Out in the golden stubble, under a prairie sky, there’s no one in sight — just Airedale Dorothy and a few summer crickets. This evening the universe is nearly silent — save for a distant train calling its moves from somewhere to somewhere. Up close and personal, there’s no clutter. Here, a mind may be clear for the next work — work that may have nothing whatsoever to do with where one is standing.
Work zones are preceded by times of dreaming, searching, preparation and anticipation. These periods can last for years, months, or minutes. For many of us, the preliminaries are at least as important as the work zones that follow. Reviewing the nature and frequency of one’s own creative foreplay is a valuable exercise. Avoidance activities and delay ploys need to be spotted and winnowed out. Because of the gray area between work avoidance and foreplay proper, one needs to know the main types:
Passive foreplay is relaxed — a Zen-like calm before a storm of activity. At its core is trust. Knowing that you’ve done it before is exciting and allows you to be blessed once more by the goddess.
Active foreplay is energetic to start with. It’s a set-up and a priming for the often calmer activity that follows. As well as long- and short-term considerations, there’s the idea of “something completely different,” such as jogging or energetic wandering — as opposed to “something somewhat similar,” such as sketching. Always, there’s the value of thinking and contemplating — as opposed to the value of not thinking and not contemplating. In the science of creativity, both approaches seem to be valid. It’s a wise artist who understands his preferences.
All creative foreplay serves to prepare the artist for at least a decent start. Apart from building enthusiasm and a feeling that what you are about to do is right for you, more than anything the effort steels resolve. In preparation, dreams somehow mix with practical considerations and the result is a harvest that can only be called “ideas.” These ideas breed, reflect, reject and focus. This phase is a harbinger that can be almost as good as the real thing. With proper preparation, the artist has a better chance of getting lucky.
PS: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” (Seneca, 60 A.D.)
Esoterica: Over the time I’ve been writing my twice-weekly letters, artists have offered many suggestions for making things happen. Loud music, fast jogging, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, “good book” holding and bank balance reviewing have all been mentioned. Prior (thumbnail) sketches have been praised as a failsafe technique for avoiding boo-boos and getting satisfaction in the main bout. Prior sketches have also been dissed as potentially stealing fire from the final work and interfering with on-the-spot creativity. In my own case, joy and sometimes better work comes through casual, relaxed and frequent contemplation both before and during painting events.
‘In the zone’ with archived images
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA
My foreplay is the hundreds of images of paintings I’ve collected from the Internet as well as my scrapbook of images and the many painting books I have. No matter what faze of the painting I’m working on I always spend an hour or so studying these images. As I do this I can feel my energy escalate and my thoughts formulate. I begin thinking of how I can do this or that. I start believing I can do anything. I do all my intellectualizing before I start painting. Then when I do start painting I leave my intellectual side at the door. My energy level is at its peak at this point, and when I start to paint I just let go. It’s like releasing the air out of a balloon. It’s as if I weren’t the one painting, but rather something outside of me was. I’m in the zone! It’s a very exhilarating and exciting feeling.
Awesome and mysterious force
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
Who knows what really triggers the pieces to fall into place, or a great work to be born of this energy inside us. Inspiration seems often to lie in wait for the right conditions to bring it out from the dark warmth of inside to the open air of paper or canvas. Sometimes it feels inside me like the rippling strength of a tiger, ready to pounce out to grab at opportunity. Other times it seems to pour out slowly, like water from a hidden source in the mountain. Many other times it seems effortless, like breathing. It’s in the truest sense, awesome. On those difficult days, is it possible to coax the tiger from the grass, or make the water flow on that uphill course?
Breakthroughs while unable to paint
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
This foreplay period can last a long time and still be fruitful. I had some amazing creative breakthroughs when my daughter was small and I was unable to paint. I painted in my head. When I finally could work again, after 3 or 4 years, I was amazed at the things I had already worked through, even though I had not lifted a brush. So, to all those artists out there who lament not painting enough, keep thinking painting, keep dreaming painting, keep reading painting – until finally you are painting!
by Mary Atkinson, Charlottesville, VA, USA
I find my “creative foreplay” time in the middle of the night, when half-wake and let myself lie quietly, often actually feeling the brush immerse itself in the paint, thinking freely about color, composition, dreamy places, etc… and then at the gym, when my heart is racing away, I am rowing or on a bike and solving a problem in the studio. Just looking at the shape of leaves. Thinking about the human race intertwined with those leaves, animals, etc. Absolute lack of logic. All that.
Sensuous action in cooking shows
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
It is most interesting that you use the term “foreplay” in your letter. I say this because of the recent NPR (National Public Radio) spot on marketing, selling and presenting cooking shows. They made a comparison to presenting these shows with the same enthusiasm and presentation as producers of those carnal content movies (have to watch those spam checkers!). The sensuous cutting of the food, the camera angles, the “foreplay” of preparation, before the final presentation of the finished product. Much like painting.
The unseen must happen
by Jill Badonsky, San Diego, CA, USA
Creative Foreplay! This is a term I use in my Creativity Coaching. I was a bit shocked to see it in your subject line but I guess it makes sense in terms of what it is and how much ground you cover. I describe it similarly as a way to build excitement for doing creative work. Our society puts so much emphasis on the tangible but in the creative process a great deal of the unseen must happen. It’s where creativity coaching differs from life coaching. A week can go by with only daydreaming, playing with intentions, walking and thinking, revisiting past works.
(RG note) Thanks, Jill. Jill Badonsky is the author of The Nine Modern Day Muses, a guide for priming and maintaining creativity. She has empowering exercises to awaken creativity, brainstorming, muse rituals to inspire faith and confidence, muse walks, spiritual affirmations, quotes from mortals like me, journaling and other methodology.
by Susan Thacker, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Sitting on a Tuesday night in August, in my canyon studio waiting for the muse, waiting for seasons to change. I’m wrestling the voices in my head, listening to them all. The traffic on the street below mimics the sound of waves rolling off the ocean, and the crickets sound like radio static. “Creative foreplay” is uncomfortable, feels unnatural, that is until your words open in my computer. I sit before three pieces started a week ago, none of them past gesso and charcoal. I’m alternately at peace and at war with my own creativity, wondering one minute if I’m gestating toward growth, and the next if I’m deceiving myself. Then, like a gift, comes your letter. You remind me that I’ve been here before; I will be past here again. Of all the benefits the Internet offers, in my opinion, few can top the kind of connection and support your letter affords like-minded people all over the globe. I’m going back to daydreaming now.
Going for the zingers
by Isobel McCreight, Orillia, ON, Canada
The first zing is like a little bolt of lightning out of the sky and then the adrenalin starts to make you aware of what can come out of it. A great idea for a start of a painting, or a contact for a gallery… it could be any or all of these. I was once in a coffee shop and I saw a couple of businessmen I knew. I felt a buzz and it wouldn’t go away until I went over and chatted with these men. I ended up with a great commission! The most recent zing I had was walking thru our beautiful park here in Orillia. I saw a statue from the back with the sun and shadows on it and it just made me stop as I hadn’t considered this view before. I am so anxious to get it painted in this special view… where’s my outdoor kit?
Let your dogs run free
by Linda Arnold, Voerendaal, The Netherlands
Here in the Netherlands there can be no better sight than two Airedales, Zoë and Phoebe, running across fields which once were cultivated by Romans. You must not only picture windmills when thinking about my adopted country of the Netherlands, but think of the part that looks a bit like a landlocked Florida between Belgium and Germany, where the early hunter-gatherers, the Celts and the Romans once lived. Here in Limburg we have hills and orchards, and river valleys and surrounding my Village there are 5 castles as well as fortified farms, still in use and farmed much today as in centuries past. For artists it is so exceptional here, yet very few take the time to do any serious outdoor landscape work. So from my two Airedales in the old world to yours on the prairie, “Hoi” (hello and goodbye in the local dialect) from Voerendaal (trans. Valley Forge).
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. And thanks to everyone who writes to me when I mention the word Airedale. Apart from AA—”Artists with Airedales,” we need to start a worldwide “Artists with Dogs.”
Plein air preparation
by Sylvio Gagnon, Montreal, QC, Canada
Robert Henri said that the object of painting is to reach a state of mind — a state that elevates us to another level and where creativity is inevitable. The attainment of this state is facilitated by surrounding ourselves with the proper environment, holding the tools in our hands, letting all our senses free to explore the known and the unknown. For Plein Air Painters this ritual is an exciting part of the process leading to the execution of a work of art. Maybe more exciting than the act of painting itself. This is not unlike to the philosophy “In life, the important thing is to enjoy the trip.” Preliminaries for Plein Air painters have more intensity. They last longer, they are full of discoveries and surprises. The chances of success are not guaranteed, but almost. One cannot deceive oneself.
Painter loses everything
by Samia Halabi, Beirut, Lebanon
The Lebanese artist Yousef Ghazzawi lives in Beirut and had his studio destroyed by the Israelis for the third time this past month. The first time was in 1977 in his home town of Khiyam when his home was bombed. The second time was in 1983 during the Israeli occupation of Beirut when the apartment building he was living in collapsed due to bombing. Each time his entire studio and its contents were destroyed. Now, this third time, he has lost his entire life’s output. Lost in the bombing were hundreds of paintings, mosaic panels, work on glass, work on paper, sketchbooks, notebooks, precious mementoes, and a vast library of art books in three languages. He had salvaged a few things from the previous two demolitions and was saving them. Ghazzawi is also a professor at the Lebanese University. His wife, Suzanne Chakaroun who is also a teacher of art, shared his studio and lost all of her work as well. Ghazzawi spent many years in Paris studying and later practicing his art. Much of his work bears the stamp of his international experience.
Professionals not community-minded
by Robert Anderson, Metchosin, BC, Canada
The difficulty professional artists, the ones who make their living at their art, face which “hobby painters” do not, is that there is no real possibility of “communal marketing” for the professional, so joining a group of any kind is more of a detriment and a distraction. I imagine it as “work solo at your profession,” and if you are an artist and still want the community aspect of joining a group, take up building and flying model airplanes and join their group. Other professionals I know find it a very time-consuming profession. We reach the point where our profession is also our hobby. I occasionally look at myself and wonder if I have become “narrowed.” I simply love what I do and the time I spend at it — I don’t feel like I’ve ever “missed out” on anything else. I’ve always been a loner. I’ve always enjoyed driving upon the scenes you describe, the community and the fairs and all the rest of it, and although I spent my married life, a period of 17 years, being involved in it all, I haven’t missed it for the 15 years I’ve not being doing it.
Preparing Ann-phibians for fall show
by Ann Heckel, New Hope, PA, USA
I am lucky to live in New Hope, PA and its sister twin across the Delaware, Lambertville, NJ. We have a great community of artists, writers, and shop owners. But what struck me is your mention of Pickerel eaters. Ironically, at that time I was just finishing up making a small sculpture of a Pickerel Frog! Most people know what they are. I didn’t, but when I saw the colors, I had to do one. I am planning on having a show later in the fall called “Ann-phibians.” I use PaperClay and fabric paint.
Egocentric, poetic, pickerel eater
by Sue Rochford, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
You are always on your way somewhere or at somewhere so vibrant we can feel it, taste it, smell it and should I venture to say – see it! You are getting much more poetic of late I notice. There’s been many a time when my isolation in art-making has been null and voided by reading one of your letters which seem always to be written directly to me. I hasten to add though that you are somewhat egocentric (not at all a bad thing!) but come on, what the heck are pickerels?
(RG note) Thanks, Sue. Pickerels are bony lake fish related to Pike that are found locally in North America and in my humble opinion not particularly good eating as they are null and voided by salmon, cod and halibut.
by Edna Park Waller, Aiken, SC, USA
I thought I would die laughing at Ron Elstad’s letter, Turpentine free!, published in the Canary in the mine clickback. (My apologies to Ron.) You will recall he stated that he no longer uses turps in his studio, but plain ole safflower oil from the grocery store. Well, what the heck, I’ll try anything once. Darned if it doesn’t work! It works great! Never had such clean brushes. This is a piece of information that should be shouted from the rooftops.
(RG note) Thanks, Edna and Ron. Safflower oil has been substituted for linseed oil, particularly when painting with white or other high key colours as there is little or no yellowing. Drying times vary with the types of processing and degree of mono and polyunsaturated fats. You can drink it too — some people take it as a nutritional supplement. It’s nice on pickerel.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Peter A. Mathews of Minnetonka, MN, USA who wrote, “I also feel this urge build up in me that eventually becomes an overwhelming feeling that I have to create something. That puts on a lot of pressure, but it also leaves no choice but to move forward.”
And also Annette Bush who wrote, “Sometimes the best foreplay begins like a whisper in the ear — a wisp of an idea or the glimpse of an image can get us started. The other kind is good, too.”
And also Leah Hawks who wrote, “I didn’t appreciate the suggestive title in this letter. The letters are worthwhile without a distracting or suggestive title that draws away from the actual subject.”
And also Joy Gush of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Seven months of the year have passed with no painting activity. It is high time now to begin.”
And also Susan Connelly of Las Cruces, NM, USA who wrote, “Always play tennis with someone who plays better than you.”
And also Vernita Bridges-Hoyt of Texas, USA who wrote, “A quiet house before the dawn of day, soft music and a collection of memories inspire my painting sessions. The visions in my head want to be on canvas.”
And also Antoinette Ledzian of Stonington, CT, USA who wrote, “You constantly astonish, inspire and fill my brain and soul with your insights and your way of capturing the essence of art. There are so many ‘eyegasims’ here!”