Being Decisive In Your Art

Paul Gauguin and the $200M Nafea Faa Ipoipo

In the year 1878, Paul Gauguin was a successful thirty-year old stockbroker with a hobbyist’s weekend interest in art. There was nothing special about him to indicate he would develop into a revolutionary artist, reinvent painting, and that one day his art could sell for $200 million dollars.

Back then, Gauguin was was living in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, an artsy area with cafes frequented by the leading French artists of the day. The biggest influence on Gauguin was the established impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, twenty years his senior. They developed a friendship, and Gauguin would paint at Pissarro’s house on Sunday afternoons, in a very informal mentorship. For a decade, Gauguin emulated Pissarro’s soft, fluffy impressionist style of choppy indistinct strokes of color. Then in 1887, Gauguin met outsider artist Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Influenced by van Gogh’s crazy color and interest in Japanese wood-block graphics, Gauguin’s work quickly mutated into a new, personal approach distinct from his old teacher, Pissarro. Gauguin was strongly affected by seeing van Gogh’s art and the two men had an intense creative connection, even living together for two months, until van Gogh went mad and cut off his own ear.

But what did Gauguin learn that changed his thinking and habits? What did he come away with in 1888? It was a new, deep conviction that his art should be about decisive line and color. No more blurs of rainbow impressionism. No more fluff. Make up your damn mind about a line, and a color. Just commit. The dramatic shift is seen below, where Gauguin’s style changes so completely from 1887 to 1888, discovering a new look never before seen in art.

“How do you see this tree? Is it really green? Use green, then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.” - Paul Gauguin, 1888.

For the rest of his painting life, echoes of his time with old master Pissarro would creep into Gauguin’s landscapes, but the essence was a new, strong commitment to well-defined color and well-defined line. This took nerve, and no half measures. No coddling or appeasing the viewer. If a face was bone white or a line stiffly drawn, it was Gauguin saying to all his critics: “T’as pas de couilles. I am showing you my total commitment, you cowards.” Gauguin’s new style was barely accepted at the time of his death but over the next hundred years became celebrated. He was somewhat satisfied by his evolution as a painter, and said: “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”

There are two crucial lessons in Gauguin’s story that apply to any creative person working in music, writing, or any art form. The first lesson is: when you see something new and powerful that can work for you, don’t be stuck in the past. Don’t let old habits hold you back. Gauguin was ready to leave his master, Pissarro, and move forward to risk something new. That’s being a revolutionary. The second lesson is the nearly magical power of decisive commitment. Today, we live in a time when many decisions are made by a committee or focus groups or testing appeals to mass popularity. That may work for marketers, but when it comes to art the strong singular voice of a creative hand making a committed decision (right or wrong) is a lot more interesting than vanilla compromises.