‘Doing it Properly’ (thoughts from figurative artist Alan McGowan)

Some context: I’m a huge fan of Alan McGowan’s painting and have learnt a great deal from his art workshops. Alan wrote this on a Facebook thread and, with his permission, I’m reprinting it here. I think it’s important anyone wanting to learn to draw and paint doesn’t get stuck believing Western classical realism is the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way, there’s so much more to explore.

Painting of Michael by Alan McGowan

“Michael 2” by Alan McGowan, oil on canvas, 2017

I had an interesting conversation with a young art student at the weekend … It seemed that she associated skills with a “classical” approach. What struck me was that there was no awareness of another way of doing it, that one could develop discipline and skills in drawing and in painting through other (lets call them “expressive”) approaches, that have been used for years by people like Schiele, Freud, Uglow, Jenny Saville, Rodin. That one needn’t draw “sight-size”, that Barque drawings are not the end point of drawing, that painting does not have to start with a grisaille… etc, etc.

That’s not to decry what the atelier system does, but to say that there has always been a dichotomy in representation between the classical (Raphael, Ingres) and the expressive (Michelangelo, Delacroix), and the understanding of these motivating, invigorating and oppositional forces is being lost. …

I’d say that there is more than one version of what “properly” means, and certainly there are a variety of different ways, techniques and teaching methods that one could use to try and achieve it. I would further argue that the methods one uses are intimately connected to the kind of results you aim for. So not every way is the same. I think this is important in the same way that art is important (moreso than the right way to do other things), because the diversity and choices within it reflect the diversity within people — there can’t be a single “proper” way any more than there can be a single proper way of being a person.

I believe in craft, and I hope my work shows that. I think the point I am trying to make is that not one system has a monopoly on craft; or that there is more than one idea of what constitutes craft.

I am not an expert on music but I think that there are other scales in say Japanese music, Asian music, the Blues scale etc which are not the same as the Western harmonic scale that Mozart used. Whether they are better, inferior or just different becomes a distinction that one makes, and as a musician would have to make. The definition of what is correct varies — as an example at one time idealised proportion was valued over realistic proportions in Neoclassical painting — it’s a different way of defining what is valuable and “correct”.

— Alan McGowan, on Facebook, 15 March 2018

“Self”. Self-portrait by Alan McGowan. 2014. Oil on panel, 122 x 80 cm

Life Painting Workshop in Edinburgh taught by Alan McGowan
Photo I took of one of Alan’s demo paintings in a workshop last September.

8 Replies to “‘Doing it Properly’ (thoughts from figurative artist Alan McGowan)”

  1. I wish I had read this years ago when I was first starting to paint. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself.

    1. You’re not alone in wishing this! And I think it’s true in many eras of art. The Impressionists were criticized for not finishing their paintings, for instance.

  2. Love this article! I’ve recently received emails from this drawing school telling me I may not be drawing “the right way”. I realized that’s by their standards, not mine nor really anybody else. It all boils down to the money these days and that’s what they’re ultimately after, these online art courses that have nothing to do with my vision of my art. Thanks for this synchronistic article.

    1. People who insist on a “right way” generally mean “my way is the only way”. We’re fortunate to live in an era with so many possibilities are open to us, but even if it were a couple of hundred years ago the way art was being created in Western Europe wasn’t the same as in other parts of the world.

      1. I love Alan McGowan’s work. When I look at his portraits, they take on a movement and spontaneity – a life of their own – that is so refreshing from most portraits. I wish I had been aware of his work years ago when I was painting portraits, I believe I wouldn’t have burned out on portraiture like I did.

  3. I call my hobby, painting on canvas. It has been suggested that I take some art lessons, but at my age I feel that it would be a waste. I do not draw, I sit with my oil paints and my blank canvas and I put paint on the canvas! I am doing my own thing, and feel that lessons would take away from that! Naturally, I have never sold anything! I am a fan of your site! Thank you for sharing!

    1. A waste of what? A bit of time and money? What might you gain? Enjoyment and new possibilities? An art workshop is an opportunity to meet other people interested in painting, to chat and share and compare, to try things you might not otherwise. It doesn’t mean changing what you do in your own time. But it is important to find the class right for you, with an approach that’s encouraging and exploratory, not a one having everyone making the identical picture.

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