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The Ten List: Things Not to Paint

Boris Vallejo. Enough said.

Teaching art is a bizarre task. I have been working with students at the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas for more than ten years and in my experience, one can certainly lead students to improve their technical skills and to enrich their understanding of contemporary and historical art. But what makes teaching art so difficult and different from say, teaching computer science, is that it involves making decisive evaluations about objects that frustrate clear understanding; contentious arguments about quality and matters of taste are inevitable. In fact, as much as some like to think they can codify and systematize the way art is taught, the nature of creating art resists formulaic attempts at instruction. Art teaching and art making are at their best when they acknowledge the idiosyncratic and slippery ways in which art is born.

David Shrigley, Untitled, 2005, ink on paper


In fact, what can one say about art with any certainty? Only that people (those who make things and those who view things) will disagree about the value of any art object. As an artist, critic and teacher, my evaluation of art is an ongoing process that takes various forms, but is always determined by the logic of my own values. In the classroom, I attempt to make clear to students that every decision they make regarding their art speaks volumes about what they deem necessary and worthwhile. As Theodore Adorno famously noted—artworks reside in uncomfortable proximity to one another, because each artwork proclaims itself important and valuable in opposition to all other forms of artistic expression. So, with a healthy dose of skepticism about my ability to mold students, I long ago decided against giving students mere prescriptions about what to make, and instead decided to actively describe the pitfalls of certain subjects, techniques and procedures.



Extending my critiques and discussions with students, I use my office door as an ersatz bulletin board. Among a smattering of aphoristic food for thought, and ridiculous humor by David Shrigley, my door has a list of Ten Things Not to Paint emblazoned on its surface. The list, which certainly could be longer, looks something like this:


•    Puppy dogs, cats, your favorite dead pet memorial painting etc.
•  A fetus or saccharine portrayals of children
•   Flowers (especially blue bonnets)
•   Halloween paintings (moody trees and purple overcast skies)
•   Clowns, Angels and Barbie
•   Unicorns/Dragons/Demons/Warlocks/Witches/Fairies/ scantily clad women holding swashbuckling swords/muscle bound men holding machine guns
•   Skulls, because you fashion yourself a modern day pirate or a retro goth vampire
•   Your favorite cartoon character (doe-eyed Manga characters) or your current rock star hero
•   Landscape  à la your favorite Impressionist painter
•   Thatched roofed cottages


My list is meant mostly as a joke, but also as a way of reminding students that they need to think about their chosen subjects and stylistic choices as a language declaring attitude, intellect, and perhaps an embodied meaning. As a preamble to my list, I purposefully intone the following caveat:


“There really are no taboos in art. That doesn’t mean anything is good. If you paint any of these subjects, you must work hard to reinvent them and make them fresh—not clichéd. Or, better yet, simply paint something else.”


David Humphrey, Ike

Despite the obvious dangers of the list, many students have made paintings from these subjects; a handful have been smart—most, horribly misguided. Yet, to prove that there are no absolutes in art, I love to find examples of great paintings using these questionable subjects. Kirk Hayes has a fabulous dead clown painting and David Humphrey comically envisions garage sale-style cat and dog paintings. Still, one of my mantras to students is to avoid a hackneyed familiarity in their art. Cliché is a graveyard. Yet, if one is persistent and delves deep enough into a cliché, sometimes there is life after death. Essentially the difference between a ham-fisted artwork and an engaging artwork is the difference between what is already known and what is found. Even when painting a trite subject, one can find gold in the mud.



In the end, teaching art, like making art, is always difficult. My former colleague at UNT, Vernon Fisher, was prone to say “art can’t be taught, but it can be coached.” This seems as close as one gets to the truth of the matter. Coaches mentor, direct and cajole athletes into using their bodies more powerfully and economically for their given sport. With this in mind art “teachers” should encourage students to pay attention to their aesthetic decisions as markers of value and to recognize that their choices reflect a partisan valorization of a particular taste—one they will have to defend in the marketplace of competing ideas. Most importantly, art educators ought to focus on the crux of it all—whether a students’ efforts are supplemented or subverted by the particular vision offered in their art.

But before I ramble on, I had better get back to working on my majestic painting of a demon clown riding a unicorn through a darkened forest…

Matthew Bourbon is an artist and writer. His art was recently seen in Death of a Propane Salesman, Anxiety and the Texas Artist at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, and Our Splendid Defeat at Rudolph Blume Fine Art in Houston.  He is currently an Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Texas’s College of Visual Arts and Design.  Bourbon is also an art critic and contributes to Art Forum Online, Flash Art, ArtNews, New York Arts Magazine, Art Lies and KERA Art and Seek.

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24 Responses

  1. garrylford

    although I believe what Matthew was saying was somewhat a spoof, he is so right. At least in
    principle. I have painted for the sake of “I got to get something done” what a mistake. I have painted subject that just didn’t work at all. I guess I have made all the mistakes one can make, but
    on the other hand. I have seen paintings and said “Why didn’t I paint that?” I have seen paintings and said they were so clever to have rendered the subject in such a manner. I have a garage full of paintings that will never see the light of day, but I also think this, we got to keep on painting.

  2. another tired cowboy

    Teaching is a whore’s job. Good artists can paint anything they want to with no help from teachers (thieves), coaches (also thieves) or the likes of you. In my opinion, you couldn’t find or pull a gold nugget from an artist’s ass with a metal detector and a pair of pliers. Go cash your paycheck.

  3. Khanstant

    To think that in High School, I thought Boris was a good artist. Hahaha, I didn’t even know what good artists were yet.

  4. Wrosshirt

    Is it the subtlety that can’t be taught? When there is meaning to convey it is so often rendered in art by the club-footed mind. It is so squarely formulated that it will receive less than a cursory glance from the discerning, and often it is at its worst when accompanied by painted text detailing what can’t be missed. As often, there is no meaning to convey. Colors are smattered together drunkenly in an attempt to reanimate the cheap genius of the 1950s; with luck it will match somebody’s couch. Painted thoughtlessness similarly manifests in imagery pasted together at random. If you don’t like it it’s because you don’t “Get it.” It seems most useful in creating a work of impact to bury the idea, or better, to begin without one; to let the paint create it through careful study of one’s own impulses. With luck it will build to a state where it is indescribably without the hackneyed jargon of the art historian. Then you will have art. Engage the dialectic, young artist. Thank you Matt.

  5. another tired cowboy

    Wasn’t Boris just ripping off Frank Frazetta? I had all those Frank Frazetta books in High School. Sadly,I can picture Sarah Palin in most of the poses now.

  6. another tired cowboy

    Hahaha, let any of these so called writers, teachers, coaches, you fucking name it, make their mortgages, buy groceries and pay their health insurance and their god damned child support with their ‘art’.

    I do. And I have a clubfoot ready to shove up anyone’s ass that says otherwise.
    Most of ‘our’ art historians have been bought off or sold out. The names of the schools they teach at say it all.

  7. meco

    Why so angry? And why are you so obsessed with things up other’s asses? I believe these are questions you should sit quietly and reflect on. The “so called” and “sell outs” aren’t at all angry at you painting your velvet elvises and living in your parents’ basement….so why such hate? Perhaps Sir Cowboy you should take a nap and dream of real artists who ride unicorns and magically make “real” art…perhaps that might cheer you up.

    And I’m sorry your teachers/coaches were so mean to you.

  8. another tired cowboy

    While sitting here quietly and reflecting, I did remember one of the best teachers/coaches I ever had.
    It was a stopped up, overflowing toilet in the middle of a holding cell. (They must put them in the middle of the room for some reason.)
    I’m not looking for cheer and you know that better than I do. But thanks for the memory and advice.

    ps. don’t be sorry for meanness, it is a more potent teacher than kindness will ever be.
    Nap time.
    Thanks again!

  9. PrinceYuuri

    lol, drama.

    Anyway, I myself am a student, and I see what you’re saying in this article. Most of my friends are stuck drawing anime or cartoon characters, and whenever the teacher would encourage them to draw something else, they would always protest with, “But that’s my style!” I’ll confess I was stuck in this trap at one time, but I’ve moved on and try to focus on the really great artists. Best way to learn is by looking at the masters, no?

    Hope you don’t mind if I copy the list and tack it to my bedroom door. 🙂

  10. another tired cowboy

    Looking at the masters, both young and old is fine.You don’t want to repeat yourself.
    I’d check out the prof’s resume and his neighborhood before enrolling in any class.
    I live within blocks of the best of them. I should have looked much harder.

  11. another tired cowboy

    on an assistant’s professor’s salary
    Tenured is a different story.
    That one is a much longer, sadder story.

  12. another tired cowboy

    Students of this particular professor should ask him about the yearly resume ‘update’ he has to pad and enliven just to keep his sorry job and hopefully create raises in his salary. Chances are he’ll list this online article under some part of this years’ achievements to do just that . Whoo hoo!!! You Go boy!!!

  13. Mayor Vaughn

    I’m pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some posters. But, as you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Glasstire, as you know, means “friendship”.

  14. another laid back indian

    So it seems mr tired cowboy has an axe to grind or a chip in his/her shoulder. Very angry and bitter about academia, art professors, art teachers, art coaches, whatever that he/she has had some classes with. Usually those that are bitter and angry about stuff like this got their asses handed to them by some art professor and they carry a grudge ever since to try and make them feel better about their lack of performance or weakness. With all the vitriol posted here by tired cowboy we havent seen one good thought or idea denouncing anything in the article or anything of substance at all. Just elementary anger. Very amateur. Spit something of substance at least if you think you know better then these art professors. If i had a problem with an art professors opinion I simply fought them verbally (respectfully mind you) defending my stance and they usually appreciated that. If they didn’t no big deal. Move on. Life is too short and their are a number of more important things in life to spend energy on then talking shit about other people because you are insecure about something in you.

  15. Apophrades of the cliché? Not taught in school. Growing sophistication.? No salons being held in North Texas, anywhere. Vernon Fisher buys some of your work and it ends up in his Whitney Biennial show? Not a peep from his colleagues. Bad advice from an academic? That is itself a cliché? The University Discourse ala Lacan. Priceless. Carry on. Nothing to see down here on the Glasstire plantation.

  16. Misty

    I had a professor that was mean. No substance. Just hate. Didn’t care for students. Just picked up that pay check. Didn’t motivate me one bit. I prefer professors who care and show compassion. Sure be hard and tough and resolute. But if you’re mean it usually says that you are insecure. Sometimes mistake tough with mean. But if you look closely and if you see your professor is caring among the sternness that is a good sign. Mean professors are a dime a dozen. A lot of them are powertrippers and control freaks. I like the professors that are humble and confident, smart and caring.

  17. doofis

    “Psychedelic” art has some of the most pernicious cliches since they are totally misleading. One might think tripping has to involve symmetrical, meditating Buddhas doused in bright purple, magenta, and neon green. Hardly!!!

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