All My Teachers Are Dead.

Artists have always fascinated me. Having spent 25 years in the design world, I thought I understood what motivated them. But unlike solitary artists, the work I created was collaborative, and there was rarely any fear in expressing myself because many others were involved. When I pivoted from design to painting in 2011, I was paralyzed with fear. What if my painting wasn’t good enough? It is a completely different ballgame when your work is on the firing line. The anxiety and vulnerability were overwhelming. I painted for several years but never showed my work to anyone. I didn’t want to be judged. Or evaluated. Or compared to. So, in 2013 I hit a wall. I realized that fear was keeping me from taking chances and exploring failure. In the design world, I was fine with failure. I told the designers I worked with that if they weren’t pushing to fail, they weren’t creating new work that mattered. Yet somehow that philosophy did not translate to my paintings.

I went to Paris that summer and spent hours at the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée Picasso, the Louvre, the Musée Matisseand the Cezanne Studio in Provence. I fell in love with the freedom that Matisse had with color and composition. There was no need to reproduce what he saw exactly to prove he could paint or draw. He was expressing his feelings, something I was not doing. At the Cezanne Studio, I saw how he worked and the influence of northern and southern light in his workI decided to walk the same paths that he walked, and to see what inspired him. But none of what he looked at was interesting to me. What was fascinating was how he interpreted mundane scenes and broke them into planes of color that were arresting. It didn’t matter what things looked at but how I chose to interpret them that mattered. When I was in St. Remy, I spent time in Van Gogh’s room. He didn’t need perfect light or a perfect studio. And he didn’t need the perfect scene to inspire him. He just needed to paint. He painted his way. And did a lot of it. I am sure it was agonizing that he wasn’t respected, nor did he sell many paintings. But as we all know, his work is now considered priceless. I walked the same paths that Van Gogh didAnd tried to imagine how he experienced the scenes I was seeing.

When I got home, I thought what better way to teach myself to paint, than to make an homage to the work of the painters I loved. For the next year, I copied 11 paintings of work from Van Gogh, Matisse, Kees van Dongen, Raoul Dufy, Arshile Gorkyand Winslow Homer. When I finished each, I framed it as close to the original as possible, and hung it in my home, as a way of bringing home the art I loved but couldn’t afford. Through this process, I learned invaluable techniques that taught me about color, composition, figure-ground relationships, abstraction, and geometries. But what was most surprising was how much fun I hadI simply had to figure out how they painted what they saw and tried to do the same thing. The road map was given to me, there was no consternation, struggle, or worry that I wasn’t meeting expectations. While it was liberating, I knew it was a diversion from my own work. I needed to find my own story, my own path, and walk it with less fear and more freedom. Whenever I hit a wall, I go back to my teachers for inspiration and hope to find the joy and freedom they had when they were painting.


Bill Cahan, May 22, 2020