Basic Principles of Every Painter Paints Himself


Art takes time. You cannot enter an exhibition unprepared, stare at a landscape and be moved, at least in the manner that artists intend. To appreciate art, you must become familiar like the artists themselves with the themes that unite art and without which craft cannot become art. It used to take years of study. Today the methods revealed here speed the process, allowing you to see almost immediately what once was hidden. Still, the truth remains: the longer you study an image, the more you will see.


Art is intended for artists. T.S. Eliot or another great poet once said that great poetry is not written for lovers of poetry ensconced in an armchair, nor professors of Literature at prestigious universities, nor even for literary critics or eager students. Great poetry is only written for other great poets. So it is with great art too. Nevertheless, with the now-ready availability of images, it is easier for anyone with an independent mind to understand art like a great artist does than it ever was. This site makes it easier still.


Art is not photography. Ever since artists re-introduced illusionism around 1500, experts have viewed art like illustration, as though "through a window". Patrons and ordinary viewers did too. Today, even though the methodologies of scholarship regularly change, the perception through which experts view art never does. They think of art in photographic terms even if, as in many masterpieces, numerous non-realistic features defeat their illusion. Their paradigm does not allow them to think otherwise. True art, though, always depicts the inner world of the artist by its very nature. It is the unseen difference between art and craft. Once you grasp that, all changes.


Art is veiled. Illusionistic art is what it says: an illusion. It may look real (meaning a view of the outer world) but it never is. A battle scene, for example, is never a battle. All those weapons are paintbrushes, palette knives or, perhaps, the hammers of a sculptor and all those soldiers represent the artist and his assistants in the studio as they “battle” in the artist’s mind to create the painting. Just as we think in metaphors and then translate the same ideas into words, as linguists tell us, so art depicting thought is metaphorical too.1 Don’t take the images literally; they are visual metaphors.


Sight is deceptive. For people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, reality was an illusion because the only true reality was divine. They were partly right, as scientists now know. Sight is inaccurate because, contrary to common sense, you only see what you already know. For instance, art historians, convinced that portraits portray a real sitter, never recognized that many of them resemble the artist’s own self‐portrait. [See Portraiture] They never saw these obvious resemblances because, convinced that art is “photographic”, they never imagined them. Thus, contrary to what we think about sight, we paint our own reality. Art helps us to understand that.


Art is esoteric. A large proportion of artists, regardless of culture, followed one of the many forms of the Inner Tradition. These include Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Spiritual Alchemy, Theosophy and the Kaballah. In all these traditions, self-knowledge is the only true knowledge which is why every painter paints himself. Most artists, though, probably followed mystical strains of Christianity, some of which were banned by the Church, others accepted within it. All claim that reality is an illusion and that the goal of life is to “purify” the mind. The most important idea from our point-of-view is that the Bible should be read allegorically as a guide for the individual soul and that, since Man was created in the image of God, each of us can become Christ.

See the theme of The Inner Tradition for further explanation.


Art contains knowledge. It is little understood by conventional art historians that much of what an artist needs to know about philosophy, religion and art is contained in art itself. A Renaissance artist’s lack of formal education was thus no hindrance to his or her understanding. Indeed the knowledge and wisdom of a Renaissance craftsman was far more highly admired than scholars have even imagined.2 Fortunately, with help from this site, you too can learn to read art like an artist. Once you do, art becomes your own gateway to self-knowledge which is the only form of wisdom that has lasting value. All other knowledge is a product of your own time, perceived according to the prevailing paradigm. That will change but the knowledge conveyed in art will remain, as it does in great literature too.


Art makes sense. Art historians often note “errors”, “ambiguities” and “inconsistencies” in the apparent scene that do not make sense. These, they then argue, are typical of a great masterpiece because art does not need to make sense. If that were true, there would be no wisdom in the image and it would not be art. The truth is that many of the “illogical” features in a work of art are problems of the viewer’s own perception. Once the underlying scene is recognized, they make sense after all.

1. For how we think in metaphors, see Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press) 1980, esp. pp. 3-6

2. Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press) 2004