So you are thinking about becoming a painter. For many of us that’s a calling as far removed from the real world of business as you can be. Churchill painted in his free time during World War II. Dwight Eisenhower also painted, as did George W. Bush. Closer to home lawyer Ryan Stark Lilienthal Stark has exhibited his paintings, as has orthopedic surgeon Marc Malberg.

We non-painters see it as a wonderful burst of creativity, something you either have or you don’t. But Tom Kelly, a prolific and widely recognized painter based in Hamilton, thinks there’s more to the art than meets the eye. In the first quarter of this year Firehouse Publications in Bordentown is scheduled to publish Kelly’s book, “One Hundred Rules for the Aspiring Painter.” The book, with many illustrations from his own body of work, includes sections on composition, techniques and color, as well as sections on “How to Think” and “How to Behave.”

Reading a pre-publication copy of Kelly’s book reveals that there’s more of a method to painting than you might suspect, and that there are lessons for the beginning painter that can apply to anyone creating any kind of new endeavor. For more information visit www,­ or

Following are a dozen of Kelly’s 100 rules.

#b#Skip the Details#/b#

Leave it rough. Leave a painting rough and walk away for a day. Do you like what you have? Is it cohesive if you leave it as it is? I don’t mean unfinished parts. I mean not finishing it to the fine detail. The details are what “the masses” think they crave. But they really don’t, and shouldn’t. You are an artist. Make them feel something. Can you still get a feeling from a less finished painting?

Can you still be as satisfied with your rougher piece? Try it and see. Maybe you cannot leave it rough. Maybe you will love it.

#b#Expect Surprises#/b#

Be prepared for unexpected results. If you have ever attempted printmaking, sculpture, photography, or cooking, you know that you do not always end up at the intended destination. Painting is even more liquid. In printmaking you cannot go back. Painting is more forgiving. You can always paint over what you do not like. The painting will sometimes take you for a ride. This is fine, go with it. Just steer a tiny bit and you will be happy with the destination.

#b#Don’t Be Perfect#/b#

A painting should look like a painting. A painting is an imperfect, three dimensional, handmade, homemade object. Maybe there will be pencil lines. This is okay. Maybe there will be globs of paint. This is fine. Maybe the canvas will have imperfections. This is great. This is a painting. It is not a photograph, or a computer screen or television or any two dimensional representation. Many people have never seen paintings in real life. They are surprised at the imperfections, the anomalies. When I see a brush hair or a glob of paint on a painting in a museum, I feel elated, vindicated, a oneness with the artist. This is a one-of-a-kind item because of these textures and blemishes. The artist saw this and let it go. This is how the painting was when they pronounced it perfect and complete. A painting should look like a painting.

#b#Be Yourself#/b#

Paint what you know. If you want to be an honest, heartfelt painter, paint what you know. This honesty will show through in the painting. You are the artist. Tell us your story. Please don’t tell someone else’s. If you live in the city paint the city. What you know and feel, like and dislike will show through. This is your accent, your intonation. If you live near the shore, in the desert or mountains the paintings will show that naturally. Things you see everyday will spill off the brush. There is beauty in your world, your neighborhood.

Think of the painters you have studied. Are you seeing their room, their street, their friends, and their view of the hillside? Are you seeing their wife in the bath or at the piano? Are you seeing their passion for their mistress? Are you seeing their fears and innermost thoughts? You are, because they painted what they knew.

#b#Be Tenacious#/b#

Finish everything, don’t quit. This is a big one. It will work out. Get back in there and work on it. It is like a boxing match, the winner only has to get up one more time than the loser. Don’t start another “easier” piece. This is a trap. The painting you are quitting on was easy when you started. The tide will turn. Your confidence will rise. You will be proud of yourself, though no one else will know or care. So tell them, this one was a bear, a struggle, a war.

But you were victorious and now you like it even more. Feel good about finishing a tough one.


Be open. This means to new ideas. As artists we spend a lot of time alone. Sometimes we are too alone. We dismiss opportunities or chances that we are not ready to be open to. Be open if someone asks you to do a portrait, or copy a landscape they like. Be open if someone asks you to hang paintings in their bank, office, or restaurant. Be open if someone asks if you do house portraits or copy wedding photos.

Be open to all outlandish requests you hopefully receive. You do not have to do any of them, but you must be open to them. These requests no matter how odd, misguided, or borderline insulting to you or your art, are requests. They are requests from someone who would hire you if you could agree on terms and vision. Be open to these people requesting, they would love to be a collector. Once they understand a little more about what you do and your art they may be a staunch supporter. These requests might even help guide your way and steer you in a different direction. Be open to this.

#b#Grow Thick Skin#/b#

Be ready for the masses. Someone told me that to be an artist you must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the tenacity of a bulldog, and a warm place to come home to. You will listen to many well intending people after you tell them they are a painter. “You should see my cousin paint; he can paint a tree that looks just like a tree.” “My friend is a fine artist, not like you.” These comments may make you feel like making snappy retorts. Please hold your tongue and save your energy. You cannot educate everyone. These people have escaped art education so far in life and you should save your energy for your work. Take criticism from peers and people you respect. Lack of specific knowledge is why they are called the masses.

#b#Determination Pays#/b#

Be stubborn. You must have the tenacity of a bulldog. You must keep going back for more. More of what you ask? More criticism, more work on the painting, more self-doubt, and more money to spend on your craft. When you are unsure if the painting is working the way you intended, you must be stubborn, keep painting, correct the problems and complete it. Stubbornness will get you to the finish line.

#b#Trust Yourself#/b#

Be confident. You are the artist. Most of the people who will View your work are not artists. They should be impressed by your work. You are good. You have had schooling, formal or otherwise. You have studied the masters and near masters. You have put in the time, the effort and the money for materials and other artistic needs. You have spent countless hours alone with your work, imagining, creating, adjusting, critiquing and self-doubting.

You have gone to exhibitions, museums and lectures. You have worked very hard on these paintings. Now let the work speak for itself. Be quiet and confident. You do not have to explain it. They may not understand it. That is fine. You have done the best that you can do on this piece. You made a decision that it is done. Stick by it. You are a good artist.

#b#Show Up#/b#

Go to events. Show up. I cannot stress how important this is. Get out of the house and studio. Exhibition openings, artist’s lectures, and fund raisers are all opportunities to meet and greet. Your future support group meets at these events. Go to music events, poetry readings, and theater.

These are usually the same group. You will meet people. You will network. You will see how these events are organized. You will learn how to approach these tasks when they are yours to do. You will see how situations are addressed. You will gain experience by observing and most likely enjoy some wine and hors d’oeuvres.

#b#Get Help#/b#

Have a support team. You cannot do everything. You are supposed to be the artist. So be the artist. You will need photography support. You will need tech support. You may need a writer or a public relations support person. You may need food arranged around an opening. You may need transport help for your work. You may need a framer, someone to help hang, someone to make labels or mailing lists. You are going to need a lot of helpers. So you had better be personable. You need a team. You must pay them, feed them, or do some artwork for them in barter. But you had better not forget that you need them.

Because of them you can go and be the artist.

#b#Garner Support#/b#

Find a champion. This rule is easier said than done. A champion is one who will trumpet and testify to the virtues of your work. They will think of you when opportunities arise. They will recommend you for exhibitions and commissions. They will know that you can put on a show with short notice as you are a professional. They may be a former teacher or a fellow artist. They may be a dealer or curator who will be your ultimate champion, staking their livelihood and reputation on you and other artists. If you have a few champions you will go a long way.

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