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Stephania: There is talk on the internet over whether or not artistic “talent” is a myth. What is your opinion on this issue?

Breck: There is no yes or no answer to that. It’s a fact that some people are better at some things than other people are, but that doesn’t mean that things can’t be learned. Some people say that if you work hard enough anyone can draw or paint. I think of it as having a wall that you have to push through, and that different people have different thicknesses of wall. Some people might get there in one course in one semester and some people might take 2-3 years of taking every course and working outside of class every day. Of course, daily practice is a good idea for any artist anyway. One Italian artist used to say, “Draw a line every day,” meaning draw a little bit every day.

Stephania: What do you mean by a wall?

Breck: The wall is one you have to be able to push through to be able to draw or paint well, or do anything, really. Why do I say a wall you have to “push through?” You are resisting your lack of innate ability. That may sound strange, but this non-art example may help. I can’t speak Spanish, so I have a wall to speaking Spanish. I could speak Spanish, but I just haven’t put the effort into learning it. It seems to me that the same analogy could be used for almost anything.

Stephania: Where do you think this wall comes from? I look back on my own childhood and at how much I liked to color and draw, and I think most little kids feel that way.

“Students… fear they won’t be able to make their work look like what they are drawing. It takes some people longer than others.., but with enough application, anyone could do it."

Breck: The biggest component of the wall for new students is that their minds are caught up in the fear they won’t be able to make their work look like what they are drawing. Good artists, when they’re drawing, see their subjects as particular shapes, adjacent to other shapes, or lines going at particular angles. One thing I like to ask students is, “Look at the edge of that form. Is it going down and to the left or is it going down and to the right?” Getting my students to focus on the shapes, angles and lines will help them to get less concerned with their fear that what they draw won’t look like their subject matter. Eventually their drawing will look like what they are drawing. It takes some people longer to get to that point than others, but with enough application, anyone could do it.

Stephania: How do you work with students to break through their walls?

Breck: As a teacher, to get through the wall, I have to start with where the person is now. The book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards has some great exercises for beginners – or really anybody interested in drawing. Here is a sample exercise I use in class: to copy a Picasso drawing of Stravinsky which has been turned upside down:

Igor Stravinsky, 1920 by Picasso, upside-down

Some students will be more proficient at drawing this than others. I just work individually, one-on-one, with each student, wherever they are.

Another thing to think about with talent (whether “inborn” or learned) is that if someone is talented in a certain area and they pursue that path as a vocation or avocation, they have a good chance of being successful. However, I also think a person has more of a chance of being successful if they try to work outside their comfort zone. This means attempting some things that they’re not naturally good at. By that I mean pushing yourself. Even if you are working in a field and doing something that you’re good at, if you push yourself to work outside your comfort zone, that’s when you stand a chance of doing something exceptional. In fact, the real danger for people who are good at something and stay within their comfort zone in that field is that their work will get stale – clichéd – and they will not like doing it themselves, either. They will lose interest in doing it.

Stephania: I think I have heard of the same idea with writers and movie makers. They call it getting “formulaic” with their work and usually don’t like it.

“… Talent can become a crutch.”

Breck: An additional issue to consider is that talent can become a crutch. If it’s easy for a person to see things and draw what they see, they can get lackadaisical about looking at things and they can say to themselves, “Oh, this line goes about here and that line goes about there.” It will be close enough to convince them and the viewer that the drawing is ok. The problem here is that it only looks ok. It’s not exceptional. If you’re willing to accept that, the level of your work is going to gradually fall off.

One method I’ve used to get around that is to draw with my non-dominant hand. When you are doing that you have to really look and say, “Does it go here or does it go there?” That’s what I mean by going outside your comfort zone. I think you can make some exceptional work, as well as keep yourself interested in your work by doing things like that.

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Richard Diebenkorn was involved with a group of painters in San Francisco known as the Bay Area Figurative Painters. The work of all of these painters is wonderful, but one whom I like a lot is Elmer Bischoff. He has a painting of a student seated several feet away, either studying or working on her artwork. It’s very loosely done, which is typical of Bischoff. It focuses a lot on the space around the student – the majority of the canvas is taken up with the studio. It, like the works of Diebenkorn and Matisse, focuses on space and light. Light comes in through an interesting window configuration onto the table where the student is sitting. The perspective is also unusual. In most rooms the tables would parallel the walls, but in this one it appears to be at an angle to it.

Orange Sweater, Elmer Bischoff

Stanley Lewis is a representational painter whom I’ve become aware of in the last 20 years or so. He paints very mundane-seeming subject matter, but his use of paint and composition make his paintings intriguing to look at. Lewis is a very “painterly” painter, which means you’re highly aware you are looking at strokes of paint and daubs of color. His painting 55th and Main is a good example of how he takes his ordinary surroundings and makes us appreciate the extraordinary quality in them.

55th and Main, Stanley Lewis, 1985

Two British artists I became aware of in the 80s who were friends with one another also are very painterly painters: Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Their paintings are done so loosely and are so thickly painted that you can almost mistake them for abstract paintings at first glance. This is especially true of Auerbach’s cityscapes, whose drawing/placement of the large forms is spot-on. To The Studio (1990/91) is typical of his cityscapes. The loose brushwork, the exaggerated color – both are typical of expressionism. Although most expressionists would distort the drawing of the forms, Auerbach does not.

To the studios 1990/91 (in the Tate Museum), Frank Auerbach

Kossoff’s work is very similar to Auerbach’s except he distorts his drawing somewhat, which is typical of expressionist painting. He also includes figures in his painting. Usually Auerbach only does so when he is doing a portrait. Take Christchurch, Spitalfields (1987). Looking at this painting you can see Kossoff’s buttery, heavily impastoed layers of paint. There are a few figures in the foreground and a building in the background. If Auerbach had painted this building it would be architecturally correct, whereas Kossoff’s building resembles a cartoon character animatedly lumbering up the hill.

Christchurch, Spitalfields, Spring, 1987, Leon Kossoff

I cannot talk about my favorite artists without mentioning Cy Twombly and Philip Guston. Guston worked in many styles during his long career, but it’s his cartoonish figure paintings of the 70s that he’s known for these days. These and his abstract expressionist paintings of the 50s are the paintings by Guston that I like.

In the Studio, 1975 (MoMA ), Phillip Guston

Perhaps it is the facts that he was born in Lexington, VA, as was I, and that my father had once played golf with his father, that leads to my special affinity for Cy Twombly. All I know is that I respond to his work on a visceral level. To me, Twombly’s best paintings are his ones from the 50s. In these paintings he would use white or off-white house paint and pencil, sometimes with a little bit of color. Twombly would often put words in his paintings from classical mythology and his sparse but exuberant pencil scrawls would reference these classical ideas in an expressionistic but at the same time minimalist way. It’s hard to describe how Twombly’s childlike pencil marks on heavily brushed white paint make such a beautiful surface, but they do. My love of Twombly is evidenced by the fact that it took seven tries to narrow down to one painting for this article!

Untitled, Rome, June 1960, Cy Twombly

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Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Inevitably, a lot of people are going to be left off this list. There are just too many artists I like for me to include them all. Given that caveat, if I had to pick, my number one favorite artist is Diego Velázquez. The Waterseller of Seville and Las Meninas are two of his classic works. A lot of people like Velázquez. Sheer talent is one reason -- which you can see very well in the Waterseller, especially in the texture of the ceramic jugs and the lines and character in the face of the waterseller himself. Also, I appreciate Velázquez because of his intellectual gamesmanship, which you can see in Las Meninas. The subject of Las Meninas, when you really look at the painting, is perplexing. The English title is something like “The Maids of Honor,” who surround the Princess, so in a way it looks like the Princess is the subject of the painting. But then when you look at Velázquez on his canvas you understand that he is looking straight at you, the viewer. This sense is reinforced by the sheer size of the painting – it is 10’5” tall and 9’1” wide. There have been several interpretations of the direction of the painter’s gaze, one of which is that the reflection of the two people whom we see on the back far wall are the King and Queen, in which case Velázquez would be painting their portrait. Another assumes it is a mirror, and holds that if you plot out the angle of the reflection in the mirror, it could not have been the King and Queen who were being painted. Another interpretation is that it is not a mirror on the back wall, it is a painting. Whatever the interpretation, it is interesting that Velázquez has us, the viewers, standing in the place of whoever is having their portrait painted.

Las Meninas (1656) - Diego Velazquez

The Waterseller of Seville (1618-1622) - Diego Velazquez

Rembrandt is another artist I would have to include. Rembrandt very definitely has a spiritual quality. He was superb at capturing character in his works. He painted a lot of self-portraits, so we have a record of not only his physical appearance but his character for most of his life. You can stand close to a Rembrandt painting in places and its use of color is so rich it seems to evoke entire worlds. In his self-portraiture it’s almost as if you are looking at a mystical landscape, but it is actually part of his face.

Self-Portrait with Disheveled Hair (1628) - Rembrandt

Detail of Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar (1659) - Rembrandt

Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) - Rembrandt

Elsewhere we’ve talked about Richard Diebenkorn, and Diebenkorn cannot be mentioned without talking about Matisse. Both of these artists would have to be included on my list. Both of these painters deal a lot with space and light in their paintings. I have heard it said that the best painting deals with these aspects of a work. Most of the time, the creation of space and light is made possible through the interaction of color, which can include the use of black, grays, and white. The way that Matisse is related to Diebenkorn is this: Diebenkorn’s transition from representational art to abstract art was heavily influenced by two particular paintings by Matisse: View of Notre-Dame (1914), and French Window at Collieure (1914). I think the transition was around the time Diebenkorn had moved to a new studio in Ocean Park with large, day lighted windows. He went on to produce a series of paintings known as his “Ocean Park” series, and I feel the best of these paintings have a sense of openness to them, a sense of space that the two paintings by Matisse greatly enabled. Ocean Park No. 68 (1974) is an example of this.

View of Notre-Dame (1914)- Henri Matisse

French Window at Collieure (1914) - Henri Matisse

Ocean Park No. 68 (1974) - Richard Diebenkorn

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