The Virtuoso

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John MacDonald, a brilliant landscape painter and thoughtful writer and teacher, has offered some very interesting observations about five roles you can play as a painter. Somewhat like an actor, the talented artist has the ability to switch roles as needed. Whether you create as a Poet, Reporter, Storyteller, Designer, or Virtuoso, is really up to you, but is determined by your conceptual intent.

It’s been a thought provoking series, I hope you have enjoyed it and gained an appreciation for the roles you can play as an artist. This week we conclude the series by speaking of the Virtuoso artist. All credit for the series goes to John MacDonald, he is the one that sparked an interest in me to pursue the subject after reading a couple of his newsletters discussing the five possible roles in which an artist can maneuver. If you’ve missed any of the previous articles, I encourage you to check them out. You may find them HERE. (To enlarge images shown below, just click them)


The Virtuoso

When I think of the word “Virtuoso”, I think of someone that is an absolute master of several disciplines, kind of like a Renaissance man…for example one that is a master musician, painter, architect, photographer, inventor, etc. In the 1828 edition of the “American Dictionary of the English Language”, the word “virtuoso” does not even appear, but the word “virtuous” does. One of the definitions describing that word is “Having great or powerful properties”; I like that because it describes the ability of the Virtuoso.

Abram Efimovich Arkhipov (1862-1930) – “Girl from Lesnoye” – 46″ x 37″ – Oil


A more common use of the term today describes a person that is extremely skilled and impressive in music or another artistic pursuit, kind of the opposite of “a jack of all trades, but a master of none.” When one examines personality types, a Virtuoso is described as one who loves to explore with their hands and their eyes, touching and examining the world around them with an impressive diligence, a casual curiosity, and a healthy dose of skepticism. They are natural makers, moving from project to project.

I think many of us would like to be really good at one thing but will never attain to it because of lack of effort, education, perseverance, passion, focus, and persistence. The Virtuoso is the poster child for overcoming all resistance.

John MacDonald has described the Virtuoso artist as one that places less emphasis on WHAT is painted but HOW it is painted. “The point of the painting is how skillfully the paint is applied to the surface. The quality of the brushstrokes used to portray an object is as important as the ability of the artist to create the illusion of the object.”

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) – “Night Effect” – 17″ x 12″ – Oil (1895)


Frans Hals (1581-1666) – “The Smoker” (Detail) – Full size: 19″ x 18″


So what qualities must a Virtuoso painter possess? John MacDonald continues: “To be a virtuosic painter, it’s necessary to have superb technical skills in the use of any instrument or method that is used to apply the paint…brushes, palette knife, glazing, working thick and thin, etc. It also requires the confidence to work directly and the patience to focus on a single brushstroke and redo it if necessary. The goal is to carefully, deliberately, and slowly paint in a way that the brushwork appears spontaneous, loose, and quickly done. As Richard Schmid once commented, the way a painting appears isn’t necessarily how it was painted. Schmid is an excellent contemporary example of a virtuoso painter.”

Richard Schmid (1934-2021) – “Ridge House” – 18″ x 25″ – Gouache (1989)

Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) – “Mending the Sail” – 87″ x 119″ – Oil (1896)


Another quality of a Virtuoso painter is that they move comfortably between roles and are a master of all of them, John Singer Sargent is a prime example of this.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) – “The Fountain, Villa Torlania, Frascati, Italy” – 28″ x 22″ – Oil


In closing, MacDonald offers this: “Painting theory is one thing, actually painting is another. The reality is that we often play multiple roles in a single painting. A story painting can have a noticeable mood and be painted with bravura brushwork that leaps off the canvas, but if all three – story, mood, and brushwork – demand our attention equally, then the painting will suffer for it. Our intention demands that there be one primary role. ‘Don’t try to say two things on one canvas.’ Our intention determines our role during the course of a painting, so stick with that role! It’s helpful to distinguish between intention and style. Our intention is the message we want to convey in a single painting; style is the unique character that runs through our entire body of work – it’s the sum of our intentions.”

Once again, a huge THANK YOU to John MacDonald for his insights and willingness to share them.


To view John MacDonald’s website, click HERE.


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