Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote, Write a thousand words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer. Social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls it the 10,000 hours rule. American radio host and producer Ira Glass reminds us that it’s grit that bridges the gap between ambition and greatness. In the studio, Dad taught me to keep “blanks” stacked in tall, primed piles beside the easel, inviting me to play and to do the work.
For any artist, a few million miles on the road to mastery is going to produce a wipeout (or two)–false starts, fits of panic, excessive noodling, dead-ends, stubbornness, box canyons, distraction attacks, alter ego follies, narcolepsy, bad vibes, too tight, too loose, too precious or too casual. Tear-stained flops are necessary. They’re the gift you give yourself when you’re willing to fly.
A month ago Dad wrote to tell you that we had begun the act of culling his painting archive. It had only been a year since he’d written to remind you, and to offer suggestions on how to purge. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
“Sit beside a cheery fireplace on a cool October night and feed the flames. Scotch helps. Those flames are hungry for your poorer efforts and, while the loss of them may be at first painful to you, the lick and wither of their demise will be your cathartic event.”
Last Saturday, in need of a hotter venue, we loaded our panel van to the skylight, both my stuff and his, and followed a dewy road to a friend’s place deep in the country where bonfires are tolerated. With the witness of sympathetic friends, canvas by canvas, we committed offenders to the pyre. Curiously, a dozen or so were pulled at the last minute. Dorothy wandered back and forth, sniffing the wild mushrooms, giving the conflagration a wide berth. At one point she gave an approving paw to a canvas that got to stay in the van. “That has hope, “I heard Dad say.
For artists willing to feed the flames, there’s an exhilarating relief that passes all understanding. After a life, (or even a part of a life) devoted to grit and play, it’s what’s left that counts. Scotch time.
PS: “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: We all know that many artists don’t demand such rigorous control. Many, encouraged by libertines like my father when he’s in his more goofy moods, know that it’s in the play itself that true creative joy happens. Nevertheless, those who might strive for superior outcomes need to take an extra step. They need to apply the added value of a discriminating mind. It seems that control is the vital second half of personal creative evolution. It’s what Richard Bach was talking about when he said, “A professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
A country bonfire
Painting buddy’s revelation
by Stan Moeller, York, ME, USA
A few years back I was out painting with a former student turned painting buddy, and somehow the conversation went to the amount of paintings I tossed or reused. He said, “I have never thrown away a painting… I have everything I have ever painted.”
I told him I probably discarded or painted over at least 20-30% of my paintings and that I constantly go through old paintings and decide to toss, fix, or sand down and re-use… that if I was hit by a bus tonight, there are paintings in my studio that I do not want out there in the world.
He got a little wide eyed and told me later he went home that night and started going through paintings for the bonfire.
My favorite method (I usually paint on panels, with gesso or mounted linen), is to use an orbital sander hooked up to my Shop Vac and smooth out the bumps. It makes my favorite painting surface and I use them for studies or finished paintings. Sometimes I leave traces of the old painting and it adds to the piece.
There are 4 comments for Painting buddy’s revelation by Stan Moeller
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Having read and appreciated these letters for years, it is difficult to just come right out and say that this “Country Bonfire,” advice is pure bunk. Obviously, it is not good for the environment, and worse it is a complete waste of materials. It is self-indulgent and suggests that the artist always knows best, which is probably just not true. In many, if not most, cases the artist is too close to his or her own work to see it! If the artist is the supreme judge of good and bad, why are the great one-person exhibitions curated? What museum lets the artists self-select a retrospective?
Here is a brief list of better things to do with a failed painting:
— Fix it.
— Re-prime it and try again.
— Re-prime it and donate the canvas to a school.
— Flip and re-stretch the canvas.
— Sand the painting surface.
— Tear up the canvasses and make a collage.
— Select the “good” parts and make several smaller paintings.
Any of these suggestions is far better than a bonfire. That fire would seem ridiculous to you, as well, if you had ever struggled with poverty, or tried to teach art in a ghetto school. Your father has done so much to foster creativity around the world, it is sad to me that he, or you, would suggest the burning of canvas and stretcher bars as some sort of catharsis. It was a failure of creativity that lit your fire. I write this with all respect, a deep sadness and my condolences for your situation.
There are 6 comments for Failure options by Peter Brown
Not by hand but by heart
by Tom Johnsen, CA, USA
I am so sorry to learn of your cancer and I am very much impressed by your resolve and courage to continue “playing.” That definitely is the real goal of life and one great source of learning. It is “criminal” that we should stop in ourselves and others. Fortunately, it is not always successful. I’ve been a reader for decades now and have found it invigorating and enlightening. It’s certainly helpful in my job as an art teacher. I’ve always looked forward to your letters. I’ve always taken your advice when it comes to “quitting”: don’t.
Sometimes the art you create is not what your hands do. It’s what your heart does.
Ditch the smoke
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
3 WORDS: RECYCLE, RECYCLE, RECYCLE Sara, as cathartic as you and your dad’s sacrificial pyres may be, the same “exhilarating relief” can be achieved with a broad brush and a bucket of gesso, thereby adding to your stack of blanks, providing more opportunities for creative joy at less expense and smoke. Even for those who (unlike moi) can afford that kind of waste, on an over-populated planet with shrinking resources, it’s not a good idea.
Having said that, I must admit that I am not good at purging. Like Picasso, I save every scribble, suspecting that even my failures may be masterpieces! LOL
P.S. In my humble opinion, Robert should be painting more and burning less. Late works are always the best. Beethoven, Rembrandt, etc. Also, creativity has a much better record at life extension than chemo.
There are 3 comments for Ditch the smoke by Warren Criswell
Shoot and shoot and shoot!
by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA
The bonfire is cathartic right now for you and I cheer you for it! I am totally non-violent but when my husband died suddenly and too young and the 21-guns sounded at the funeral, I wanted those guns to shoot and shoot and shoot… such things really help relieve the rage when such times are new.
The poet Dylan Thomas tells us, “Go not softly into that dark night” — yell and roar and object about having to part with the deliciousness of life – life is that gift!
But when you get the top off the emotions a bit, slice the canvas into artsy bookmarks instead and let them fundraise for the end to prostate cancer. My late husband was Welcome — the human genome people — they will have an injection for it in 20 years or less.
Believe and help.
I sold and donated a handful of happy holiday slashed canvas bookmarks at a huge holiday kickoff event last weekend and they looked great and are quality material — put a splash of gold marker or your signature or the “v” of a bird in flight on each one.
There is 1 comment for Shoot and shoot and shoot! by Elle Fagan
Ruthless and unforgiving cull
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
As bonfires are illegal in our state, I do the next best thing. I cull my inventory periodically. I am ruthless and unforgiving in this process. If I look at a piece, which has been around too long, I critique it in several ways. 1- Can I rework it? 2- Is it saying anything to me? Would I want anyone to see it after I go? Can it be considered one of the best I’ve done?
I go through these and other questions until I make a determination whether to hold on to it longer or put in an undecided pile and finally remove it from the stretchers, tear it up and dump.
The one thing I do is photograph it and add it to a file. I do this for many reasons. One of which is to see where I was then, what I once considered doing and should I revisit the theme again.
I am not one to fall in love with everything I paint. I learned not to do this years ago. I realized there is a process to painting. Some pieces are a process to a finished work. Some are dalliances. Things I wouldn’t consider as part of my life’s work. There are studies for works already completed. Some I keep as a remembrance of where I started, some just because they have a fresh feel that I try and remember to bring to the finished works.
By doing it this way, I save a possibly savable work from being tossed out.
Enjoy the past comments below for A country bonfire…
Featured Workshop: Jane Romanishko
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 Susie Cipolla of Whistler, BC, Canada, who wrote, “One of the many jewels of information I’ve received from Robert is, “You are only as good as your worst painting,” so I routinely destroy my worst stuff. Once a month I take an exacto-knife to one or two paintings and move on.”
And also Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I can tell you first hand that the alternative — sitting by the fire on a cool October night with a Scotch, regretting that you do not have a pile to feed the flame or any canvases at all to show for your time — is not desirable.”