My friend Jack Hambleton and I were in the town of Sao Bras de Alportel in southern Portugal. Stepping out onto the spacious flat roof of our three-story hotel one evening, we saw potential. Before sun-up the next day we were back out there, drinking our coffee and seriously rethinking the variety below. Small winding streets led away in all directions. Red-tiled roofs rubbed shoulders and formed cubist patterns with the white walls, laundry lines, and geranium-filled window boxes. Decorative chimneys studded the skyline. Jack said, “There are a million views in the tiny city.”
We set up in the middle of the roof, near the potential shade of a water cistern. Our method was to walk to the parapet and assemble a view in our heads, then come back to the easel and begin. Going from one view to another, only a short time was required to lay in each composition. We set down our half-baked paintings — his watercolours and my acrylics — in a growing circle around us. By noon we both had a half dozen starts.
The second phase was to walk to the parapet with a “chosen” painting in hand. Elements and points of interest not noticed before popped into view and motifs from other works begged to be included. Needless to say, midday light introduced different shadows and different challenges.
Returning again to the easel brought a further degree of finish. Some works took four or five parapet-trips before signature. Less favoured ones were unceremoniously abandoned. By Scotch-time we each had several modest crackerjackers. Later, an inconvenienced but mildly amused hotelier served us a calamari and asparagus dinner right there on the roof. We revelled and anecdoted until we could no longer see.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “desultory” as “skipping from one subject to another, disconnected, unmethodical.” It may be an unmethodical method, but it’s a useful one. Here’s why:
Our minds are capable of far more multi-tasking and multi-tracking than we think. The critical sense that goes with the processes of art-making moves forward on both prior experience and intuition. Quick looks and automatic decisions, devoid of long-term contemplation and recrimination, often produce decent results. Going from one project to another heightens the faculty.
Over time, an artist builds a repertoire of creative moves, motifs and techniques — there to be released or withheld as the artist sees fit. Desultory it may be, but it’s a valuable ploy in an artist’s ongoing obligation to play.
PS: “You have no obligation under the sun other than to discover your real needs, to fulfill them, and to rejoice in doing so.” (Francois Rabelais)
Esoterica: Life is a precarious balance between letting go and taking control. When we are on the very roof of our art, we see that our own reality is within reach. Accepting the gift may take the accumulated wisdom of some trodden miles, but it also opens the welcome windows of joy.
Skipping from one to another
by Maritza Bermudez, Wheaton, IL, USA
That’s what I call skipping from one painting to another. Very often I dwell in 3 or 4 paintings at the same time. Of course, I use the same medium… like palette knife painting, fast, easy and fun. Then I select the one I like best and repeat it in a larger scale. I once went to a workshop in Italy. The teacher took us to a sunflower farm. We all set our easels and everybody selected the special view they wanted to paint. I divided my paper into 6 small squares and painted 6 different views. Back at home I selected some and painted them. I’ve had my students do 2 paintings at the same time (not beginners) to get their creativity going and at the end of the class we go into critique mode and they select the one they like best. Thanks, Robert, for your wonderful topics.
Scary way to paint
by Catherine Orfald, Brooke Valley, ON, Canada
I admire this way of working (looking, assembling in your mind, and turning away to paint). But it scares the heck out of me! I first read about doing this in Nicolaides great book, The Natural Way to Draw. I do usually have 2-4 paintings on the go at one time and will move from one to another. They’ll be different subjects and at different stages in the process. I find the desultory focus method there useful. Now, I will give the other method a try.
‘If it’s art, sign it’
by Sarah Wallace, ON, Canada
You have drawn me out of my silent audience with you to comment on my husband’s uncle who you charmingly included in your message of desultory painting.
You may recall that I was speaking with Sara at her opening at Hollander York when you phoned to congratulate her and she explained that she was speaking to an artist and Painter’s Key subscriber who also happened to be married to a Hambleton.
Jack’s brother, Ronald, is in his early nineties living with his wife of 65 odd years in a home in downtown Toronto, ever observant and witty. An author, broadcaster, reviewer all his life. His comment on reading your article, which I forwarded to him, was “The only sentence I ever heard from him that contained the word ‘art’ was this: “If it’s art, sign it.”
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Improving the flow
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I’m not sure I would call it “desultory” painting, but I have been painting on several projects at once lately and find it helpful. I was in the middle of some large gestural abstracts when I noticed that the gesture was getting overworked and stiff. The tendency to keep adding things to a painting when it’s not quite there yet is the road to perdition. So I began a series, which improved the flow and allowed me to work more unconsciously and intuitively. In the middle of that I had another series gestating, and rather than start another large canvas, I’m creating a number of small studies on a theme (Arab Spring/War) in acrylics on Bristol board smooth paper. This is a great, fun way to work, especially as I can knock out two or three in a morning, and once I have a bunch, I’m better able to assess my direction and whether or not I have enough imagery to take this somewhere. Since my biggest problem is over-working and not seeing the wood for the trees kind of thinking, switching on and off, working from my head while walking back and forth across my studio really works. Then I take a break and do some close-up figurative pieces, just taking enjoyment in the way the colors butt up against each other in a pleasurable way. I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but am happily exploring.
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
Today I took the time within my work day to read your article about going from one piece to the next. I am in the middle of intricate and tedious stitching of one specific component in a large textile “painting.” I kept myself “disciplined” at the helm, stitching torturously — bored and frustrated. “Aha!” I shouted and ran to open some of my favorite inspirational books and to look back through photos of previous pieces that took enormous amounts of both discipline and detailed care. It only took 20 minutes from reading your article and reviewing some of the techniques and playful trials throughout my life as an artist to get to a place of renewed inspiration. Blam! Focus, creativity and joy came zooming back and I’m already creating a happier, more productive art piece!
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have often used this way of working where I do not get hung up on one painting but multi-task by working on a couple of pieces at the same time, alternating when getting tied up with a problem area. I simply switch to another piece. I often begin with a partly finished, previously discarded composition. This one where I do not expect anything much to happen and so I allow myself the complete freedom of failing or succeeding. When nothing is expected from the end product it frequently becomes a very interesting experience just to see the work evolve. I also frequently paint right on top of an old work and allow the pigment to show through thereby strengthening with lots of underpainting.
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by Jo Bain, Bella Vista, AR, USA
I think of all the time I have frittered away when I could have been creating paintings! Waiting, waiting and more waiting at the Mayo Clinic for a medical diagnosis which is requiring surgery, I went to the store and bought a roll of cooking parchment paper. I plan to sketch future paintings, roll up until back in my studio. Thank God for art and the creative spirit!
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Plein air vs. studio
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
What you described here is extremely difficult for me. Painting plein air, exactly what you see can be learned because it is deterministic — you learn the technique and the materials and how to see and you can create beautiful works. On the other side, there is a carefully planned studio work where you develop your process and master it. Also with experimental work, you explore possibilities without boundaries.
What you were doing is a composite of what you see, your mastery of the medium and what you draw from your inner “bank.” That requires extremely fast processing of a scenery, filtering patterns that speak to you, translating them into your artistic language and applying that to the canvas. You are creating and putting together your unique puzzle as fast as those people who can put together a Rubik’s cube to beat Guinness records. I guess you go with quantity and accept low yield for the benefit of the experience. This is tough to do — but a great challenge to find what an artist is made of. I am tempted as I am to running a marathon! I feel it would take me to a higher level if I did.
by Linda Eichorst, Placitas, NM, USA
I received my first letter from you this morning, and am typing out this quick note before I head out to my studio. I am calmed and enthused and ready to get to work. I have been a “broken” artist for several years, and your email was like an encouraging love letter from a dear, dear friend I hadn’t spoken to in a long, long time. Thank you, and a special thanks to Barbara Meikle, Santa Fe who recommended your site to me. Off and running…
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Enjoy the past comments below for Desultory painting…
watercolour painting, 10 x 14 inches
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 Ron Gillmore of Victoria, BC who wrote, “For most, it’s difficult to do. Sure it can be done, but it’s difficult to do well. Skilled art may take a few years of private effort, studentship, technique development and maybe even apprenticeship. Shock and awe art takes imagination and courage.”
And also Marvin Humphrey of Napa Valley, CA, USA, who wrote, “That nails it: the unmethodical method of the artist’s obligation to play. The joy of creativity is a product of the freedom you feel from following the dictates of your whimsical Right Brain.”