Career and Life Lessons From the Quiet Painter

edward-hopperJackie Kennedy loved his paintings and to this day, a few of them hang in the Oval Office.

But when asked how he was able to paint sunlight so realistically, world-famous painter Edward Hopper casually replied, “The whole answer is there on the canvas.”

Hopper may have been a man of few words. But he had a unique approach to his work and career from which we can all learn today.

“There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house.”

Hopper knew what his audience wanted. His ability to paint natural light creating a mood or feeling brought him fame and fortune. In our careers today, the challenge is knowing what talents and skills we have that can attract others. Know yourself. But also know your audience. Then, create a match.

This painting, called “Hotel Lobby” was made in 1943. Hopper was not a prolific painter, creating under 400 paintings in his lifetime (compared to thousands produced by other famous painters). This picture is typical of Hopper’s work – showing a few people in ordinary settings. Note the close attention paid to the use of light. It was Hopper’s ability to paint light, shadows and dark spaces that brought his “ordinary” scenes to life.

“More of me comes out when I improvise.”

The word “improvise” means to create and perform spontaneously or without preparation. Have you ever noticed that when you’re stuck trying to do something, just “winging” it often works out just fine. When we improvise, we’re actually drawing upon all of our experiences and knowledge. It’s far from random. Trust your ability to make things happen even without an instruction manual.

Edward Hopper’s most famous painting was called “Nighthawks.” Created in World War Two, many believe it’s designed to show the despair and concern of ordinary Americans during the war – not unlike today’s environment. One patron is alone in his thoughts while two others share a serious chat, ignoring the waiter. 

“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.”

Hopper enjoyed reading and studying.  (Many of his paintings feature people reading). But for all the information he gathered, it was his own imagination that provided the greatest fuel for his amazing art. His ideas would come when he was most relaxed. Today, our busy, distracted lives leave little time for imagination. Make time this week to daydream – to pause and allow your mind to wander. It may just lead you to a much better tomorrow.

Hopper’s painting “New York Movie” shows a lonely usher in deep thought – a common theme of Hopper’s paintings. Hopper himself was often reflective and quiet. His wife acted as the model for the woman in the painting.  

Critics were not always kind to Hopper.

Time magazine in 1948 said his painting “Summer Evening,” which features a young couple, depicted romance and looked like something that could appear in any “woman’s magazine.” Hopper was offended, saying Time had missed the point completely. In his words: “The figures were not what interested me; it was the light streaming down, and the night all around.”

Easily bored, Hopper and his wife would travel extensively in search of new surroundings to get inspired.

Those who knew him said he was most at ease with everyday situations and people, often seeing life as a lonely experience. So that’s what he painted. As he put it: “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist.”

And that is perhaps the biggest lesson from Edward Hopper. To truly shine in our career and in life, we need only to be ourselves.

About the top image: The painting is a self-portrait that Hopper did in 1906 when he was just 24 years old. Hopper died in 1967. His wife Josephine, who he married in 1924, died just 10 months later. They say opposites attract and that was certainly the case with the tall, conservative, shy Hopper and his short, talkative wife.  

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