Several years ago in Reno, NV, I took the first of two workshops with Ted Nuttall. In a workshop setting, he’s a quiet, thoughtful man with a deep well of understanding when it comes to painting people. Specific people. Real people with hopes and dreams and hurts and loves. He teaches care-fully as he paints and he taught me several things I needed to know. Some of them involved how to think about painting people. Others were techniques.
By far the most important, though, was The Most Dangerous Thing. Here’s how it works. I’m working on a portrait of a dear friend whom I’ve wanted to paint since almost the first day I met her, and I’m excited. Her hair is wonderfully, wildly curly, and her smile is deeply knowing. It’s going so well! I move from her figure to the background, an architectural scene that forms a solid composition with her figure, and I paint the first wash. The joy fades a little, so I work on bringing the buildings up to snuff, trying to find it again. I step back, and the joy is…. Gone. It looks like everything else I’ve painted recently.
It’s a lovely painting. The thing is, I’m bored with lovely paintings. I want more. I want different. I want the excitement back. So I stand back and ask myself Ted Nuttall’s million dollar question: “What’s the most dangerous thing I could do?
“Red!” my Artist Child shouts gleefully. “Abstract! No lifting. Do it like Brian Rutenberg!”
And I do. Years of painting give me the knowledge to try something I’ve never done before and do it right over the top of staining pigments I can’t lift easily anyway. Scary? You bet. Might I ruin a lovely portrait? Oh, yeah. But the excitement is back, and I can see it in my head. I take a deep breath and plunge in.
The result? A personal best. John Salminen gave “Old Soul, Dear Heart” the top award in this year’s Tennessee Watercolor Society Biennial Juried Exhibit, only the second time I’ve gotten a Best in Show. It was also a purchase award, making this the most I have ever been paid for a painting. And this isn’t the first time; every time I choose The Most Dangerous Thing, wonderful things happen.
So hats off to Ted Nuttall for giving out one of the most important pieces of painting advice I’ve ever received . Now you go try it and see what it does for you.