Every few days someone asks me to send a personalized checklist of things they need to do and think about while they’re painting. As everyone’s creative concept is really quite different, this is a tough order. Even though I may have looked at the work, their continued flourishing depends on a unique vision and a sense of individual entitlement. We are all specialists of some sort, and specialization demands we make our own checklists. In our game there’s no silver bullet, no one size fits all.
Here’s a word for your own checklist — and how to make one. Checklists are not recipes. They’re self-generated lists of thoughts and ideas that just might add strength, value and importance to the work. Based on what one knows about the better works of others, the vastness of human potential, and one’s own personal ideals, it’s an elevated to-do list.
Contemplation is the key. The artist arrests herself at any stage in a work’s progress. Short notes clarify processes and indicate directions with further potential. It’s a temporary sidestep from the “zone.” For those with this kind of intuition, it’s a self-taught facility to be both in the flow and observing the flow. Practitioners can have the eerie feeling of watching themselves work.
Before anyone phones those guys in the white coats, here are some examples from my current list:
Paint with your eyes
Think what things might become
Let the brush talk
Be in love with change
Find the elegance
See the big picture
Make it a pattern
Identify the extraordinary
Don’t get gauche
Keep it fresh at all costs
Take your time
This stuff is all about a personal search for truth within one’s own vision. Getting there is half the fun. If it were a recipe, everyone’s truth might be the same. Only you can make your checklist and join the search for your own truth. Start your checklist now.
PS: “Between truth and the search for truth, I choose the second.” (Bernard Berenson)
Esoterica: When I was much more immature I used to hand out checklists with abandon. Several years ago a friend made me aware of a long-lost checklist that I’d dropped off before the Internet Age. “I’ve used it every day,” she told me. It reads, “Compositional integrity, sound craftsmanship, colour sensitivity, creative interest, design control, gestural momentum, artistic flair, expressive intensity, professional touch, surface quality, intellectual depth, visual distinction, technical challenge and artistic audacity.” If you’re interested, you can get an explanation of these “Fourteen Points” by going to the clickback Ignorance..
Using lists for successful painting
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
A mental list occurs during my involvement with the piece. If all is going well I am functioning with what would appear to be both sides of my brain — the more emotive side as well as the practical and technical. While I am in this place it feels like balancing on a tight wire with ease and knowing. Miraculous actually, because I am never totally sure when and how this happens, but something within me takes over. My check list includes: Passion, Power, Brains, Courage and Love. When I finish a piece and think about my list, if it is a successful painting it usually fits the bill. I have found this list all encompassing. Others like the “Big MAC” theory (Mystery, Ambiguity and Contrast), which I tried for a while sometimes feels forced, but still have merit. But as you said it is a personal list. You know when you are satisfied.
Sour grapes syndrome
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Isaacs’ letter in the last clickback contains some explosive phrasing which I feel I must comment on. This good lady speaks of “supermarket” painting and “worthless” pieces of work as opposed by that “we professionals” do. This is the “sour grapes syndrome” (abbrev. SGS) that causes less lucky or less successful artists to believe that their paintings are being ousted from the market by these wall decorations. SGS is a plague, of course. It besets us all now and again, such as when we visit a gallery and it is festooned with dozens of paintings we could (and should?) have painted ourselves. But this is not a reason for denigrating what is there. It’s the way the cookie crumbles.
by Jackie Coleman, London, UK
Regarding “Practitioners can have the eerie feeling of watching themselves work,” I get this feeling! When I sit down I feel awkward and am too much in my head and thoughts (this sounds crazy),then I pick up the pencil or brush and just make myself start. Before long a feeling comes over me that the brush or pencil is doing its own thing — that’s not quite right, it’s difficult to explain, but I feel as though I relax into working without getting bogged down with conscious thought. It flows. It is my right-brain being allowed free reign while the left takes a break. I think the feeling you describe comes from the left brain, which is indeed just watching the art being created. Children do this naturally — if you ever watched a child making something, they are totally absorbed and in the moment. It’s a shame that we tend to lose this ability as we get older, probably because we get told so often that we must concentrate. It’s great to let the inner child out to play.
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
I love the checklist and the summary of the 14 points ! To get me there, I have one to add: “Show up and do the work!” It is from Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way. Tied to this is her other one: “I’ll take care of the quantity, God will take care of the quality!” This, to me, seems to smack of “Anything goes,” I don’t have to worry about knowing anything. Quite the reverse! Showing up and turning out the work day after day, and then using God’s (the Spirit’s, the Muse’s) help and my own knowledge is the idea. But, if I get bogged down in “what I know” and “what I don’t know,” I’ll never get to the cycle of growth that is excellence. As I show up at my easel today, I’ll tack up your lists for reminders of that quality!
Uncluttering the mind
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
The first item on your check list is for me the most significant… “Paint with your eyes.” I would add ‘and think with your eyes.’ To be involved with more than that while painting clutters the mind. When you let your eyes guide your hand you are in direct contact with your intuition, everything you know and have seen becomes a willing participant, and you are in “the zone.” Certainly the mind can jump around all over the place while at the easel, therefore, don’t clutter it up with more thought. When it comes to choosing a color, where to put it, or how much of it to use and what “touch” to give it, that should be determined by the eye. The visual world is silent. You don’t need words or thought to observe it. But you do need to direct your eyes to see it. You need to “take your time,” as suggested by the last item on your check list.
Daily doing of art
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada
Great checklist. I just came back from visiting the exhibition “Once Upon a Time Walt Disney — the sources of inspiration for the Disney studios” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (which also was at Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris last year).
One thing became clear to me about the figurative artists hired by Disney. They were trained in the classic beaux-arts tradition and they drew day after day. They produced superb work. There is no secret to getting better in order to produce great works. All the courses, books, tricks and check lists will surely help, but it is in the daily doing of art that one improves and succeeds.
The pen and the brush
by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada
There’s an interesting dual list in a book called Brush Mind, by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Mr. Tanahashi does Japanese brush painting inspired by Zen Buddhism, often using ink and a huge mop which he slathers over long sheets of paper stretched across his studio floor. He has “abandoned concrete forms, colors, shades, nuance, refinement, and the attempt to please, as well as the use of a seal or signature.” In his list he compares the pen (traditional?) paradigm to the brush paradigm. By conditioning I’m a ‘pen’ painter, struggling to become more of a ‘brush’ artist so I have this pinned on the studio wall.
Exiled from the work
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I know exactly what you mean by the eerie feeling of watching oneself at work. While away from my home studio for a few months I had started two paintings, working in a windowless concrete storage space. When I returned, the paintings sat there on their easels like dead animals. My galleries were asking for work and I had nothing. It wasn’t a voluntary temporary stepping out of the “zone,” as you suggest, a deliberate arrest from the work’s progress. Rather it was like I had been exiled from it. Permanently. The flow had become stagnant, and it lasted several weeks. I finally decided these images were not only dead but starting to rot, so I began to paint them out — but then the destructive act of negating the images became a creative act of transforming them into something entirely new and unexpected. It wasn’t a premeditated thing, just playing around with imagery from something I heard on the radio about the death of John Keats in the first painting, and in the second from a vision out of nowhere of a black crow turning into a negative of itself — a white one. The new imagery didn’t destroy the old as I had intended, but merged with it and transformed it into some entirely new and surprising to me. I think when I get stuck it’s because I have ceased to be surprised by own work. For me, it’s not so much sticking to a checklist as surrendering to that other self, allowing that other self to reveal itself. Felix Mendelssohn had a kind of checklist that works for me: “This is what I think art is and what I demand of it: that it pull everyone in, that it show one person another’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, that it throw open the window of the soul.”
Abolishing artistic restrictions
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
I love checklists of all sorts, but I think that they can be tricky business when exchanged from one artist to another. I am pleased to see the transformation of your own checklist from one that was pretty academic and didactic to one that is certainly more philosophical and open-ended. I would agree that the world at large looks to artists for these kinds of lists when they begin their own artistic explorations, particularly in a classroom or workshop.
After a couple years of teaching classroom workshop sessions I noticed that, after my introduction to the project, the hands would immediately raise up with these exact words: “Are we allowed to…” The more tightly governed the class was by their teacher, the more the children would ask. The so-called High Achievers were the chock full of “are we allowed to…” Obviously, the word “allowed” is the stickler here and has no business in creative expression. The “rule” I now make after my introduction to the project is, “You are not allowed to ask me any questions.” Once they get over the strangeness of not being totally directed in every part of their school day, the beauty, creativity and inspired expression begins to flow…
Making checklists subconscious
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
I find the concept of “checklists” mutually exclusive with creativity and/or the act of doing art, i.e. any act of painting, drawing, sculpting. I subscribe to the right-brain / left-brain concept where doing art is a function of the non-verbal right brain. Checklists involve words, and language is a left-brain activity. If you’re doing art, you can’t think in words because you’re in your right brain. If you’re thinking words and remembering checklists, you’re not there. Checklists are just another aspect of rules. You learn them verbally, think about them, understand what they mean, and then absorb them. They are tools/skills that must become instinctive. When you start to paint/sculpt/draw/whatever, they must not be consciously present. Notice I do not say that rules and checklists are a waste of time or an obstacle to creativity. Quite the opposite! I learned long ago that the foundation of creativity is discipline.
Let the heart take over
by Carole Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
I’m glad you’re willing to share the wisdom of maturity and the contrasting lists. Your work ethic and experience has taken you to a fabulous place… right into your heart. The head has to be engaged for a time, and then the heart takes the driver’s seat, or lets ‘something else’ do the driving and you go along for the ride! I love the quotes from Marry your Muse by Jan Phillips: “Art is a collaboration between God and artist, and the less the artist does, the better.” (Andre Gide) “‘When Spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” (Leonardo da Vinci) and “I dream my painting and paint my dream.” (Vincent Van Gogh)
by Don Getz, Salem, OH, USA
I ask for your opinion or advice regarding artists’ integrity, and I get a ‘checklist’? This is a matter of great concern with a great number of artists in this day and age, what with digital art floating around and giclees being entered in juried competitions.
(RG note) Thanks, Don. Don is irked that artists copy the work of others and put it into competitions, galleries, shows and even have it reproduced. I’ve tackled the insidious problem before and I’m afraid I don’t have a general answer that might make everything rosy again. According to some copyright lawyers we may be witnessing the end of copyright. The digital revolution is a handmaiden to this destruction. All of us who teach, mentor, display, demo, blog and publish set ourselves up for the infringement of our work. Unfortunately, all cases must be fought on an individual basis, by protest, public embarrassment or legal action.
Artists–beware of bad galleries
by Brittani Faulkes, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Regarding your recent correspondence about working with galleries, there can be downsides to a gallery relationship. Here in Vancouver artists have had a particularly vexing time with a series of galleries run by one Sergio Patrich. The situation has heated up again with Patrich’s recent unannounced exit from the gallery business and the disappearance of the artists’ work. He has not resurfaced. The local and national press have been researching, interviewing and preparing to publish articles about Sergio Patrich’s history of deceiving artists and business owners. And now it looks like we have a lawyer who wants to take this further on a larger scale, ie: a class action suit.
(RG note) Thanks, Brittani. I, too, have had characters like himone, who also had no apparent assets, had put all his property into his son’s name, but when we put a lien on the son’s house we suddenly got paid in full. Other artists weren’t so lucky, but the guy is thankfully out of the business, now selling used cars as far as I know, and will never get back in. Ten artists and their goons marching in and just taking the work is a good ploy, but the Internet is now a useful vehicle to keep undesirable people out of the art business. Let artists be on notice these sorts of incompetent dealers exist and need to be closed down. In the case of Patrich, artists and others have banded together in a valuable website stating their experiences. It’s a system that ought to be carried out in other areas where the problem exists. It’s well worth looking at.
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 Vittorio (Vita) of Sutton, QC, Canada who wrote, “The search for truth has always taken me on perilous paths.”
And also Moin of Karachi, Pakistan who wrote, “In my checklist besides others I keep music as an essential ingredient, especially when painting / working indoors.”
And also Paol Serret of Mullumbimby, Australia who wrote, “Everyone has their own way to paint. For me, it is like juggling. The more you juggle, the better you become. Like a circus act there is always a risk, the thought, the canvas, the brush, the paint, the colours, the lines, the space, a universe only you can obtain.”
And also Barbara Moxsom who wrote, “Until recently I didn’t have anyone to share my thoughts and feelings regarding artwork. In many ways I guess I was paranoid of being the odd one, I could sense other people’s uneasiness when I would talk ‘art.’ ”
And also Gail Ribas of SW Harbor, ME, USA who wrote, “In regards to Robert Ault’s letter that stated, ‘There is currently a bill in congress that would change the IRS code to give artists full market value credit.’ Please note that this bill refers to only paintings donated to non-profit organizations.”
And also Kittie Beletic of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I’ve found old lists throughout the years. I re-read them and I am immediately back in the state of mind I was when I wrote them. Most often, I can see how far I’ve grown.”
And also Lillian Wu who asked, “What does ‘don’t get gauche’ mean. I hope this is not a silly question.”
(RG note) Thanks, Lillian. There are no silly questions. “Gauche” means “left” in French, and has come to mean crude, showy and less than tasteful in English. A gauche person would be considered tactless, without ease or grace, and socially awkward.
Enjoy the past comments below for Checklist…