An Argument Against Painting Pretty

Master painter Alvaro Castagnet says art must set a mood and tell a story, plus other words of watercolor wisdom.

I had the pleasure of watching Alvaro Castagnet demonstrate his watercolor painting process in person at the 2018 Plein Air Convention & Expo in Santa Fe (“a burnt sienna city,” according to Alvaro). I jotted down a few of my favorite quotes and observations he made while painting.

Alvaro Castagnet outdoor painting
Plein air painting of Santa Fe

“I don’t preserve too many whites at the start because then I become a slave to those high-key values.”

outdoor painting
Plein air painting of Santa Fe

“Art is not prettiness; it’s mood, feeling. If you think art has to be pretty, you’re missing the point.”

Plein air painting of Santa Fe

“When I look at a painting, I ask, are you giving me a story — a painting I can love for all time — or are you giving me a strawberry cake — something pretty.”

Plein air painting of Santa Fe

“We need to interpret [not simply record] what we see, that’s how we can call ourselves artists.”

“Filthy water, messy palette — that is Alvaro at his best. I paint dirty.”

Alvaro received a lifetime achievement award at the event for his work in watercolor and plein air painting.

This year, master watercolor artist Joseph Zbukvic will be honored. Paint alongside him and other top-notch watercolorists, including Keiko Tanabe, Dan Marshall, and Shuang Li at the 2019 Plein Air Convention & Expo. 


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  1. I appreciate those gems of insight by Alvaro. He is the master of plein air watercolor painting. You can see the passion in his Santa Fe paintings and in his words.

  2. I paint fractured portraits. i want the portrait to create a feeling about the person and have the viewer look.deeper into their face.
    I dont want a photograph portrait unless i am ask to otherwise the more its my interepation the better.
    I appreciate artists who interepet their view point of the world. Thanks for sharing.

  3. While I agree that one role art can play is to interpret (always in the painter’s mood, of course), there are many other roles. I happen to think that there is nothing wrong with painting “Pretty”, and many artists like Renoir, Monet and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name three, have been proud to “paint pretty.”
    I respect his talent and approach, but only the arrogant and/or insecure put down other styles of painting.

  4. Yes, I’ve done my share of “pretty” paintings and after 40 years want to gag at another. I now look a little deeper for the mood or story. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I don’t agree. Art can be whatever the artist needs it to be. I’ve seen great art that was also ‘pretty’. Technical skill is required to differentiate art from scribbles or modernist fraud (in my opinion) but dismissing something as pretty – well maybe it’s not something you would put in your house but that does not mean it’s not art.


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