Trade secrets: How much should a painter reveal?

Richard Tinkler in the studio

Contributed by Bonnie Morano / I consider myself an open book. The secret ingredient to my zesty salad dressing is cumin. Avoiding parking tickets in NYC involves a finely worded note on the windshield. But ask me how I get my oil paint to stay so shiny when dry, I hesitate. Mark Rothko was notoriously guarded and proprietary about his painting methods, not allowing visitors or assistants in the studio watch him at work. Others could steal his innovative techniques. Perhaps he worried that his process would be considered a gimmick, and his status would fade. Or maybe his reticence was just a savvy marketing strategy. One professor, when asked about their process, was circumspect and cagey, “I can’t reveal my secret sauce.” By contrast, another shared a slideshow on steps from stretching and priming through mediums and methods. In this social media age of oversharing, does the aura of the heroic painter today rest on magic and mystery or up front transparency?

Jack Arthur Wood, Holding for Light, 2021; acrylic, pigment dispersion, paper, rings, clasps, chain, jacket liner, denim and linen; 30×20 inches

A common art dictate is that a painting should speak for itself. But it’s not at all clear that this bars dissecting it. Painter Richard Tinkler recently posted a studio shot that showed his pointillist technique in process, prompting comments that his magic would now fade. He didn’t buy it. “I [still] feel like the work is its own best explanation and I try to put everything I want to communicate into the paintings.” In group critiques, some artists share their information generously, while others evasively default to vague references of experimentation or the like. Learning through experimentation is hard-earned. But some artists may be too insecure about admitting they use masking tape, a projector, Photoshop, other artists, or the internet – all now accepted as valid tools. Mixed-media artists tend to be less coy, often offering wall labels that read like shopping lists. Jack Arthur Wood’s two-dimensional relief pieces create a sense of mystery even though the many materials he uses are plainly visible. He thinks of an artist’s process not as a discrete trade secret but rather as a “layering of idiosyncrasies over time.”

Ryan Johnson, Together Again at Barton Springs. 2021, oil on canvas, 34 x 80 inches

Yet Wood also “wouldn’t begrudge anyone their secrecy. There can be a lot at stake.” As Picasso famously said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” At least some apprehension about losing a competitive edge seems justified. Also understandable are worries that demystifying the artistic process may dull the viewing experience. MFA student Ryan Johnson concedes that “when sharing my artistic process, I err on the side of secrecy. I want to safeguard the mysterious power that a painting can hold for a viewer. Sharing can often drain the image of its power” such that the viewer “is left seeing the painting as a summation of parts and causes, rather than as a whole piece.”

As valid as these concerns are, I tend to be a sharer, excited about my discoveries and keen that others try my process – and perhaps give me credit. Of their latest piece, made of twisted newspaper inserted in chicken wire, installation artist Eiko Nishida says: “The material and technique are simple. In other words, there is no secret. However, even if someone uses the same materials and techniques, they will have different experiences through their processes and the final object won’t be the same as mine.”

Eiko Nishida, Going by (Installation), 2022; newspaper in multiple languages, newspaper print, construction paper, chicken wire; Approximately 15w x 9h x 16d feet
Bonnie Morano, Amazing Day, 2022, oil on canvas 36 x 48 inches 

One of the best museum shows I’ve ever seen was “Unfinished” at the MetBreuer in New York in 2016. It comprised works by canonical artists that they had either abandoned incomplete or left unfinished when they died. They revealed telling nuggets about their processes previously undisclosed. Daumier used the grid method for his under-drawing. Titian’s faces started out like cartoons. Van Gogh didn’t invariably make his paintings alla prima, in one sitting, contrary to appearances and assumptions. Such visibility on great artists’ processes makes the work more accessible. It does not diminish its magic or its greatness.

The secret to the very shiny finish on some of my recent paintings? Prussian blue.

About the Author: Bonnie Morano is a Hunter MFA candidate who paints and writes about painting.  

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  1. Shiny surfaces are distracting. Have to look at it sideways and upside down to avoid the sheen to see the actual thing. But we do like shiny objects.

  2. When I spend 15 years working on a process, and use a lifetime of knowledge to put it all together, I have zero motivation to hand it to someone on a platter. I’m willing to share known information, but note that success comes from doing the hard work and becoming truly skilled.

    Here’s some of the results of that work:

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