The more that I study the old masters of the past, one significant characteristic becomes evident in each of their paintings: Great painters set great goals. The record of these great artists is proof. Great paintings don’t just happen by accident.

Every great artist is a pioneer. He starts out on his journey, traveling down a path which has been paved by other artists before him. Now it’s his turn to set his own personal goals as to how far he wants to go on that road. The knowledge and experience of others before him provides the opportunity to advance quickly; much faster than he would be able to if he had to discover and experience those things on his own. Instead, he is able to learn from the success and failure of others before him so that he, too, can advance.

The greatest painters don’t settle for reaching the end of the paved road. They aren’t content to park the car where others have left off. Instead, they go beyond the accomplishments of the past and extend the road into uncharted territory- True pioneers.

My first glimpse into this pioneer spirit was when I first met Joe Bowler. Joe, his wife, Marilyn and I were having dinner, discussing some of the great painters and illustrators of the past. During our conversation, Joe leaned forward, putting one arm on the table, and looked me straight in the eye and said something that I will never forget.


Painting by Joe Bowler


He said, “When you look at artists like Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, or even my own work, don’t determine that you’re going to paint like them.” At that point, I didn’t quite understand. I thought that was the ultimate goal. I would love to be able to paint like Sargent!


Painting by John Singer Sargent


Anders Zorn Brian Neher

Painting by Anders Zorn


Joaquin Sorolla Brian Neher

Painting by Joaquin Sorolla


The next sentence changed my whole approach to art. He then said, “Determine you’re going to paint better and someday you might surprise yourself.” No one had ever told me to aim higher than these great artists until that moment. It was then that I got my first glimpse into greatness and into the mindset of someone who was brave enough to experience this approach firsthand- A true pioneer.

No matter what stage you’re at in your career, this one simple truth always seems to apply: The farther the goal, the higher you aim in order to hit the target.