Yesterday, Nancy Holloway of Lexington, Kentucky wrote, “The art instructor in Noah Gordon’s novel, Shaman, says about his student, ‘He was too literal. He lacked the vital imagination, the misty vision. He had the heat but lacked the flame.’ For those of us who may lack the ‘vital imagination, the misty vision, the flame,’ is there any way to cultivate this, or is it a matter of some have it and some don’t?”
Thanks, Nancy. I used to think folks were either born with it or not born with it. Some are, of course, and that’s handy, but I now know the flame can also be self-lit. For the lukewarm and the not-so-hots who would like to feel more fire in their bellies, there are ploys:
Increase levels of observation and appreciation: This is a general habit based on an agnostic approach to the world. Be not satisfied with pat answers and simplistic solutions. The world is remarkably diverse, complex, fascinating and chronically in need of questioning. Questions, while never fully answered, turn observations into opportunities. The fire we desire burns brighter with the fuel of opportunity. Opportunity also requires that we dig down deeper for knowledge, technique and craft.
Be again a child: To fan the imagination and vision we need to see the world “baby eyes new.” With this perspective, childlike appreciation arises and so does our natural compulsion to collect our winners. Spirits that burn bright love to collect what they do.
Try to improve work habits: We’re all different, but we all need to fine-tune our work methods. This requires self-understanding, trial and error, and habit control. To become efficient in our work is ambition enough.
Immutable laws govern productivity and growth: Boldness and audacity stamp out weakness and disgruntlement. To be enthusiastic we need to act enthusiastically. We are engines of unknown capacity that need to be regularly test-revved. The fire that propels our stars will be found in the meat and potatoes of our work. It is work that builds the imagination. Ideas breed. Creativity grows. Fire burns.
PS: “Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Esoterica: I found a two-ton rock high on a mountain pass — one among many thousands tumbled from ice-age glaciers. The rock bore three distinct lichens — a crustose black one, a foliose grey-green one, and a circular, floriated orange one. The orange one, Xanthoria elegans, is used in lichenometry to determine the ages of things. Curiously, this lichen begins its long life when a bird has perched and left its nutrient. Perhaps, in this case, it was an extinct relative of the golden eagles that soared above. I decided to make this rock my own — to possess it. Were my eyes the only human ones to settle on this weathered granite? What a miracle to take it home in a small wooden box.
The fine art of making mistakes
by Lee Fritch, Signal Mountain, Tennessee, USA
Courage plays a large part. People hate to fail. Starting to be a painter is not for the faint at heart. I have had students with high level, demanding occupations who physically trembled and hesitated to touch a fresh piece of expensive paper with the brush. It is guaranteed that when you are learning to paint there will be plenty of mistakes. Fear of that is an absolute barrier to learning and staying the course. The Flame goes out. Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman’s mentor told him… “Bob, if you want to be an artist, you have to make 3,000 mistakes. Get out and start making them!”
Getting rocks off the mountains
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Taking home your two ton rock with the colorful lichens in a small box, must have either been a completed painting of the rock or, the small box is your memory and it grabs images so completely you can repeat the images at home. Or, the small box was your camera? Would love to have your explanation of not using a crane and truck to pick up and transport the boulder?
(RG note) Thanks, B.J. Sorry about that. Several subscribers didn’t pick up on the allusion. I painted the rock on the spot and brought it home in a box in the way a fisherman might bring a fish home in a creel.
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What about the money?
by Ewald Spitz, Dresden, Germany
Van Gogh, while one of the most idealistic of men, would have loved to see some sort of financial reward for all the effort he put in. He died with the knowledge that his work was not of sufficient quality for anyone (beside his brother) to want to purchase. Monetary reward is a kind of validation that many artists deny, and can be, as much as anything, a fanner of the flame.
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Daring to jump
by Paul Corby, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Artists should be sure to have a little Evel Knievel handy. Strength of will, trust in the original idea, heartbreak and a familiarity with struggle. As you know, “To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not — there is no weakness in that. (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband)
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The power of Nature
by Mark Brennan, Whitehill, Nova Scotia, Canada
Robert, that was your best twice-weekly letter yet! The question is how to keep this ‘wonder.’ Many of us wander through life zombie-like, letting our perception run skin deep. Awareness is in the ‘now’ — it’s why I love to spend time in nature. There is beauty in the simplest things, the droplet of water, the sound of wind through a Pine bough, the smell of the forest after rain. If we want to see like a child, we must strip ourselves of grown up ideas and ideals, understanding that conformity to how we are ‘supposed’ to live is the destroyer of souls. We can find motivation for this in the knowledge and gift in knowing deep down that our time here, as a conscious being, alive, is finite, and embrace it with all the energy, passion and joy we can muster.
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. Every time a letter goes out someone writes and says that one was the best one yet, and someone else writes and says that was the worst piece of hokum, baloney, nonsense, etc. Curious. Incidentally I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on Nature.
Small bold habits
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
I firmly believe that a bit of boldness can ignite the flame. Firstly, it is easy to regard every canvas we put our brush to as being sacred and as a consequence it becomes the master.
Painting a lot of small canvases with the attitude that we are the boss and this canvas just may well turn out to be a practice piece will loosen us up. Draw with the brush not a pencil and hold the brush at its end. It is amazing how this works and helps release us from pencil lines that can stunt the painting process. Use bigger brushes or try just using one big brush to do the whole painting will help from becoming to finicky. Leave in the bold brush marks, they will have an energy of 1000 little dabs! Use a limited palette too; it will bind together the whole work. Put a time limit on the small works — say 20 minutes; it’s surprising what can be achieved in that time.
We may not paint in this free way all the time, but to do so regularly as practice is a joy that cannot be felt in the most contrived works and will most likely kindle or rekindle the flame of artistic passion.
Young minds rekindle the joy
by Lillian E Walsh, New York, USA
Earlier this summer, a few artists from my local Colonie Art Society (Albany County, NY) determined to spread the world of art a bit further. We had solicited about 20 children ages 8-12 years to assemble for morning one week in June. They did not have to have any talent (who knew) or experience, except for the smattering of art classes offered in their schools.
Each day when the ‘new artists’ arrived, different materials were presented. Drawing, colored pencil, watercolors, water-based oils/acrylics, and collage were the subjects. Each day had a different artist explaining and getting the artists there to experiment. A short demo of the ideas was presented, and pictures to use as ‘subjects’ as well as ‘from your own experiences’ were available to work on. It was amazing what each new artist found within themselves to express on the paper supplied.
Some new artists showed aptitude in more than one area, but by the end of the week, we had a wonderful art gallery hung around the old barn we used as the ‘studio’. What budding artists we had helped to venture forth. It was a good feeling received, when for a bit of time offered and the choices of the children to come to these days of making art, so much has been garnered in our area. Perhaps we have budded a future that will bring such beauty to our world. I am a bit overwhelmed each time I relive those days. It makes me a better artist when I go to my studio and start to play and create. Those young minds rekindled my joy in my art. Life goes on and I hope that whatever we were able to give them, was a mustard seed for life and art beginnings!
Inspired by great ideas
by Lynne Schulte LaValley
I bought both small and larger panel holders. I drilled holes in the panel holders and got 2 machine screws, 4 washers, and 2 wing nuts for each. Threaded it through and bingo! A removable effective steering wheel holder for panels. I put a drawing board over the center console to hold the palette and had a cardboard box on the passenger’s seat with extra tubes and brushes.
On my recent trip to Maine, I had no excuses and did three paintings the first day in the rain and cold wind in comfort. I had to draw the line at heavy rain. Couldn’t see out the window!
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On the value of the responses
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
I laughed so much about the ionic spray this morning! I believe most of your readers do not cotton on that you are often tongue in cheek about what you write. You’ll probably get a flood of letters and comments about how to cleanse one’s studio. I can’t wait….
Without wanting to be offensive, I have to say that the reactions — certainly the instant comments — are way off track for the most part, if not plain balls. I’m trying to figure out the reason for this. Is it that some have profile neuroses? Want to be noticed at all costs? Want to plug their own wares? Haven’t understood the content of your letter?
I can’t believe that none of those hyper-virtuous ‘artists’ portraying themselves in the previous clickback on copying do not refer to other people’s work for advice and inspiration. Are they really all such paragons (of virtue)? Or do they have selective amnesia?
A recent example of the hysteria: Nobody is going to believe that a “Magritte” hanging in a suburban parlour is genuine, so what’s the problem? Why not support an ‘artist’ by commissioning him to produce a copy rather than buy a poster? It will only be a copy and not a forgery, unless the artist is skilled enough to work to perfection AND signs it as the original artist AND says it’s his own, genuine, unadulterated, original work? But then he’d be somewhere else, wouldn’t he?
We will never know how many artworks were signed by painters who didn’t actually paint them. The really skillful forger can fool even the best experts — it’s done all the time. Now and again the ‘experts’ discover a fake. The rest slip through the net. And even now there are schools of painting where super successful artists employ assistants to do the practical work while they deal with the marketing (of themselves).
The hysteria about copying also makes me wonder how naive the law-makers actually are. Someone with the avowed intention of making money on a fake (in music, art, literature, furnishings….) is also skillful in the art of camouflage. Of course, wholesale copying of DVDs etc. is a criminal offence. Of course it’s a crime to steal someone else’s work and make pots of money on it. In Germany there has been quite a lot of fuss and bother about faked PhD theses, usually works containing huge chunks of other people’s research. These fake Doctors (and there are plenty about all over the world, who only bought the title from an enterprising organization and didn’t work for it, or were even awarded one as a prize for certain — even non-related achievements) — the most famous case here being a government minister with an aristocratic background — had to resign and lost their title after the facts came to light. When you realize that those theses have ostensibly been mentored, read and judged by academics it’s even more incredible how the perpetrators got away with it. And most of them do get away with it, as the minister tried to on the basis of being aristocratic and therefore automatically above reproach, but didn’t. I believe he’s now lecturing in the USA. Some people really fall on their feet.
Finally, my daughter-in-law has a quarter-sized Cézanne hanging in her kitchen, painted by me from a photo in the catalogue in memory of the exhibition she curated during an internship at a museum in Essen, Germany. I didn’t ask her which one I should have a go at, but when I gave it her she wanted to know how I knew that it was her favourite of all the paintings she had helped to hang. Now I wish I’d painted it bigger, but anyone looking at it would not be fooled into thinking it was a Cézanne… Oh, and my daughter has a chunk of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on her wall.
(RG note) Thanks, Faith. We’re interested in what you and other readers say about the live and featured comments. As many of our readers may suspect, we sometimes add letters from this inbox to the live comments. Frequently we have hundreds of letters that all say about the same thing, which may or may not be a good thing, but we try to insert just enough to convey the general direction. We love to include material that adds additional information and insight and those writers who send us this sort of thing of their own accord are blessed. Readers also seem to get a kick out of humour, insult, ignorance and lack of understanding.
Enjoy the past comments below for Kindling the flame…
The Ancient Ones
acrylic painting, 18.5 x 22 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 Frankie Picasso of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who wrote, “I loved what I read and had to join the community. I especially loved the part where you tell us to be childlike in our creativity but also adult in our discipline and approach.”
And also Nigel Konstam of Casole d’Elsa, Sienna, Tuscany, Italy, who wrote, “Rembrandt fed his imagination by acting out scenes with live models in theatrical costume and drawing from these tableaux.”