Dear Artist,

Three types of clutter invade painting: too many design elements, tightness and over-stroking. Cull compositional elements or zoom in to simplify and strengthen design. Try to focus on the features that, when combined, excite you most. Tightness is a product of fear — fear of getting into a colour mess or losing control of the composition. It creeps in with insidious ease when using a too-small or same-size brush throughout, and when over-rendering, over-detailing, over-focusing or hanging onto things. Instead, look for opportunities for obfuscation, mystery, paucity, joy and other painterly moments. Over-stroking diminishes the value of the strokes that count. Stroking for its own sake feels automatic and soothing, but it violates the freshness and perfection of original marks.


“Sumi-e is painting what is not there.”
Chiura Obata (1885 – 1975)
Japanese American artist and teacher

This overall clutter denies a painting its magic and “painting-ness.” Can you create with less? Is there space to rest and contemplate? Here are a few ideas:  

Live on fewer strokes.
Leave your strokes alone.
Mix, then stroke.
Mix mid-stroke.
Let your strokes tell the story.  

In Japanese tidiness-guru Marie Kondo’s handbook The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she prescribes a way of life based on the principle of  tokimeku, which means “flutter,” “throb,” or “palpitate.” She instructs would-be-tidy people to handle their possessions individually and ask, “Does this spark joy?” “If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it,” writes Kondo. “This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.” “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”


Brush painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799)



PS: “Clutter has only two possible causes: too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong.” (Marie Kondo)  

Esoterica: Kondo says the process of assessing how you feel about your things is really about examining your inner self and is a rite of passage to a new life. In painting, study in-person the work of an artist you admire. Can you get your nose up to an original stroke? Can you feel its freshness? Is there mixing in there? In the presence of these strokes, do you feel a-flutter? As a little girl in Japan, Kondo loved tidying up and yearned for an imaginary job at school called “book shelf manager.” Later, she spent five years as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine. One day, she had an epiphany about her first love. “Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.”


Charcoal sketch
by Casey Baugh
contemporary artist, New York City

Named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2015, Marie Kondo has become a global tidying sensation. If you’d like her to come to your house to help find joy sparkers, there’s a 3-month waiting list.

“Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned that it had hurt someone? At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks.” (Marie Kondo)



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