You’ve probably heard of the “bucket list.” It’s the list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. One of mine is painting a couple of peaks in the Argentine Andes from the Patagonian pampas at magic hour. I have other, more problematical items, including a short visit and few brief words with Paul Cezanne.
But what I’m talking about here is the “basket list” — often made on the run in a little notebook. It’s a list of things we need to try in our work. My own lists are most often of newish observations made in nature, or painterly ideas, but they can also include motifs and techniques noted in the work of others. I call it a basket list because if I don’t keep adding possibilities I might become a basket case. Several friends have kindly pointed out I already am.
In the full knowledge that we all have to create our own lists, here are a few items from recent sorties:
— Wheel tracks in snow with cast shadows of spindly trees lying across them. Three degrees of shadow.
— Foreground snow interspersed with patches of bare ground with green shoots sprouting. High-key green.
— A moldering, stone-based barn with horizontal and vertical boards in a variety of grays. Texture and impasto.
— The casual use of scumble to add freshness and “think-on-your-feet” sincerity. Be Velasquez.
— Truth imposed onto fantasy by a specific, abstract and unusual shape of shard ice. Strong gradation.
— Humble dwellings, trailer-park homes, with perplexed, uniquely twisted, grumbling personalities. Anthropomorphic.
While words are useful because they avoid specific copying and stimulate the imagination, a quick drawing is often necessary. FYI, we’ve put a few drawing examples at the bottom of this letter.
Each one of us looks out into the world and sees our next step. No matter how pedestrian the observations seem, we need to make them our own. It’s one of the great principles of making art: “Name it and claim it.”
PS: “I must see new things and investigate them. I want to taste dark water and see crackling trees and wild winds.” (Egon Schiele)
Esoterica: Inspiration is not something that floats in the air like some radical gas to be collected in fairy nets; it is more effectively generated by a basket of practical ploys. Further, for flawed individuals like ourselves, it’s easy to see something, have a vague idea that it’s something special, then pass by and forget it. The written list and the quick sketch nail fleeting wisdom to the intransigent brain. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” (Jack London)
In today’s basket
by James Keith Lanier, Los Angeles, CA, USA
At the top of my creative basket list is the desire to knock myself and others off their professed center and to disarm their self righteousness. Surprise and disarm constantly. As soon as a character thinks he “knows” something, strip it away, stomp it to dust. At least that’s my thought today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll expose beauty in unlikely places. Chasing it out of the dark with a stick! Luv the thoughts!
No notes in this basket
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I am not claiming that I am not a basket case, but I don’t make lists, notes and journals. I get overwhelmed with the very thought of having to do that. I understand that this works for many people and I have admired some beautiful artist’s notebooks, but I can’t do it. I get my ideas from visual images and I can only let them evolve (or not) in my mind to the point when I start to create the actual work. I probably lose some ideas, but I trust that there are many more where those came from and that the best ones get etched in my mind. I just have to make sure that I always have a lot of imagery available, from nature or photographs. I guess, there are all kinds of basket cases?
A basket of fun
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I am sure we all have our list and my list seems to get longer and longer — so many things to paint and so many things to learn. Last week I was looking at my list and I noticed there was one thing that kept screaming to be born so I decided to give it a try. What was it? It was to have fun and do chairs, yes, chairs! I love chairs and since I normally do abstracts, chairs seemed to be on the other end of the spectrum.
The most important thing about this exercise was to have fun! Not only can our basket list include observations, items and technique but it definitely should include fun. I call it the “Art of Playing” and to me having fun with our creativity makes us a better artist and a better person. I smiled the whole time I was painting these chairs.
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Perils of evaporating wisdom
by Darney Willis, Siloam Springs, AR, USA
King Solomon said wisdom is worth more than rubies. I too have learned when inspiration comes, whether ideas for painting, lyrics or music for a song or solutions for the deepest problems of the universe, it is wise to jot them down quickly or they will evaporate. However, sometimes the “jotting” becomes the problem. Why do lyrics like to show up when you’re driving down the highway? Years ago I thought I had a solution for capturing the music muse on the spot. When a tune came to me I would quickly find some simple recording device like a cheap boom box, plug in a tape and start singing. Once when I was following this simple procedure to capture an unusual tune that came into my head I inserted the tape, turned it on and another tune began to play and completely wiped the new tune from my mind.
Adding trust to the basket
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Perhaps one needs a combination of notes and sketches with trust that what you have in your consciousness can be accessed and entered into your field of creation at any time. This is mostly the way I operate. Of course when it comes to painting abstractly, that works pretty well. When I did more literal, expressive paintings of people who I knew, I would take notes when ideas arose or photograph something to get details I needed. Painting abstractly is about inventing things or approaches to express more of the unseen, what is underlying all experiences, and often that is tapped into with a quieting of the mind. I am gathering visual inspiration constantly and know it is showing up in my work often as a surprise element. I would say add the trust element to the basket along with all your beautiful notes.
Watercolors on the go
by Erik Speyer, Miami, FL, USA
Written notes don’t work for me. Instead, I carry a small watercolor palette, one brush, a collapsible cup, small water bottle, and a small w/c pad to capture a scene or even a moment. I made such notes last year in Alaska (from a moving cruise ship), in southern France (sitting quite still), and in New Mexico. I teach a watercolor class on just this subject: how to paint quickly while you are traveling with a minimum of fuss. The trick, of course, is to find a place to sit, or a wall to put your stuff on while you paint standing up. Painting sitting on rocks or other such surfaces makes you paint faster – and probably better. I painted a walled city scene near Siena standing in a muddy field, the water cup in my front pocket.
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Stop, back up!
by Bev Searle-Freeman, Savona, BC, Canada
Words are powerful for the imagination. Like reading a well-loved book through the descriptions of the characters, the places, the seasons, the smells our imaginations create, our own vision. It’s a unique experience for everyone. The same for painting. Each of us has our own unique way of portraying what we see. I use my digital camera instead of sketches to capture those things, benign to some, that stop me in my tracks. My husband has got used to me yelling, “Stop, back up!” when driving down a country road because I’ve seen something that caught my eye that I just have to take a photo of. It may just be a stream with reflected light, but it’s magical. I’m not sure I’d ever find the right words to describe what I see, though it might be an interesting process.
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Distracted by commissions
by Kat Corrigan, Minneapolis, MN, USA
I have always identified strongly with Egon Schiele since first encountering his electric vibrating paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts while working as a guard there in the early ’90s. Looking for inspiration has not been difficult for me. I love painting what I see, and I dearly love animals, always have. I was a geeky quirky kid when that wasn’t cool and found more in common with animals than I did with humans. I have since been fortunate enough to find a huge pile of geeky quirky people in Minneapolis who are immensely supportive and inspirational, and I feel I am moving in the right directions.
I do have somewhat of a question about inspiration, or rather, subject matter. It is hard to feel I am a serious painter when my favorite subjects are animals. However, I do love painting shadows and light, and your “basket list” of snow and shadows is precisely what I have been after lately. I guess I am hanging at that edge of doing commissions for money and getting sort of good at that, and still enjoying it, but how do I move it all up a notch and move from commissions to hanging work in a gallery? I do have time to paint some of my own work as well as the commissions, but they are small pieces. I want to paint larger, but that would take time away from the money-making commissions. So I guess my question is more about that cross-section of commission/gallery work. Is one separate from the other?
(RG note) Thanks, Kat. Commissions test your broader capabilities while pushing you further away from your self-directed vision. Take commissions with care and try to wean yourself from their promise of guaranteed cash.
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Collage as fine art
by Laura Lein-Svencner, IL, USA
Recently, I was sharing with someone about the medium of collage and they said they couldn’t find any books in the art section of the books store listed under collage, they had to go to the craft section. The National Collage Society in Ohio, which I am a member, will be celebrating 100 years as a fine art. Compared to oils and other mediums which have been around for much longer, this is a short period of time but people have been cutting, tearing and pasting papers to other surfaces for longer than that. So my question to our fellow artists is how does one help others see it as an art form? I also belong to the Midwest Collage Society and our mission as a group is to exhibit our work and educate our members about collage as a fine art. I really wish it would be taken more seriously in the world as a fine art. It’s everywhere these days but its reputation is so skewed it kind of nicks itself out. There are some of us that put a lot of extra into the work so it doesn’t look crafty and also teach it as an art form.
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by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
I’ve enjoyed my vicarious travels with you and had the opportunity do some of my own last fall. I had a little one-on-one time in the studio of our friend Cezanne, in Aix en Provence last October. Photos weren’t allowed inside the studio, but his presence was deeply felt and seeing the many props I recognized from his still life work right there was very moving, as was time spent on a side trip looking at Mt. St. Victoire. Thanks for sharing your basket list and your sketches. I love the opportunity to look over your shoulder!
acrylic painting 36 x 40 inches by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Pesach Ben Levi of Fayetteville, NY, USA, who wrote, “Trying to remember a good idea is like trying to catch a pollywog in a windstorm.”
And also Jane Sanford Harrison of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “I just heard from my sketchbook mentor with a hot tip of the day, but I told him I could only handle about one tip a month.”
And also Dr. N. W. Bridlington of London, UK, who wrote, “If I do sketches, that is as far as my art goes — just sketches.”
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