How to Be an Artist, According to Henri Matisse

To put it simply, Matisse’s number-one artistic mantra, which underlined essentially every creative choice he made, can be summed up by “expression is everything.” In his own words, from 1908, “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share.”

He sought to “express light, not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain,” he wrote in 1945. Although Matisse was able to achieve this most-important personal expression, he believed that, before another artist can do the same, they first must learn the basics of art-making—composition, line, and so forth—and be well-versed in the masters.

As a student, Matisse went to the Louvre to copy works by artists like Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, and Annibale Carracci; he was instructed to do so by his own

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