much more open-ended and less imposing. It's safe in a poetic way that can be put back on a shelf when it's time to go back to the more "serious" mundane tasks of everday life.

I'm not sure what the diapers and lunch comment was supposed to mean. You're not a very clear thinker, Nicolás. That's why you're such a prolific and decent artist. If artists knew exactly what they were doing when they were making art, they'd never do much of it. It would be boring, like a regular job.

Nicolás Uribe said...

I like you anonymous. Would love to meet you, but I will gladly be content with you just being anonymous.

Thinking clearly doesn't mean searching for one-liners to answer complex questions. If it was so, then you just cleared everything up for all of us. We paint because we want to feed our ego's with recycled praises. You should trust me when I say that people don't really paint for that reason. You're a bit off base on that remark. Being a bastard version of Rembrandt may be the objective of some eager enthusiast, but for many of us it simply won't do. But I agree with you in believing, if I read your sarcasm correctly, that justifying one's art based on how closely it resembles a 400 year old master work is somewhat pathetic.

Am I wrong to assume that you, apparently a clear thinker capable of spotting confused ones like myself, is incapable of painting in a decent manner as myself? If it is so, that you're not a painter, you have to trust me (again) when I tell you that calrity is probably the one quality a painter should possess.
If there's no clarity behind the hundreds of decisions one makes when constructing an image, it simply falls apart. There are no magical spastic instinctual gestures behind a brushstroke. Those actually appear after a lot, a LOT of painting and reflecting upon the decisions that were made. It's like thinking that improvisation in jazz is really just improvisation.

My diapers and cooking mishaps comments are just a way of imforming you that there is no "other" life for artists. Painting IS a regular job, just like changing diapers, just like messing up rice. No ego's to feed, no unearned glory, just pigments and oil stuck to a piece of cloth.

Try not to think too much of what we do, but know that there are reasons behind the choices we put down on a canvas. Reasons that are not necessary to enjoy a painting (going back to the reason behind the post). Think of painting as a regular job done with the utmost commitment. So much so that it has a muddle head like myself and a pristine one like yours discussing this over a blog comment page.

Oh and come on, aesthetics being vague and superficial... Hegel was just blowing gas. How about Barthes and semiology when referring to photography???

Anyways, I like you. As anonymous. If I could see your profile it would kill the suspense. I'll take your words seriously behind the veil of anonimity.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you that a painter (at least, a good one) has to make highly conscious and clear decisions about the brushstrokes he leaves on a canvas but that's not what we were talking about.

Your post was about justifying or at least explaining the motivation behind the decision to paint figuratively. This obviously precedes the first brushstroke and cannot be explained at all in the work of art itself. Nothing can justify itself in that way. The particular style that a painter chooses to work in is always arbitrary. You cannot control what you like. There is nothing inherently more valuable about figurative work or conceptual or abstract work. You can trace back your personal history as for why you prefer one over another but the reasons will always be subjective and endless.

As for not feeding an ego, you have to excuse me for chuckling about that. You're the umpteenth artist I've communicated with that claims to do it for saintly, altruistic reasons. You all appear to have no idea what an ego is but are certain that it has nothing to do with why you paint, or talk about painting, or fall in love, enjoy music, etc. I guess all the stories about guys like Picasso, Sargent, Pollock, Bacon, and de Kooning and their monstrous egos are just a smear campaign. Just because your ego isn't as noisy as theirs doesn't mean you don't have one or turn it off when you enter the studio. I would say "trust me" about this but I wouldn't want to seem condescending; everyone is born with an ego. If you never had one you'd be no different from a vegetable.

Nicolás Uribe said...

If I'm the umpteenth artist that tells you that there are other reasons to paint other than self-importance, then maybe you should start trusting those people. You are right about sounding condescending. By no means I want to give an idea that what I believe is right and I'm trying to prove your wrongfulness.

As far as ego, I don't know if we're referring to the same thing. If you're talking about egotism and pride, that's one thing. If you're referring to the self, then I'm sure almost every single act that defines us has to do with our ego.

I can't convince you of why I paint. Especially when all you have to judge me from are these writings and my paintings. But I would hope that you don't believe that every single artist does it for the same reason.

I agree with you in the sense that many people, when talking about their work, sound like religious zealots. They become slaves to their dogmas and believe that whatever is outside their realm of creation is somehow misinformed.

I for one, and I don't mean to preach to right attitude towards experiencing art, am fascinated with the whole spectrum of the art world. I believe that being open to whatever stimuli you encounter can only enrich your creative process.

I don't believe we're smaller gods, I don't believe in glory, in million dollar tags next to my paintings, in shows at the Tate modern, or in painters turned into superstars.

The truth is that most of us will have a normal life. We're going to go through good times and struggle through bad ones. We are going to have jobs we don't necesarilly like to support our painting desires. We are going to have negative balances in our bank accounts and modest christmasses. Most of us are not going to be able to make diamond encrusted skulls and sell 80,000 dollar jeans.

I've always felt that my goal in life is simpel. Just to keep painting. Mainly because it's the one thing I know how to do... Just think of me as a guy who makes bread. Wakes up each morning and makes bread. Some days it gets burnt because I wasn't concentrated, some days it turns out to be pretty tasty. At the end of day I see my wife, wipe my kids runny nose, and goes to bed watching some bad movie.

Oh and I thought what differentiated me from a vegetable was photosynthesis. Wouldn't want to strip the plant's sense of self.

Anonymous said...

Good grief, now I'm supposed to believe that all bakers are perfectly humble, egoless creatures. The lengths some people will go to hide their pride and to pride themselves in being modest is ridiculous.

I give up, Nicolás. You're obviously a Buddha (along with all the bakers in the world).

This is what I get for trying to have an honest conversation with a painter. From now on, I'll just send the monotonous "Wow, you're so good! Kudos!" comment or nothing.

Nicolás Uribe said...

Oh lord... dude, you know what? Whatever floats your boat. I will accept and consider whatever criticism you want to dish out, but keep it about what I do. Not about who you think I am...

amb said...

The bread comparison is apt.

Obviously, everyone enjoys praise now and then. It gives you a nice sugar rush. But you can't fuel a day in the studio with sugar, you need something more substantial. Painting itself provides that substance.

So, painters are dumb for believing this, fine. On the other hand, forming your opinion about working artists based on your remote observations of the art star system is also pretty dumb.

amb said...

Yes, ego is a fact of life. But it's not the whole story, and it shouldn't be advertised as such.

There are many "worlds" out there, not just the world of ego gratification and material gain. Yeah, we all have to live in that world, but we also have to evolve. There is a (dare I say it) spiritual aspect to consider. I'm not talking about living on a mountain top, but approaching life with a bit more appreciation and humility. That doesn't cancel out ambition, or pride in your accomplishments. It merely gives you a healthier perspective.

There is plenty to keep your mind occupied in the studio, besides your rampant ego. There is the never ending challenge of your craft, and the fact that you will never be as good as you want to be. In the face of that, there isn't much time in the day to sit around thinking, "fuck, I'm awesome."

Of course, if your artist friends are the kind who are essentially in it for the parties, then craft is a means to an end, or secondary at best, and all of this is probably moot. Many artists hire other people to do the dirty work, but Mr. Uribe is obviously not one of those artists. It takes all kinds to make a "world."

amb said...

Glad to see you've got it all figured out. Kudos!

amb said...

So, you're gonna take credit for paraphrasing Freud? Please.

For the record, I said nothing about sainthood, or ego killing. I don't believe that I'm a Shaolin monk, or a damn baker. I happen to agree with you that "ego is a fact of life" (read my post). I'm merely arguing for a more balanced outlook, rather than being so reductive. Some, I repeat things that happen in the studio cannot be so easily explained away. But you wouldn't know, would you?

If you can stop yapping long enough, you might want to read some Jung. Not that it will help.

Over and out.

Brick Maverick said...

If I'm a child, then I have an excuse for trying to get the last word in; what's yours? Could it be ego?

Nicolás Uribe said...

Sorry guys. I'm all up for arguments, but when a sad, bitter person has nothing better to do than to be on the edge of his seat waiting for a reply on a stranger's blog, I frankly find it depressing and pathetic.

I'll keep posting your comments, good and bad, but when it gets out of control, it's just plain boring. Nobody cares about these types of conversations.

Off to bake.

Daniel said...


When drawing on location I've had many people ask me "Are you a student? Why are you out here drawing?"

Lately I've answered "No I'm not a student. I'm doing this because I want too".

The response I get is a blank stare and then one of surprise. They don't understand doing something like that simply because I want too.

Nicky said...

Thank you for this post, Mr. Uribe. You described the same feelings I've been having lately. It can be very discouraging and frustrating but it comforts me to know there are people like you who do get it.