Frank Partnoy in his book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, tells us that procrastination is a winning formula. The idea that procrastination is evil came along with the Protestant work ethic and the Puritanical era, he claims, while most of the greats in ancient times sat around delaying decisions until they became obvious. Wise folks throughout history have waited until the last second, he says. As artists, perhaps we can take some wisdom from this.
The art-vetting process: Delay tactics around the secondary easel — the place where finished works are gathered and contemplated. If you’re like me, with more than a dozen galleries handling your work, there’s fair pressure to deliver. I’ve learned to be absolutely positive about the quality before shipping. Many a time a major boo-boo is picked off the FedEx truck just in the nick of time. Further, collectors are known to hold onto works for generations, while we creators look at our work for relative nanoseconds. We need to look well and hard right up to the last minute.
It’s also good to delay the commercial decision as to which works to send where. Many artists take into consideration geography, personality, and buyer sentiment. Fitting specific art to specific agents can be an art in itself.
Creative delay is when you look at your work-in-progress and are unable to decide what to do next. While audacity and “seizing the day” can be valuable, also acknowledge times for prolonged reflection and consideration. During this delay the mind subconsciously continues to sort options and devise ploys. A few hours — or days or weeks — can be needed to disclose a solution. The beauty of delay is that solutions are often simpler than you originally thought, making it possible for direct and cursive flourishes that often triumph over unsure noodling.
What to do with yourself while being delayed by others: I’ve found it particularly valuable to go prepared with basic materials. Ferry lineups, airport delays and the annoyance of dawdling companions can be turned into creative bonanzas. “An inconvenience,” said Confucius, “is an unrecognized opportunity.” Car-based canvases languish in the trunk calling, “Choose me, choose me.” It’s also one of the great principles of life: Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen. Keeping busy is not something you want to delay.
PS: “Wait for the last possible moment to make a decision.” (Frank Partnoy)
Esoterica: Delay is one of the great negotiating techniques. The controller waits patiently until his adversary has shown all his cards. If you, as the artist, are controller, then your work of art might be the adversary. “Let the painting tell you what it needs,” says Charles Reid. Unfortunately, most of us find that sometimes a work is not always ready to let you know what it needs, and you must postpone. This waiting game can be one of the great joys — when the work finally speaks, it often does so loudly and clearly and in a way that is both beautiful and motivational.
A prophecy fulfilled
by McKenzie Bass, Merrifield, MN, USA
This dovetails with your idea of Strategic Patience. Seems to me that both are needed, particularly in the beginning of one’s career when there are many obstacles not only on the canvas, as in matters of composition, but beyond that to hazier things like the artist’s personal growth, environmental context, new influences, wisdom to employ the underlying messages, funding for new skills, appropriate venues, et cetera. Many times I’m stymied, but rather than force something or give up, I just have to come back to it when I’m better able to face the challenges.
The Latin festina lente — make haste slowly — and Auguste Rodin‘s admonition’Il faut toujours travailler — You must always work — have kept me going more times than I can count. When things finally come together it’s worth all the effort. And generally they do — on this great circle — you feel every bit as empowered as you previously felt powerless. Like a prophecy fulfilled or a future manifested.
The happiness of weeding
by June Kellogg, Brooklin, ME, USA
Yesterday I was last-minute fuddling with a not-quite-right painting that is to be taken to a gallery in 3 days. All the other paintings I’m taking are strong and ready for show. At the end of the day, I decided to just leave out the troublesome painting. I felt relieved at my decision but also regretful that I was delivering one less painting than I had promised. Your email this morning has taken away all that regret.
Losing momentum through indecision
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
There is a big difference between delay and procrastination. While it’s wise to stop and think whether a newly finished piece has what it takes to be good, or if a work in progress is going in the right direction, it has been my experience that if one waits too long one can begin to second-guess and in the process lose momentum. The spirit that moved you in the first place starts to fade while your subconscious decides what action to take next. The one mental theme, if you will, for anything I do is moderation. There is a time for everything; time to wait and a time to act.
‘Off the truck’
by Mark Lovett, Potomac, MD, USA
It’s a little more difficult taking a painting off the FedEx truck to fix something after the painting has had a layer or two of Gamvar varnish applied. Do you not apply any varnish or finish to your work?
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. “Off the truck” was perhaps an inadequate figure of speech. I’m currently painting in acrylic, but I do leave the final varnish to the very last convenient minute. I have to admit that more than once I’ve removed fresh varnish to fix some seemingly insignificant thing that I just couldn’t stand to see rolling out the driveway.
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Where to exhibit
by Robert McCormick, Ashland, PA, USA
I live in the middle of nowhere and I create art that is not traditional, so country art and craft fairs are not a suitable venue. Should I travel to Philly (about 3 hours drive) or NYC (also 3 hrs) and scope out galleries? They seem too sophisticated for me, but I fear local places (Reading, Allentown) just want traditional art. I don’t know what to do… any ideas?
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. Every serious artist needs more than one outlet. I’d check out NY and Philly. But don’t overlook the Allentowns of this world. The good people of smaller cities often wish to be sophisticated. The folks in New York and Philly already think they are.
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Rush to market
by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA
Artists, by nature, could be among the best procrastinators… in a negative, unproductive way. Having to insist on perfect conditions (like avoiding a plein air painting day just because it is not warm enough, cool enough, or sunny enough) means one is not learning to experience challenges that make us better as painters. Spending too much time avoiding the studio, or just avoiding getting started with one’s painting by wasting time puttering about the studio… or doing everything BUT painting are negative examples. We all have done it — sabotaging the very muse we wish to invite and nurture.
But, you, Robert, have rightly pointed out the one application of procrastination which DOES invite the muse. The “rush to market urge” now will have the urge to become more patient and thoughtful before sending out art that has not quite finished its dialogue with me. I thank you!!!
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Negotiating by delay
by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada
Delaying is a great negotiating technique too. A friend on a trip to Japan was met by his hosts at the airport. The first thing they did was to find out when his return ticket was dated. They then proceeded to wine, dine and entertain him for the whole period. He had to make the ‘deal’ in the limo on the way to the airport. Needless to say he did not get the deal he wanted. I suspect that gallery and show dates would put one in a similar position. I get it from clients. Anyway, back to the day job.
Borrowing back sold art
by Jill Sharpe, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Do you have any experience in selling paintings by signing a contract with a buyer that allows you to borrow the painting back for public shows? If so, do you have any wording to recommend for such a contract? I’m having my first solo show of paintings and a film… I’d like to sell the paintings however, this particular series was inspired from a film I made and that film is getting a lot of gallery invitations. So there’s a chance if I hold onto the paintings, I could show them again with the film.
So I was wondering what are the pitfalls/advantages of creating a sales agreement that allows you to borrow them back?
(RG note) Thanks, Jill. In a situation where sold art might be used by you to advantage later on, I would have the dealer put a notice up that says the art may be “borrowed back” with their permission, at some time for a touring exhibition. Owners are generally honoured to lend their work for further exposure to the general public, provided it’s not a regular, annoying event. You or your dealer should make up a short agreement where you make it clear that you (the artist) will be responsible for insurance, damage, wrapping, shipping, return, etc.
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Questions to ask a painting
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I have paintings propped up at various key places where I know I will be able to see them as I am doing my normal day to day living. I know some paintings are finished and don’t need another thing done with them… those I prop up and enjoy while they are drying… others, like you talked about in your letter, I am unsure about. It was nice to read that I just need to wait for the painting to speak to me. This is good advice… some may not make it into my show, if they don’t speak up soon!
On the other hand, I have found that if I run through a quick list of questions, sometimes the answer comes in a timely fashion.
1. Where is or what is the focal point? (My plein air paintings sometimes get overly busy and end up with no clear direction.) If I don’t have a clearly stated point of interest, I work to figure out what it will be and what I need to do to communicate that in the painting.
2. Did the canvas get covered well enough in the key areas of my painting? Are the understated areas strong enough, without being distracting from the focal point?
3. Are there any drawing issues?
4. Do I need to up the contrast between the shadows and high lights? (This often is the one bit of touch up that I end up doing, since it is often rather bright while I am painting outside…) With this I also do a value check of the foreground, middle ground and back ground.
5. Are the color harmonies working or is there color on the canvas that is needs to be pumped up or toned down? …all depends on the mood I am trying to create also…
6. What areas would benefit from a little cleaning up of the edges? (This is another area that often is all I need to do to finish the painting.) Since I work in oils, occasionally the horizon or edges of the sky can get muddy so sometimes, if that is distracting, I will go back in and touch those up.
7. Are my shapes varied enough without creating too much disorder? I do a lot of garden and nature painting, so this is a real balancing act. When I am out in the field I am often in such a hurry that I don’t think enough in an abstract way about the composition in terms of how minor components interplay with one another. Example: Trees that all take on the form of round balls are a death sentence, unless of course they are intentionally painted that way …such as in folk-art paintings.
8. Lastly I ask one or two people I know, who have a good sense of art and my work, for their feedback.
oil painting by Cyn McCurry
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Enjoy the past comments below for Managing delay…