The world is divided into two main kinds of people — those who divide the world into two main kinds of people, and those who do not. Among those who do, some divide the world into the skeptical and the gullible. Apparently the skeptical are happier than the gullible because their outcomes are often better than expected. Some people divide the world into optimists and pessimists. Pessimists, it’s been noted, are optimists with better information. Then we have the slow thinkers and the fast thinkers.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a new book that takes a look at human decision-making. A catalogue of psychological experiments showing the pitfalls of fast decision making, it also shows the problems that arise when we belabour our decisions. It turns out people are pretty confused. Every human, he says, has two systems. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and makes a lot of mistakes. System 2 is slow, deliberate, and less prone to error. Kahneman applies his observations to the follies of personal money management, economics, and other fields. I couldn’t help applying his findings to how we make art.
As everyone knows, some of us are slow painters and some among us are fast. Just out of interest, it’s always been curious to me that the work of slow painters can look like it was done quickly, while the work of fast painters can look like it was done mighty slow.
Being aware of the pitfalls of fast and slow, how do we extract the best quality work from our flawed psyches? The answer lies in balance. There’s a time for speed and there’s a time to go slow, and the evolved artist knows when.
“Jump right in and get on with it,” as I’ve often recommended for an early morning pump-primer, may not be suitable when you come to a difficult passage after your second coffee. For example, I can find no way to paint hands and faces quickly, though I often go to a lot of trouble to make it look like I can. Artists need to understand the potential weaknesses of quick decisions and at the same time realize that spontaneity and even impatience are assets. In the end, the great work is done by long-term focus. As in finance, the hottest deals may be the ones that take longest to come to boil.
PS: “One of the major biases in risky decision making is optimism. Optimism is a source of high-risk thinking.” (Daniel Kahneman)
Esoterica: The popular idea of taking risks is countered by the proliferation of poor outcomes. This is evident every day in investment, relationships, art. No dentist would jump right into a root canal without first taking the root-canal course. No mechanic would take the head off a Jaguar without a fair degree of Jaguar experience. No investor would buy a stock without checking to see if it’s run by bums. If you wish to produce quality art, find out how it’s made, keep a close watch on your optimism, and balance your speed.
Big and small decisions
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Kahneman is one of the big favourites of my favourite thinker, Nassim Taleb The Black Swan. I haven’t read him directly but I think I will dig into him a bit now that he has appeared in your illustrious letter.
What your writing really made me think of, though, was Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, where he ended up concluding that big decisions — who to marry, say — can, it seems, be made in the blink of an eye (the phenomenon of love at first sight), but small decisions, like which car to buy, often seem to benefit from slow, diligent, patient, laborious processes. I wonder if something like this is applicable in painting — the ‘blink’ moment is the big picture — when we see a composition across a room and immediately recognize a wonderful work — whereas when we get close, we see the small, individual brushstrokes, each one obviously carefully considered and laboured over.
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The potter’s tale
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
A pottery teacher divided his advanced pottery class in half. He was allowing them to work independently for the semester. He gave instructions to the first half of the class to make the best piece of pottery on the wheel that they possibly could and to turn in the top piece for their final grade. He gave the second half of the class instructions to make the most pottery that they possibly could and the entire body work would be considered for a final grade. At the end of the semester the students who were instructed to produce the most and not worry about coming up with “the one best piece” ended up also producing the highest quality work.
That little story has stuck with me and always helped me to continue to work in volume and it is amazing that the more time spent in front of my easel simply adds up to better paintings.
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Support body, not mind
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
Fast and slow has nothing to do with speed. So what is the point you were trying to make? If you start something, then finish it. Let me share with you something about speed and quantity without guilt. One needs to establish all preparations prior to entering the studio, one needs to respect time, one needs to create an attitude that will serve as a technique in itself, i.e. the hard part is not to paint but to keep a straight face through the process. Conviction is not a holy sacred ground; it is an open field for everyone to share. So how much one is willing to risk will determine the quality regardless of quantity. And that is to say, finding out who you are through all the uncontrollable scenarios that cross our paths, psychologically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, create an attitude in place that will support what your body wants to do, not your mind.
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Slow is the way to go
by Beth Winfield, Sacramento, CA, USA
Lately I’ve found being hesitant and following my gut instincts are paying off. My first initial instinct is to go for it and be a risk taker. But, I usually stop and really analyze the situation. I do get frustrated and somewhat confused. There is always something that doesn’t feel just right that stops me from jumping into the situation. That’s when I slow down and really think about it. When it comes to painting, this can be frustrating. I just want to go and “get her done.” But taking the time to get the stroke right or color notes right is worth the wait. It can also mean something is wrong with the composition or structure and I just draw it out and start over. I’ve always considered myself an optimist but maybe I’m more of a pessimist than I think. My outcomes have been better than expected lately. And, maybe if I go even slower I can get looser with my strokes. Slow is the way to go for a happy artistic life. This article frees you up from feeling you need to get paintings done faster and produce.
Think first, then act
by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
I’m one of those ‘dividers of the world’ — those who either eat one piece of popcorn at a time, or those who shovel it in by the handful, and a subcategory of people who have children and people who don’t… but back to the art… Someone said it best: ”Fail to plan, or plan to fail.’ Seems to cover the bases in artistic endeavors; rarely (but not, never) do we find lasting evidence of quality that doesn’t have a deep level work, intention, and vision behind it. Thinking deeply first, seems to allow you to act quickly in most things!
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Your own creative speed
by Melinda Bula, El Dorado Hills, CA, USA
I have been teaching my art around the world from Sacramento to Ireland and I find one comment that comes up at the beginning of every class. “I just need to let you know that I am really slow,” with the look of shame in their eyes. So before every class I talk about “Your Own Creative Speed.” Your post about Fast and Slow was great and timely. Who said fast was good? Go at your own pace. That’s when we are the most open to push out our creativity. Thank you for the words today. I guess I am on the right track.
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Fast takes a long time
by Daisy de Puthod, Hudson Valley, NY, USA
To become a good fast painter, it takes a very long time, years of practice. There is still a lot of thinking and measuring and accuracy; your hand may move quickly but the high level of concentration almost slows time as in a slow moving film. John Singer Sargent kept starting paintings and wiping them down, starting again until he got it right. But I’m sure he did this very quickly, with a quick hand.
I’m a quick painter — when people watch me and ask how long it took to do, I don’t answer 20 minutes but I answer 35 years. Sometimes slow painters take forever on one area of a painting only to notice later that this area is not working with the “whole” painting.
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The wisdom of optimism
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Fast/Slow…. Optimist/Pessimist… in art it also comes down to “painting from control to chaos or from chaos to control.” In either situation the artist must think. Sometimes we find this odd as there is a concept floating around that if you are a true artist the painting flows from you as if you were Houdini.
In reality the artist must “think” and think a lot. If a painting is to be successful there are many decisions that must be made for this to happen. I personally paint from control (thumbnail sketch) to chaos and back to control. It is during the thumbnail stage and control stage that big decisions are made. It is actually a fabulous process as it allows the brain to be satisfied with each side being tested. As to being an optimist or pessimist while painting, I think we all start out an optimist but if decisions are not made up front about design and color palette the pessimist sneaks in and controls the brain. Give me an optimist artist any day as they are open to learn from their mistakes, plus they have a lot more fun.
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Spread the masters to the people
by Kristin Ellstrom, Spain
I grew up in family with no resources for culture, and work took all their time. As a child I was left alone, locked in the house with little to do other than look at the walls. To my great luck my dad had bought “a real oil painting” for nearly nothing from an artist (at a price of the canvas and paints itself). It was an exercise, a copy of a Swedish quite well known romantic painting with horses in a landscape. It made my day. In fact it made more… it made my life in some sense. After my granddad died I was surprised to inherit the oil painting. He had insisted I should get it. Apparently I was mesmerized by it when little. I must have been very little… our relation went sour when I was a toddler, and we hardly had contact from my 6th to my 18 birthday, and since I lived in other countries I wasn’t seeing him in his place. This one is a copy of a painting from the Norwegian National Gallery by two famous painters who collaborated in landscape and folklore painting. It’s a wedding party on a boat on a fjord. It’s beautiful for a child – one of the rocks looks a bit like a dog (that’s not so in the original) and at first glance I would say it honors the painters of the original. I say spread the masters to the people.
Enjoy the past comments below for Fast and slow…
Cotton Fields at Dusk
oil painting 9 x 12 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 Albert Galen who wrote, “Speed is desirable. It preserves freshness and spontaneity, but it comes at the cost of careful planning. This takes time.”