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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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We can learn more about the man behind the art with this extensive collection of Joshua Reynolds quotes, taken from right across the full span of his life and career.

Famous Quotes by Joshua Reynolds

A mere copier of nature can never produce anything great.

An artist who brings to his work a mind tolerably furnished with the general principles of art, and a taste formed upon the works of good artists - in short, who knows in what excellence consists – will, with the assistance of models... be an overmatch for the greatest painter that ever lived who should be debarred such advantages.

An eye critically nice can only be formed by observing well-colored pictures with attention.

A painter must compensate the natural deficiencies of his art. He has but one sentence to utter, but one moment to exhibit. He cannot, like the poet or historian, expatiate, and impress the mind...

A painter must not only be of necessity an imitator of the works of nature... but he must be as necessarily an imitator of the works of other painters. This appears more humiliating, but is equally true; and no man can be an artist, whatever he may suppose, upon any other terms.

A passion for his art, and an eager desire to excel, will more than supply an artist with the place of method.

A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.

Art in its perfection is not ostentatious; it lies hid and works its effect, itself unseen.

By close inspection... you will discover the manner of handling the artifices of contrast, glazing, and other expedients, by which good colorists have raised the value of their tints, and by which nature has been so happily imitated.

By leaving a student to himself he may... be led to undertake matters above his strength, but the trial will at least have this advantage: it will discover to himself his own deficiencies and this discovery alone is a very considerable acquisition.

Certainly, nothing can be more simple than monotony.

Could we teach taste and genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius.

Every art, like our own, has in its composition fluctuating as well as fixed principles. It is an attentive inquiry into their difference that will enable us to determine how far we are influenced by custom and habit, and what is fixed in the nature of things.

From a slight, undetermined drawing, where the ideas of the composition and character are just touched upon, the imagination supplies more than the painter himself, probably, could produce. And we accordingly often find that the finished work disappoints the expectation that was raised from the sketch...

Grandeur of effect is produced by two different ways which seem entirely opposed to each other. One is by reducing the colors to little more than chiaroscuro... and the other, by making the colors very distinct and forcible... but still, the presiding principle of both those manners is simplicity.

He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.

However minutely labored the picture may be in the detail, the whole will have a false and even an unfinished appearance, at whatever distance, or in whatever light it can be shown.

I can recommend nothing better... than that you endeavor to infuse into your works what you learn from the contemplation of the works of others.

If deceiving the eye were the only business of the art... the minute painter would be more apt to succeed. But it is not the eye, it is the mind which the painter of genius desires to address.

I do not see in what manner practice alone can be sufficient for the production of correct, excellent, and finished pictures. Works deserving this character never were produced, nor ever will arise, from memory alone...

I have heard painters acknowledge, though in that acknowledgment no degradation of themselves was intended, that they could do better without nature than with her; or as they express themselves, 'that it only put them out.'

In the practice of art... it is necessary to keep a watchful and jealous eye over ourselves; idleness, assuming the specious disguise of industry... may be employed to evade and shuffle off real labor - the real labor of thinking.

It is impossible that anything will be well understood or well done that is taken into a reluctant understanding, and executed with a servile hand.

It is not uncommon to meet artists who, from a long neglect of cultivating the necessary intimacy with nature, do not even know her when they see her – she appearing a stranger to them, from their being so long habituated to their own representation of her.

It is to Titian we must turn our eyes to find excellence with regard to color, and light and shade, in the highest degree. He was both the first and the greatest master of this art. By a few strokes he knew how to mark the general image and character of whatever object he attempted...

It is vain for painters... to endeavour to invent without materials on which the mind may work.

I should desire that the last words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of - Michelangelo.

I wish you to be persuaded that success in your art depends almost entirely on your own industry; but the industry which I principally recommend is not the industry of the hands, but of the mind.

Let me recommend to you not to have too great dependence on your practice or memory, however strong those impressions may have been which are there deposited. They are forever wearing out, and will be at least obliterated, unless they are continually refreshed and repaired.

Martial music has sudden and strongly marked transitions from one note to another which that style of music requires; while in that which is intended to move the softer passions, the notes imperceptibly melt into one another.

No art can be grafted with success on another art. For though they all profess the same origin, and to proceed from the same stock, yet each has its own peculiar modes both of imitating nature and of deviating from it... The deviation, more especially, will not bear transplantation to another soil.

Nothing comes from nothing – invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory.

Our Exhibitions [The Royal Academy] have... a mischievous tendency, by seducing the Painter to an ambition of pleasing indiscriminately the mixed multitude of people who resort to them.

One inconvenience... may attend bold and arduous attempts: frequent failure may discourage. This evil, however, is not more pernicious than the slow proficiency which is the natural consequence of too easy tasks.

Our studies will be forever, in a very great degree, under the direction of chance; like travelers, we must take what we can get, and when we can get it – whether it is or is not administered to us in the most commodious manner, in the most proper place, or at the exact minute when we would wish to have it.

Perhaps blue, red, and yellow strike the mind more forcibly from there not being any great union between them, as martial music, which is intended to rouse the nobler passions...

Raphael and Titian seem to have looked at Nature for different purposes; they both had the power of extending their view to the whole; but one looked only for the general effect as produced by form, the other as produced by colour.

Style in painting is the same as in writing – a power over materials, whether words or colours, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed.

The art of seeing nature, or, in other words, the art of using models, is in reality the great object, the point to which all our studies are directed.

The distinct blue, red, and yellow colors... though they have not the kind of harmony which is produced by a variety of broken and transparent colors, have the effect of grandeur.

The general ideas which are expressed in sketches, correspond very well to the art often used in poetry... every reader making out the detail according to his own particular imagination... but a painter, when he represents Eve on canvas, is obliged to give a determined form, and his own idea of beauty distinctly expressed.

The great end of all arts is to make an impression on the imagination and the feeling. The imitation of nature frequently does this. Sometimes it fails and something else succeeds.

The great use of copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be in learning color; yet even coloring will never be perfectly attained by servilely copying the model before you.

The mind is but a barren soil – a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.

The painter of genius will not waste a moment upon those smaller objects which only serve to catch the sense, to divide the attention, and to counteract his great design of speaking to the heart.

There can be no doubt but that he who has the most materials has the greatest means of invention...

The spectator, as he walks the gallery, will stop, or pass along. To give a general air of grandeur at first view, all trifling, or artful play of little lights, or an attention to a variety of tints is to be avoided; a quietness and simplicity must reign over the whole work, to which a breadth of uniform and simple color will very much contribute.

The true test of all the arts is not solely whether the production is a true copy of nature, but whether it answers the end of art, which is to produce a pleasing effect upon the mind.

Those who are not conversant in works of art are often surprised at the high value set by connoisseurs on drawings which appear careless, and in every respect unfinished; but they are truly valuable... they give the idea of a whole.

Though colour may appear at first a part of painting merely mechanical, yet it still has its rules, and those grounded upon that presiding principle which regulates both the great and the little in the study of a painter.

Whatever trips you make, you must still have nature in your eye...

What has pleased and continues to please, is likely to please again; hence are derived the rules of art, and on this immovable foundation they must ever stand.

While I recommend studying the art from artists, Nature is and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible, and from which all excellences must originally flow.

You are never to lose sight of nature; the instant you do, you are all abroad, at the mercy of every gust of fashion, without knowing or seeing the point to which you ought to steer.

Quotes about Joshua Reynolds by Art Historians and Fellow Artists

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, was considered the leading portrait painter of his day and a key figure in the Academy. Still in print today, and widely translated, his groundbreaking Discourses in Art were hugely influential on the development of British art.

The Royal Academy

Reynolds was the leading portraitist of the 18th century, invigorating the genre and raising its status to that of religious and historical works. Well-known and respected during his lifetime, he combined the English style of portraiture with ideas drawn from antiquity and the Old Masters to create fashionable, large-scale images of British high society as well as early celebrities including actors and courtesans. His images often included theatrical elements including colorful props and costumes, imagined pastoral landscapes, and irreverent classical symbolism.

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA FRS FRSA (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792) was an English painter, specialising in portraits. John Russell said he was one of the major European painters of the 18th century. He promoted the "Grand Style" in painting which depended on idealization of the imperfect. He was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and was knighted by George III in 1769.