Yesterday, David Fitzgerald of Concord, California, asked some excellent questions. Every one of us would probably have given different answers. In trying to give him some insight, I realized that when I was younger I was trying to teach myself some decent habits, so my answers then would have been different than they are now. Here are the questions and my current ideas to go with them:
(Q) How do you manage your painting schedule? (A) For the most part, I don’t. Because work habits have entered my lizard brain and taken over my muscle memory, I just keep going. It’s like driving a pokey vintage car down a foreign track: you stop here and there to see and explore things that come up. Distance is not as important as joy found.
(Q) Do you have a goal to finish a certain number of works per year or month? (A) I definitely used to. I used to work a plan — 350 a year was about average. Marathon sessions with professional friends proved to me that 4 or 5 a day was possible. I found it valuable at the beginning of each day to ask the muse what I ought to do. Sometimes she’d tell me to start a big job that might occupy several days. Other times she’d recommend less ambitious projects.
(Q) How do you handle paintings that move along more slowly than they should? (A) Unfinished or unresolved work is always a problem. Without getting bogged down in obsessive perfectionism, we should accept slowness of development as part of the process. That being said, some works become impossible projects and must finally be abandoned. Others can be set aside to live another day. Like cheeses in a cellar, they cure and ripen. With time, new techniques or solutions bubble to the surface. Different days have different powers. Desire is everything. With desire, curdled milk can be made into Gouda.
(Q) How do you find the time to explore new ideas? (A) You need regularly to move from the assembly line and simply surrender to your intuition, and you need to be guilt free about it. While maybe a seeming distraction, it’s the elixir that gives energy and courage to the roll of your production and your life in art. The penchant for exploration has a great deal to do with innate curiosity. Artists have curiosity in degree — some are all output and no curiosity, others are all curiosity and no output. For those who would care to evolve, this is one case where you need to be in the middle.
PS: “Profit is a by-product of work; happiness is its chief product.” (Henry Ford)
Esoterica: “Relaxed Pressure Scheduling” (RPS) sets up daily goals and actions in keeping with the free flow and happenstance nature of creative work. Knowing when to get off the wagon is as valuable as knowing when to get back on. Artists need to develop personal systems of self-management and self-reliance that take into account an understanding of their own metabolism and capabilities. Arming oneself thusly is as important as knowing what happens when mixing red and blue.
Living the intuitive life
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA
You are so right about scheduling. Living the life of the artist is intuitive. I feel as if my days flow naturally, and I lend myself to the process of following instinct instead of trying to lead it. If I fight the instincts, then I am not as productive. There are days when I will start a large canvas with excitement and anticipation, work with the same energy on the same painting the next day. By the third day I am not as excited, and my mind is already thinking of new ideas. If I force myself to finish the first canvas, the work becomes stale and uninspired. I have learned to set aside the first and begin another, using that creative fire. Many times I will have 6 or 7 paintings going at once. Often times, a canvas I am working on will give me another idea, so I stop the initial canvas and start on the next idea. I believe that our subconscious mind still works on the first paintings, maybe while we sleep and dream. At some point in this process, my subconscious mind begins completing the first painting, and I am ready to face it again on the easel. I get into the ‘finishing’ stage of my creative process and complete paintings. Some weeks I have nothing to show for my efforts, but later weeks make me look like the ‘energizer bunny with a paint brush’ because so much comes out of the studio doors!
by Reveille Kennedy
I see how much you accomplish and am in awe. Are you involved in teaching, or is writing this letter, plus your painting and traveling, your main thing? These letters reach so many people and it must be satisfying to know that your words and your habits bring so much joy. How do you learn to say no to “other” outside pressures that you love? Or do you?
I always look forward to your letters and the way you put words together to “gouda” us into more professional painters. Thanks for your fantastic endurance. What happens when you get extremely tired? I just have to take a nap, myself.
(RG note) Thanks, Reveille, I’m afraid I’m constantly distracted by a pile of other interests and projects — to say nothing of family and friends. When I do work, I tend to work fast. If there’s a secret, it’s that I’ve taught myself to be fairly efficient when I do work. Other than that I don’t watch TV or eat.
by Julie Mayser
I guess you could call my problem “growing pains.” My inventory of finished and framed paintings has outgrown my studio space. The excess has moved to corners of the living room. I do have work out at galleries and various venues. I am looking forward to an upcoming solo exhibit, where I will have 20-25 works out on exhibit, thus freeing up corners of the living room. But, the paintings (at least most) will return in a month or so. I price my paintings, mostly pastels and a few oils & W/C, between $100.00- $1500. Only the very large are priced over $1000.00. I do not feel they are overpriced but I am considering lowering the prices drastically … having a “sale.” There are not a lot of galleries in this area, and I am taking advantage of those that are here.
How do you handle this problem, or do you sell so fast that they don’t stack up?
(RG note) Thanks, Julie. The ideal for a prolific artist is to have the dealers take them off your hands. Galleries are the place for the better examples of your opus. In some extreme cases where there is no potentially commercial destination, I recommend renting a storage space. Here you can archive and build an album that is a monument to your remarkable volume.
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Unresolved and unfinished work jumped out at me from the four questions. Recently I had an issue with a large painting which just didn’t “happen” no matter what I tried to do. Like throwing good money after bad, I came to the conclusion that overworking this thing only got me further into a hole, so I shelved it for a month or two. After finishing a couple of good ones in the series, I returned to my disaster, wrecked it some more, then with my freak flag flying and the music turned up loud, I turned the puppy sideways and saw it as a non-representational arrangement of shapes and colors that needed some help. That got me cooking, painting and turning it upside down for more color/paint/fun. I kept turning the painting, treating it as an abstract composition, the muse egging me on and pushing my endorphins up and off the charts.
Because I had been attempting to go more abstract for the past year unsuccessfully, this was a real breakthrough, all the more so for being unintentional. There’s nothing more exciting than doing a painting in free fall, i.e. with no preconceived idea, composition or subject. I’ve heard of artists who prefer not to do thumbnails, advance drawings or work from studies because that can wreck the spontaneity and excitement of the painting process. Now I see why. It’s like an adventure that you can hardly wait to find out the ending: non formulaic, unexpected and thrillingly complete. That feeling of exultation when it was done is the touchstone that got me back into the studio yesterday after a too long hiatus in the Winter Break.
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Residence dictates medium
by Pat Dolan, State College, PA, USA
I was a watercolorist for about 20 years when we lived in northeastern PA. By that time in my career, I had learned to do all that I thought I wanted to do with the medium — which leaned toward nostalgic realism. I did lace doilies on antique tables, quilts and apples, flowers and kittens — perfect for my rural Pennsylvania clientele. However, I was bored silly with the techniques, which seemed by then to be like number painting! Then we were transferred to central NJ, where watercolorists only painted seascapes (I’m a MN gal with a preference for woods) and/or very modern abstractions. So I switched mediums and went into fiber art, which for me, at least, lent itself more fully to modern design and city lifestyles while also being tactile and bringing warmth into the home/office. That was about 15 years of my artistic life.
We recently retired to the mountains of central PA and I’m still debating what medium I’ll do now! I’m definitely going to be using photography, but just how, I’m not yet certain. Printing them on fabric or doing print transfers on fabric are two ways that I have explored, adding stitching, rusted fabrics, etc. to make them unique and distinctly mine. However, I may move more exclusively into photography on paper… who knows? I like the idea of doing collages, and my fiber art is definitely moving in that direction. And maybe I’ll go back to watercolor as the local scenery, farmland, mountain views, etc. are quite inspirational and seem to be natural subject for watercolor.
Boredom and dislike of work
by Mary Lou Moad
I love your responses to these questions. I am a gifted artist, whatever that means. I create wonderful things. But sometimes, often, I hate the things I create, even if others love them! It makes me stay away from my studio, after I do some paintings I don’t like. How do you overcome that? (I also get bored with what I’m doing, so I take classes from different teachers to overcome that).
(RG note) Thanks, Mary Lou. Love/hate of work produced is part of the game. If you approach your ups and downs with curiosity and benign amusement, you will begin to see the value and joy of failure. Failures are the stepping stones to your successes. However, staying away from the studio is not in the cards. Go there and face the music — and dance. If nothing else, it builds character.
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Every day is a new day!
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I have been dealing with a new theme in my work. December is usually a month of contemplation and resting up for the next year’s endeavors. New paintings/prints have gone to my gallery and they take care of the selling end while my mind is active thinking, reading background information, collecting photos from my personal archives and drawing loose sketches which could be incorporated or changed to fit a new work. Then I compose 8-10 new compositions in the computer and figure out the proportions when I blow it up to the desirable canvas size. Palette issues I’ll deal with once I start to apply paint. First it’s an order for the stretchers and getting the surfaces prepped. Then the sketch goes to canvas and painting ensues. Placement or ideas change dependent upon what the painting begins to say or not say. As I work, other related ideas come to mind and I jot them down or sketch them — so they won’t slip away. I’m always working if not in actuality — in my mind — and looking for a new idea just around the corner. The flow takes me and I don’t count anymore. Isn’t one really good painting worth many so-so works? Here’s a comp I created yesterday in the computer. I’ll be photographing a friend’s cello this weekend to get that worked out in perspective, etc. The cats are from the rescue center and the clown face was a computer paint-in, costume was computer custom tailored. Background color may be changed completely, at this time it seems too heavy. So it goes day by day, painting by painting.
by Mike Salcido, Coppell, TX, USA
How do you find your muse? I have been painting since 2003 and I don’t think I have a muse. I am currently stuck where I have not painted in over six months. When I stop to think about when I was painting, it was at a time when I was hanging around the “wrong” type of people and doing things I should not have. So I’m not sure what was driving me to paint at that point — was it a muse or something that I was ruining my body?
Additionally at that point in my life, I was also hanging out with other artists. I have since lost touch with all my artist friends. Here in Dallas, it is very hard to make friends who are not superficial. The artists here (or that I have come in contact with at least) are only interested in themselves and have no interest in having creative sessions. Any suggestions?
(RG note) Thanks, Mike. Hanging out with other artists can be bad for you. If you talk too much your desire to work can be neutralized or eliminated. Also, don’t look for your muse. You find her and fall in love with her by doing. Make yourself do it and you will begin to love it.
Different answers for different artists
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
It amazes me how different each artist would answer these questions… here are mine:
1. How do you manage your painting schedule? Depending on how the season goes, I seem to paint in waves. I have an exhibition every spring, so painting in the doldrums of winter seems to be my focus. I do try and paint every day as I live in my studio. I also work very hard at figuring out the equation of what I am painting. This can be as simple as making colour choices and wondering what to paint and as complex as figuring out what I am communicating in my work. Because I represent myself there is also endless administration work to do, so my career is not always creative (although my accountant would differ with some of the creative expenses I have).
2. How do you manage your painting schedule? The ideas just hit and you are either inspired or you are not. My painting area is dead centre in my studio and I work around my painting area all day. So, I work at making sure I am working. I am easily distracted though, the phone, going for coffee, cooking. I also have an art supply store about a block from my home. I find a brisk walk and buying a new brush to be very inspiring.
3. Do you have a goal to finish a certain number of works per year or month? They say that to be happy is to set goals and achieve them. I set a goal to have an exhibition. Then within that I will set the goal to have 25 paintings done for the show. I have set big goals to have a show in San Francisco or New York or work in Paris. I also set small goals to get a certain piece complete or part of a piece done. While I think that a painting a day is a little ambitious, to paint every day and stick to it is a good goal.
4. How do you handle a painting that is moving along slower than it should? I think this is the most interesting and thought-provoking question of all. Painting is production time and I like to think I have the piece worked out in my head before I start the canvas. But, we all have snags and other pieces become more inspiring. I like to finish what I start before I start something new. But these pieces that seem to drag on are either me working in the wrong direction or me working in a new direction. There is a very fine line of creativity here and something that takes years to listen to our instincts. There is nothing like a paying client that keeps all this malaise at bay. But if I am really snagged, I just put the painting away. If it still doesn’t speak to me, I have the frame re-stretched and toast the canvas. Life is a series of letting go… but that is just me.
The Wall Test
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
The vast majority of painters have day jobs. And, many painters squander their precious studio time with too much looking, reflection, and decision-making. With my own work, I found it much more efficient to separate the two activities. I found that if I put my works-in-progress in my home environment, in a place where I saw them daily and in different light, I would soon see exactly what needed to be done. I have made such decisions while brushing my teeth, or cooking, and sometimes just while walking by on my way out to work.
When my day to paint arrived, I had a clear agenda in mind. I called this the Wall Test, and if a painting survived for 2 or 3 weeks, I figured it was time to send it to the frame shop.
All about balance and trust
by Wendy Goldberg, Fairfax, CA, USA
I think one of the toughest, and at the same time most liberating, things about being an artist is to realize there is no one answer to everything. Each choice one makes, be it re: production, scheduling and/or getting off the production line is personal. Having spoken to many artists — painters, writers, sculptors — I’ve found that EVERYONE has a different way of working. I think setting up a schedule for one’s self can be helpful to keep a regular hand in the work; on the other hand, I find that if I’ve just worked on a big project — say a show — I need some downtime — time for observation, for taking things in, for figuring out what’s next before I can push ahead. It IS all about balance (as is life!) and trusting that one’s intuition about these feelings is correct. Trust is a big part of it for me as I sometimes wonder, if I stop it, will I get back to doing it or ???…… but, having done it long enough and knowing/trusting that we each have the artist’s “soul,” one comes to realize and trust that that intrinsic artistic part of us will always be there.
by Kelly Walker, Vancouver, BC, Canada
When I received your email, my thought was liken to Cinderella being asked to go to the Ball but had nothing to wear.
When I was much younger (15) I had a dream and at the end of this dream I was told to start walking on this long road home. I looked straight ahead to see how far — it appeared endless. I remember having the thought this can’t be real and I wanted to wake up as I felt exhausted before I began. I took notice of the tall trees on either side of me and I started walking as I was instructed. A short distance ahead I saw a feather lying obscurely on the side of the dusty path out there where it felt so desolate. I picked it up, it was a peacock feather and a little further ahead I found another and then another. I picked each one up and thought to myself, this isn’t so bad and I was comforted and then awoke.
Who knows what it means, who knows what the whole dream means, yet one thing for sure when I have simple moments in life such as these, I remain thoughtful.
Painting at last!
by Ruth Rimon, Israel
I have had many occupations in my 86 years. I remember my first drawing lesson as a child in Vienna. We were told to draw the family. I was not pleased with my drawing. I wished so much to do better. I was 6 years old then.
During the 2nd World War I was a machinist at an air force factory in England, got married, had 2 children and was making buttonholes on high class blouses 8 hours a day.
Then I studied and became a teacher for pattern drafting, dressmaking and embroidery, as well as teaching at evening classes. This I did for 14 years.
After coming to Israel in1957, I was teaching for 3 years Dressmaking and for 17 years, after a short course, worked in the electronic factory of our Kibutz.
Then my husband died after a long and difficult illness and I did what I always dreamed about. I went to learn drawing and painting. That was 11 years ago. I have my own studio now, I paint in oil and have had 3 exhibitions and took part in 2 others, together with many artists.
I have never painted before, but always, always, when out in nature I have always thought to myself, one day I shall paint this or that and although my memory is very bad now, I remember what I wanted to paint then.
Last year I went back to learn to paint in watercolor and I am the oldest pupil, I love it.
I admire you very much. You always find interesting things to write about, as well as finding time to travel, paint and so many other activities.
I wish you many, many more years of strength to continue giving us the pleasure of sharing your wisdom with us.
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oil painting Julie Houck, Paia, HI, USA
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