Yesterday, Celine Fleur of Seattle, Washington wrote, “I haven’t painted for several years, and have just started to attend weekly life drawing sessions (no instruction — a group of artists drawing in a downtown gallery), and reading inspirational books as well as your website and letters. I paint abstract landscapes in oil — such that you feel the subject matter, but not directly identify it. I’m shy about putting that first blob of paint on my palette. I stare at the blank canvas. Do you have any suggestions for getting started again?”
Thanks, Celine. Your big startup problem is similar to the little startup problems that many artists endure every day. It takes the same kind of application and character to overcome any type of inertia. While it’s been my observation that there’s no simple way to inject passion into people, there is a way to prime the pump.
In 1917, during a particularly low period in the fortunes of Winston Churchill, he decided to do something he had been intending to do for years. He purchased a box of oil paints. He picked a nice day, set himself up in his garden, and squeezed out. Then he sat frozen in place for two hours, unable to make a stroke. “My hand,” he said, “seemed arrested by a silent veto.” With the day waning and in the mood to give up, he heard, on the other side of the hedge, the arrival of a car. It was the painter wife of his friend Sir William Orpen. According to Churchill, Lady Orpen swept into the garden and saw the blank canvas and the plight he was in. She grabbed the brush out of his hand, went for the blue, and within a minute had the sky on the canvas. The spell had been broken. Churchill then and there decided that the thing needed in painting was the same thing that he had applied in politics — audacity.
Churchill was right on. Stuff like planning and research and reference and inspiration and time and the right mood aren’t worth a farthing compared to audacity. It’s through audacity that you commit and begin, and it’s through audacity that you find out what you are doing wrong and it’s through audacity that you correct it. Audacity allows you to be at ease with your inadequacy, safe in the knowledge that while things may not be perfect, they are at least under way.
PS: “We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint box. And, for this, Audacity is the ticket.” (Winston Churchill, from Painting as a Pastime)
Esoterica: Celine, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell anybody. Many, many times I’ve been the recipient of Lady Orpen’s audacity. Any time of day or night this beautiful, ghostly woman may roll up to my studio in her chauffeur-driven Silver Ghost Rolls. On a regular basis she helps herself to my brush. It’s a hot little thing between her and me. I need her. I love her. “Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Just get something down
by Brian Petroski, Schuylerville, NY, USA
Just get something on the surface immediately, it can always be changed… this is the beauty of painting! There are no mistakes, only new doors opened by “misplaced” marks. Don’t let your surface be “precious.” Treat it with the same freedom and looseness that you would a sheet of Lennox or rag paper. If your mind is too heavily loaded with “this is going to be my masterpiece,” then you are surely setting yourself up for a tight and contrived piece.
Just get rid of the white
by Cyril Satorsky
I couldn’t help but commiserate on the problem of being frozen before a blank white canvas — I have two ways of getting over this fix. First I get rid of the white. I put a thin “wash” of some warm color over the entire canvas, a mid-tone red or brown. This done I feel less intimidated by the “blank whiteness” of the surface which is too defiant for me. Next I put down a thinly brushed-in area of a color that I know I always use — usually a blue or green — in the knowledge that I can easily paint over it or change it if it doesn’t quite work out. If it doesn’t, I almost always have to work into it or make changes — but at least the ice is broken and I’m on my way.
Just get a Churchill book
by Ted Pankowski, Woodinville, WA, USA
I loved your quote from Winston Churchill. His little book, Painting as a Pastime was the inspiration for my own picking up of a paint box and brush and going at it. His example and words are still with me today. The quote I like best is: “Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.” For a marvelous coffee table book of Churchill’s paintings try Sir Winston Churchill, His Life and His Paintings by David Coombs with Minnie Churchill.
(RG note) Thanks, Ted. Sorry, but some leprechauns just couldn’t resist putting three “skis” in a row. Petroski, Satorsky and Pankowski should meet. To give you an idea how the blarney sets in when I pull things out of my head, you might take a look at a previous letter that I wrote about my hero Sir Winston Churchill. Andrew and I are constantly on the outlook for misinformation, and sometimes we take things off this website when one of us feels that it might be misleading. In this case we have left things standing as is — can’t do anything about emails that go out into the Diaspora — even though a date and names were wrong. It still seems like a good story. Funnily, as I write this, no one has written to complain this time. Oh, I know, it’s St Patricksky’s Day.
Just throw stuff at it
by Richard Hawk, San Diego, CA, USA
I tamed my personal art demon — the tendency to think about painting rather than actually painting — by throwing the stuff on the blank paper and telling myself I didn’t care about the end result. It was all about the process. This became my mantra. I believed it and was saved. At about the same time, people started buying my paintings. To this day, I envy artists who can methodically plan and execute, but for some of us ‘wild abandon’ is the only way to tap what we have inside. Audacity is more than just a good idea — it seems to be at the core of artistic expression, and probably has a lot to do with why we are attracted to art.
Try drawing and multi-tasking
by Carolyn Hutchings Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
To overcome the blank canvas terror, try drawing, preferably on the canvas. If you need to adjust a mark do so. If you draw with paint you’ve already broken one barrier — you already have paint on the palette. The process of drawing requires concentration and contemplation on the subject leading to a seamless transition to actually painting. Also, I try always to have at least three paintings in various stages of completion. When one is in problem-solving mode, or simply too wet to continue with, I work on another. I also try to begin new paintings before any of the three are completed. This helps maintain a mental flow — working on one piece, studying another.
No need for audacity
by Deborah L. Stephan, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I couldn’t disagree more with your letter. Maybe the lady asking for advice just had nothing to communicate. Painting is not a matter of audacity but of need. One does not wait for an inspiration but for a way and an opportunity to put an inspiration to a canvas. The wait might take months, weeks, days, who knows. Churchill’s advice sounds more suitable for a commercial enterprise and not for art. Art is passion and does not need a painful and time consuming ‘inspiration.’
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’m reading a book right now, No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty, the founder of the National Novel Writing Month. He defines a marvelous state of being, familiar to me in my painting as “exuberant imperfection.” I’m about to teach a six-week painting workshop at our local art museum, and I’m going to devote one class to the practice of exuberant imperfection. Most of my instruction will focus on all the pesky details necessary to handle oil paints successfully; blending, glazing, value, edges, etc., etc. However, as I read Baty’s book over breakfast this morning, his words “exuberant imperfection” jumped out at me, and I suddenly pictured a session with all my students using cheap paint and big brushes and covering large canvases with incomprehensible blobs. Because to succeed as an artist, knowledge and skill are important, but exuberance is more important. To quote Chris Baty, “…stay loose and flexible, and keep your expectations very low.
The beautiful flip side of inertia
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA
We need audacity in all areas of life. Too many of us become “prisoners” to our inertia of inactivity. As a software craftsman, I used to find myself mired in “creative avoidance” techniques, but at some point, as Nike rightly points out you must “Just Do It.” The same applies to physical exercise. For years, I whined like everyone else that I didn’t have time to exercise. But one day I decided to just start doing it. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Whether it’s painting, writing, creating software or exercise, if we can just get off our butts and take that first step, the second step is so much easier, the third step is easier still.
The beautiful flip side of inertia is that it can also work in our favor. Once you’ve developed your habits properly, it starts taking more effort to stop the process than to keep going. I’m sure painters who have experienced the “zone” can relate to this. I’ve actually worked on software projects for over 36 hours straight at times because I just couldn’t stop.
The Audacity Muse
by Jill Badonsky, San Diego, CA, USA
Audacity is the name of one of the modern day Muses from a book I wrote (The Nine Modern Day Muses). I updated the Muses from the Greek nine to meet the needs of the frazzled modern day mortal. All of the modern day Muses are actually creative principles in the guise of Muses. Many readers of the book have found the Muse Audacity to be essential to creative liberation — She is a freedom fighter. The word “audacity” is a synonym for boldness, daring and courage. Other synonyms include grit, guts and, appropriately — patience. The Muse Audacity is here to inspire these qualities in order to endow Mortals with the courage they need to be creatively liberated, and to be themselves without explanation or apology. We must be willing to fall flat on our faces. Fearlessly putting ourselves out there is simply a required part of the process. At the very least, it results in the gift of humility and, at best, the triumph of our human spirit.
(RG note) Thanks Jill. Jill Badonsky’s excellent book is The Nine Modern Day Muses.
Nothing to lose here
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA
My favorite painting emerged from salvaging of one that had gone very wrong in two previous tries, but before cutting the canvas out of the stretcher, I went at it with the attitude, “Well this is garbage so nothing to loose here.” The desire to make a masterpiece is more crippling than a steady stream of criticism. Most of your readers probably know about a slim little book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This is a real gem and will help nearly anyone alter the way they approach a blank canvas.
Falling in love
by Kim Denise, Hilton, NY, USA
It takes a special brand of outrageousness to approach the easel and presume to create. I get that butterflies-in-my-stomach sensation when I even start planning a painting; it has been known to keep me up at night. Some may say it’s a lack of confidence, a fear of failure, or just a drive for perfection that loads those first moments with such paralyzing anticipation… but I call it love. Remember falling in love? That swooning excitement that runs through the veins, making one feel almost ill? That sweet elixir that has us walking on air… but unable to so much as speak to the beloved? Oh yes, it’s love. As artists, we are privileged to fall in love over and over again. Each new piece bears the potential for that glorious intoxication — and for the paralysis of its glittering expectation.
Lifted out of the dumps
by Sharon Cole
For years I’ve relied on tight deadlines and looming mortgage payments to keep me motivated. But every now and then I’ll be in a lull with no commissions, no projects to work on and seemingly nothing on the horizon. That’s where I found myself in February this year and I was on the point of depression, wondering if my “career” was drying up. I wandered down to one of my favorite painting locales, a local tourist attraction called The Forks. It was late evening and there were crowds of people on the outdoor skating rink and along the paths. Everyone was bathed in a fuschia glow from the floodlights and, listening to the music and hearing the laughter, I felt my senses tingle. The next day I stretched the largest piece of paper that I had and splashed on that fuschia (audacity), looking to capture the crowds in motion and I kept working for two weeks until I had nothing left to say about the colour. It was a reminder that I’m not here to paint for profit, that the paintings originate in my soul.
Pump priming from abstract expression roots
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
Celine’s blank canvas can be so imposing on her painting talent that she needs great courage from her painter’s soul to get started. As a student during the era of the Abstract Expressionism (my heros: de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, and others), my instructor had us put our palette leftovers on the blank canvas. You can imagine the expression of needy depression-era students doing this activity. I continue this activity after sixty-eight years of preparing my canvas. Often the indistinct image of a model’s portrait is on the surface of the canvas and presents me with the task of making that face, image, recognizable. These toned canvases also can be basis for landscape, still-life and plein air studies. I do not need royalty showing up to get me started.
Quick underpainting in acrylic first
by Julie Nilsson, Ft. Collins, DC, USA
I prime my canvas in an underpainting of acrylic in the complementary color of what I will end up painting in oils. This is a very quick and dirty preliminary sketch followed by a quick application of colors in the complement. (It might help to keep a color wheel handy) I then revise the sketch, again with acrylic, usually in dark blue or brown. I check my values and do any quick revisions, again staying mostly in the acrylic complement. By then I’m primed and ready to dive in with the oils, feeling confident in the direction I’m going. I like to keep my work loose, so this also allows me to quickly get into that rhythm. If I keep my strokes “open” at the end, it gives a brilliance to the final piece with the acrylic underpainting sparkling through. I’ve found this process to be completely energizing, and rather than tip-toeing around that ominous white canvas, I’m invited to jump on in.
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Clark Botha who wrote, “I have the same problem as Celine. The way I started treating it was to start a new painting every time. I now have 6 unfinished paintings.”
And also Trina Covill of Thame, England who wrote, “Your pearls of wisdom were just what this tired, third year Fine Art student needed to hear! With only one term left of study, I am at the stage where I need to keep on track. I think that audacity is the key.”
And also Lady Jane Meyers> of Napa, CA, USA who wrote, “Lady Orpen visited me the other day and gave me the audacity to paint my first abstract landscape, then show it to the right people and it was chosen for the college’s summer catalogue cover! I am so excited she has a name and will be my friend forever!”
And also Lyn Cherry of Maryville, TN, USA who wrote, “My hope is that Sir Winston will come driving up to my house, with his trademark cigar, and help me remove ‘my black dog’ by slashing paint across my canvas! I will leave Lady Orpen to you!”
And also Carol Schinkel of Ft Collins, CO, USA who wrote, “Lady Orpen and Winston Churchill have just joined my guard against self-intimidation.”
And also B. J. Adams of Washington, DC, USA who wrote, “We all need a Lady Orpen and her audacity. I had a teacher who said, ‘Stop all the research, sketching, and thinking, and just jump in and do it.’ ”
And also Norman Nelson of Boise, ID, USA who wrote, “If you aren’t passionate about something it’s damn hard to be an artist. Charles M Russell admitted never running out of things to paint, the old West filled his soul and canvas.”
And also Carol Chretien of USA who wrote, “The opposite came to mind… how about when the ‘next great inspirations’ are standing in line (in your mind) shoving and pushing each other to move to the front of the line? Then I find myself staring at the canvas and wondering ‘who gets the first shot on this canvas?’ ”
And also Lloyd Misener of Moncton, NB, Canada who wrote, “A law of physics states that ‘a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.’ It is audacity that is that ‘outside force’ that gets a painter started.”