Two painters played chess on a foggy Friday. “Decisions, decisions, it’s like painting — one damn thing after the other,” said my opponent, twirling the hair on the back of his head and tinkling the ice in his Aberlour Single Malt. Jack is fast at art but slow at chess. I had plenty of time to stir the fireplace.
You march the pieces across the board — each piece with its built-in limitations. Sometimes you open boldly and aggressively. At other times you open timidly, testing the limitations of your cleverness. Early moves dictate later ones. Sometimes, when you can’t think of any move at all, you just move up a pawn. Other times, you make a sacrifice, even of a capital piece, just to prove up something else you have in mind. All the time you’re keeping an eye out for the possibility of scoring. And while each game has its satisfactions as well as its disappointments, there’s always the possibility that you can still start another.
“What are you doing?” asked Jack. “I made my move ages ago.”
“Notes,” I said.
There is an opening, a middle game and an endgame.
Some decisions are merely guesses with high hopes.
There are short-term tactics and long-term goals.
You commit and then you have to correct.
Well played, there’s a nice feeling of yin and yang.
Beautifully played, there’s real rhythm and flow.
As you go, you learn of opportunities and potentials.
The big picture is more important than the little one.
Both intention and reaction play their part.
The middle game is where you get serious.
One must not be too confident or overdo the end game.
There is great comfort in knowing it’s only a game.
Jack, who had been clearing the way for his rook to prevent my queen outing, shifted a bishop right across. “Checkmate,” he said quietly, in that tasteful, understated way of his.
“Chess is too difficult; let’s go paint,” I said, and we did.
PS: “Theoreticians describe many elementary tactical methods and typical maneuvers, for example pins, forks, skewers, batteries, discovered attacks, zwischenzugs, deflections, decoys, sacrifices, underminings, overloadings, and interferences.” (Wikipedia article on the game of chess)
Esoterica: A painting requires conscious strategy as well as subconscious action and reaction. This is one of the reasons abstract paintings are so energizing to paint and so pleasurable to look at. Freed from the constraints often brought on by reference or other preconceived material, the hand and mind wander, moving here and there like a bee at flowers. Jack and I are having a tournament. For those who may be wondering what a zwischenzug is, it’s a German term for an intermediate move — not the expected move or tactic but the insertion of another, unexpected one. “Nice zwischenzug there,” says Jack.
Anyone for Scrabble?
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
That is a great analogy for both, a game and painting. I feel the notes paragraph fits my Scrabble games as well as my artwork right to a seven letter word and a possible end win. However, as in my art there may be all vowels and worse, mostly U’s and I’s, and that really slows the end success. It is those end game successes that make me struggle each day with the middle game without those descriptive tactical words but always wishing for a double triple seven letter word.
The power of sacrifice
by Jo Vander Woude, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
You could write an entire letter on your comment, “Other times, you make a sacrifice, even of a capital piece, just to prove up something else you have in mind.” It brings to mind the many times I have fallen in love with a particular passage in a painting and struggled with the fact that it must go or be changed. It is painful to lose a passage that stands out from one’s usual work for the greater good of a painting. Thanks again Robert for a letter full of precious nuggets!
Rhythm and flow
by G Tintner, Germany
To watch Kasparov or Viswanathan Anand play an untimed game is to watch a harmonic back and forth that is mesmerizing. This is particularly true in the opening, less so in the middle game and least in the end game. And so it is with painting. The rhythm and flow that was in the beginning is gone by the final strokes when the mind has to pause to make well-thought-out and less flamboyant moves. This may be part of my problem.
Taking back your moves
by Henry K. Mills, NY, USA
As a writer I find your chess metaphor holds up. One can only wonder where the words come from and the subconscious strategy that put them on their squares. The nice thing about writing, however, which may not be true for painting or some of the other arts like music, is that if you make a poor move you soon spot it and sooner or later you can take it back. Often, in writing, your poor moves and poor game outcome are not evident until the end. In the game of writing one can always replay. Writing is mostly replaying the game.
by L. Anne McClelland, Mountain View, AB, Canada
I like to envision my painting process and find that, although each image seems to take a different path and process, many of them are a little like surfing. Sometimes there’s no point in putting out to sea – flat water abounds — so I spend my days varnishing or stretching or preparing surfaces. Polishing the board between promising seas. If the surf is UP, you paddle out against the water searching for the moment that the image begins to form. With any luck — the middle of the process is being watchful and keeping your balance, practicing your craft — always looking to which direction will give the best ride. When the real excitement happens you’re gliding along quickly and riding the wave. As the shoreline approaches the real skill is knowing when to slip gracefully sideways and leave well enough alone. It’s important to dismount before the ordered form of the wave evolves into the chaos of a breaker.
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The noble art of teaching
by Carrie Finnestead, Manchester, MO, USA
“Since when did a teaching license give one the supposed power of Napoleon? We are not in the classroom to make others feel small or unwanted. We are there to lift them to do great things, by our words and actions!” (Carrie Finnestead)
I don’t usually toot my own horn, but as a High School art teacher, I am often driven to think about the days’ events and remark on my Facebook page. I posted this yesterday as a random thought and I received an overwhelming response from friends. I thought that I would share.
I was prompted to post this as I am often the sole supporter of kids that have no support. These wonderful young people share their life stories with me where sometimes they have never shared with anyone. A coach said something so abhorrent to a child that I was moved to quote my thoughts. As a working artist, I find the wonder and joy in teaching that had gone lacking when I was solely a freelancer. These kids spark a kindred feeling as we search for our place in this world as creators and people of this planet. For this I am eternally grateful. I wish all teachers knew their power and used it like the super heroes they can actually be! I often read your letters to my kids.
“The object of teaching a child is to enable the child to get along without the teacher. We need to educate our children for their future, not our past…” (Arthur C. Clarke)
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Love across the water
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
You reminded me of many chess games I played with my late grandfather. Chess used to be very important where I came from and we kids had tournaments to which we traveled and competed. There was a chess Olympiad in my home city where I met kids from countries I never heard of before. Hundreds of any shape, color, language you could imagine — but all crazy about chess. I remember a game between a poor-looking girl from Albania playing an Italian girl in designer clothes. Children notice those things — I don’t remember who won. The whole thing was an amazing event.
My grandpa never used the word zwischenzug even though he spoke German and liked dropping funny sounding German words. He had a whole other lingo when we played chess or cards. The one expression I remember was “love across the water” — he never explained what that meant, perhaps a promising opportunity which was not to be?
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Emotion overrules technique
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Last week I saw a terrific film called Between the Folds that was about origami and how contemporary artists had taken this art form of folding paper to amazing heights. The film focused on a number of artists whose backgrounds, focus and philosophies varied wildly within the parameters of this art form. There were the theorists, the technicians, the way-out-there mathematicians, the romantics, etc. I highly recommend this film to you because it mirrors many of the issues and discussions about art on the Painter’s Keys. I found myself drawn to the philosophies of one veteran French artist, Eric Joisel. He lamented how the young folders were consumed by advancing the techniques with computer modeling and other methods to produce works of dizzying complexity and realism. His feeling about technique made great sense to me. He said that he mastered technique so he could strip it away to get to the point where his work captured the ’emotion’ he sought to convey. The emotion at the core of each of his works was what he was after. The technique for him was just the vehicle for getting to the emotion. This idea works for me. Without the emotion a painting is merely clever or an excuse for showing off obsessive technique or an expression of theory beyond the scope of the visual realm of painting. My feeling is that in many of the great master’s works, technique is purposely hidden and restrained. It’s like a wild English perennial cottage garden. Great thought and planning produce the wonderful look of freedom of color and texture; that is the end result. Great artists don’t need to show you how great they are. You sense the skill in the choices they have made in their painting.
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The lure of abstraction
by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA
The security of staying in my own game has been both rewarding and stifling at the same time. For years I found myself daydreaming about moving to abstraction, thinking all the while of how to transition what I was doing, to another approach, and still have it make sense to me. Finally, I realized that the bridge does not exist. It can’t translate seamlessly. It is what it is. . .a quantum leap. And the other side of the road is unknown territory. But the freedom of no preconceived ideas and the energy that happens when colors and spaces combine makes it worthwhile. I asked a man I know, who never liked abstract art, who never got what the deal about non-representational painting was about, to look at one of my paintings and tell me what his initial impression was. Surprisingly, more to him than to me, it did evoke a response in him. Enough to decide to name it in a pretty cool way. That told me, and him, that even those who resist abstraction are moved in some unknown way. If all it evokes in another person is a memory, a feeling or a sensitivity out of that person’s normal realm of being and thinking, the painting has done its job. It will be exciting to jump to the other side.
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Art is a story
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Painting is not a game of chess. Painting, while not simply a game, is perhaps like a game, but with no opponent; or perhaps art is a game that one plays with one’s self. But painting is not a game in any typical sense. A painter’s job is to create a metaphor. This is not an easy thing to explain, but it is true. This gets to the question of, “What are you saying?”
Are you saying that this chunk of a landscape is very pretty? That this pile of a still life is beautiful? This is all well and good. My question here is very simple. What are you saying? Where are the metaphors? No one will ever be a great artist without creating a new metaphor. Forgive me for saying this essential truth. Art is, and has always been, about a new metaphor. This goes back to the caves. No challenge has ever been so extreme for the human race. We are not doing a very good job here on earth, as people or as artists. We must make new metaphors.
Are we going to paint lazy, polluted streams? Well, guess what? Your art will only be a metaphor. That is what art is, eventually. A story.
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pastel painting by Gary Gumble
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 Frank Gordon of Leeds, UK, who wrote, “Ice in Aberlour? Is the man mad? Water — yes. Ice — never!”
(RG note) Thanks, Frank, and everyone else who wrote about the matter of ice in Scotch. I received more criticism for mentioning Jack’s preferences than almost anything I’ve ever written. Actually, this event happened many years ago. Jack Hambleton was a terrific friend and when he was alive ice was considered less reprehensible. I generally took Scotch neat, (still do) and he thought that straight up was going too far. He had other peculiarities as well. He was a darned fine painter and a brilliant entrepreneur, but he was a socialist. He could sometimes be quieted down with games or painting, but he often disturbed the silence by humming Bolshevic songs. I miss him.
And also Ellen Key of Dallas, TX, USA, who wrote, “I often compare chess to driving on the freeway. If you study the cars with the intent of determining their next move, it’s amazing what you can predict! Except they are moving many times faster than that rook that might take one’s self by surprise!”
And also Paula Timpson who wrote this poem:
“Chess has limitations, as does life,
painting and writing
Open hearts to freedom — that’s why they’re both
Reality, Dreaming — Love.”
Enjoy the past comments below for An anatomy of creative decisions…