When I was a boy my dad owned a sign shop. There were four employees: Nort, Mort, Phil and Bert. Each had their specialty — show cards, banners, silkscreen, illustration. It seems my dad was always walking around and asking, “Do you have something to get on with?” Dad lived in fear that one or the other would run out of something to do.
The situation is similar to the plight of the self-employed artist. Of course, there’s generally no Nort, Mort, Phil or Bert. But like it was with those boys, getting started might be a problem, as well as getting stopped, but as long as one is in the middle, things are okay, just like my dad and his creative company.
Yesterday I tackled a 60 x 60 inch. I had been looking at that blank canvas for about a week — watching a motif struggling to emerge like a photo in a tray of slow developer. Finally the canvas propelled itself to the easel and I got going. Working largely out of my mind I committed thick and fast. It seemed a long road ahead — perhaps this might become a tiresome project — like one of those big real estate development signs with lots of lettering, a site plan and an architectural rendering. But as soon as the start was made, there was stuff to get on with. It’s what I was talking about in the last letter — letting the project and its process engage, make demands, take over. With every stroke a need arose for another stroke — to correct, tone down, brighten up, redesign, simplify, complexify. Many artists relate to this exciting engagement that can lead to forgetting to check the mail, or eating, or bathing. There’s always something to get on with, actually one damn thing after the other. Eventually there comes a time when there’s nothing more to do. We made a photographic record of the progress of this particular painting — its faults, fumbles, and hopefully, its recoveries. I’ve asked Andrew to put it up as a slide show: http://painterskeys.com/demonstration-slide-show_ramparts/
While results may not always be totally brilliant, having something to get on with is still one of the great feelings. This particular job and this condition lasted two days. Now I’ve written this and I’m going to have a tub.
PS: “Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.” (Goethe)
Esoterica: Frequently artists say, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” This is generally followed by the idea that somehow they muddle through and somehow they work it out. That’s creativity. But creativity is also being efficient. To me it’s important to proceed in a somewhat logical order. Order requires thinking ahead, planning, anticipating. Management is an acquired skill. You’re the boss.
Phyllis Didur, Waterloo, ON, Canada
I only have one question. Why did you start with a pink priming coat?
(RG note) During the past few years I’ve been experimenting with strongly toned grounds. Some of this has led to the glazing with an opposite on the colour wheel. In this case a greenish Phthalo blue glaze goes over a pinkish orange ground and produces a fairly sophisticated gray. You can make it work efficiently for other things at the same time–as in this case the shadow area of the snow and adding razzle-dazzle to the yellow sky. Sometimes a little strategy gives an economy of means that results in freshness.
Going to the dogs?
Interesting that in the photos # 6, 8, & 13, it looks a lot like the head of a long-nosed dog with its mouth open and panting. In photos # 8 & 13 it looks like the dog has a scarf on the back of his head.
(RG note) This is a more serious problem than meets the eye. I spend some time trying to avoid these sorts of ghosts. Unless of course I want them in there. Most men have noticed that if they stare at a floral wallpaper pattern long enough they’ll see naked women. I don’t believe in making art that has unintentional images that will eventually get noticed and perhaps give stress. I’ve frequently been accused of painting “dogs.” It’s my problem and I’m considering therapy.
Jan Verhulst, Beveren, Belgium
At this moment I’m struggling a bit with how to translate a hazy idea into a painting, in other words: the ‘genesis’ of a painting. I wonder how this is done. Are there some methods to facilitate this process? I would appreciate it very much if you want to shine your light on this subject.
(RG note) Unsure concepts are at the root of the better works. Quick sketches are made with the idea of asking “what if?” Ideas and motifs are cross-pollinated until you see something that’s worthwhile. I find that with hazy ideas it’s the second and third generation where the good stuff starts to appear.
Both at once
Charlotte Abernathy, Ashland, OR, USA
Your notes, roughly translated as “just do it” reminded me of learning the same lesson from Writing the Australian Crawl, a book written by Oregon’s late poet-laureate, William Stafford. His way of writing poetry was to wake early (5 a.m.!) and just start with whatever stray words or thoughts wandered into his mind and see where they led. His approach released me from being so uptight about trying to make perfect choices. Of course I agree with you that structure and planning are also important. Sometimes we need more of one approach and sometimes more of the other, and sometimes on really good days, both at once.
Getting on with it
Jason Leisering, Milwaukee, WI, USA
I wish I had a supervisor to start me off. I guess you have to become your own boss. Do I have something to get on with? The largest thing I struggle with is getting motivated — but I’m only 24 years old and don’t know much. But I think that this issue probably keeps coming up even if you’re 80. We all have something to get on with sometimes — we just have to make ourselves get on with it because no one else is going to ask us; unless maybe a dealer or gallery. Your letters have inspired me to have something to get on with.
Peter Senesac, Gainesville, FL, USA
I love the slide show idea. Are you using a special program to make the slide shows or are you building your own template pages and linking them together? I recently discovered Photoshop 6 has a macro function that builds pages from a folder of photos. I’m wondering if there is something better or easier or more flexible.
(Andrew Niculescu note) The Ramparts slide show was created using a custom, dynamic template. It displays images and slide descriptions on request. It represents a basic solution best suited for our purposes and produced fairly quickly. To see and use this template, send me a note at
Set aside the time
Marie Louise Tesch, Black Hills, SD, USA
The big, creative impulses surge out of me, but I need help with the little things that make it better. When I saw you rolling the glaze on I had a “why didn’t I think of that moment”. Same thing with the masking tape. Good practical ideas that I will use today. Yes, today. I have set aside this Valentine’s/President’s Day weekend for a complete immersion in painting. As today’s letter pointed out, when the muse hits, forget all other things. I have warned my beloved spouse, I have made grab-and-it-eat-food so no one goes hungry, I have finished the tax return. Nothing will distract me from my four-day plunge into my world.
What do you do when you are tempted to give up, somewhere about slide 8 or 9, when you’ve done a hell of a lot of work, original ideas have revealed themselves to be weak, and no clear direction announces itself?
(RG note) It happens, and sometimes you do give up. Having said that, the greatest thing in the world is “desire. ” It’s my belief that with enough desire you can make some of the worst disasters into pretty fine works. Two factors contribute to this: 1: Being able to put the work aside for a while so that you are able to return to it refreshed and re-energized. 2: The wondrous saving grace to be had with the use of opaque media.
Thing about walls
Since I have no formal training, you are helping me to make sense of my creative thoughts and ideas. I absolutely love painting walls. Unfortunately for my hubby, it is a continuous process. I have this thing about painting walls. I just love to paint walls, faux walls, textured walls, murals on walls, you name it walls. It seems to be easier for me to tackle a whole room than it is to tackle a canvas. I think it is because I am scared I am going to get it wrong on the canvas, that I am not doing the ‘process’ correctly. Seems so final and I don’t want to disappoint myself. Or maybe it is the fact that there is just more wall space than there is canvas space.
Martine Gourbault, Vancouver, BC, Canada
It’s lovely to follow your process like this, step by step. Obviously you speak the painting language you have invented with ease and fluency, as well as knowing the subject you describe back to front and every which way. Thank you for sharing this with us… but… how do you keep that carpet so free of paint splotches?
(RG tip number 2399834) Replace studio carpet every six months.
Neil Locke, Calgary, AB, Canada
In a past letter you spoke of the value of music combined with art. I happened to be listening to a track off Pat Metheny’s Map of the World soundtrack called Memory when I was viewing your slide show. It just so happened as I was reaching the end of the track I was also observing the final slide. The combination of art and music was truly moving. The slide show answered so many technical and some emotional questions for me.
Short time frame
Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I too stare at the canvas–waiting for the image to appear to me and always re-studying it for new direction. It is awesome how you can commit and stay with your painting from start to finish and complete a painting of that size in two days. I’m only able to commit to a few hours a day most of the time, making my process take up to several weeks per piece.
(RG note) There’s some value in marathoning in order to achieve freshness, but to be honest I think the reason some of us do this is that we recognize and cater to a short span of concentration. For more info on this see letters and responses on Artists and Attention Deficit Disorder.
Sandy Nelson, Kitty Hawk, NC, USA
Thanks so very much for sharing this process. While I don’t paint in acrylic, nor do I paint the subjects you do…my painting process is similar in constructing with shape, value and color… and placement without blending… at least until the end. I wasn’t sure about “Ramparts” until mid-way or so… the fact that there didn’t seem to be a middle ground emerging rather jarred my eye, but by the end, that was beautifully realized. I will keep this letter in a file for future inspiration.
Sunny Howard, Ojai, CA, USA
I really like your “Ramparts,” but what I appreciated most in your slides was the somewhat messy studio, the paints in the yogurt cups, what looks suspiciously like a Planter’s Peanuts can on the floor, paint-stained fingers, rumpled hair and your posture in your chair as you ponder your work. Then there’s the movement “on” the canvas as well as the movement “of” the canvas around the room and on the carpet. Makes me feel as though I’ve been watching one kind of creative process as demonstrated by a good friend.
Monday morning quarterbacking
The final “Ramparts” is glorious but I loved the color and the painting of the sky that is seen in #7, the glow of the light softening the glacier and flowing out into the valley as in #9 and reflecting up into the forefront in #7 and 8 — the whole thing bathed in this softness, then comparing it to the 13th slide, it has become more geometric, with stiffer, harsher lines… i.e. the white opaqueness of the cloud behind the center peak, the blueness of the glazing taking away some of that warmth that exuded earlier… dissipating the glow that shone forth… I miss it.
(RG note) The earlier manifestation is indeed better — but because there was something in it that I couldn’t live with, I changed it, and I think for the worse. At the present time I’ve put the painting aside and will go back in and fix a few things that are starting to bother me more and more, including the sky. Thanks for the perception.
Pam Coffman, Oviedo, FL, USA
I would like to ask your permission to share your presentation on the painting of “Ramparts” with my painting class at Seminole Community College in Oviedo, Florida. As I viewed the slide show in the Painter’s Keys, I knew that it would be a valuable teaching tool to share with my students. If this meets with your approval, I’ll put the slide show in a PowerPoint presentation since I don’t have the capability of sharing the website “live” in my classroom. Rest assured that I will make sure that the students have your website information and information about subscribing. It will be used strictly for educational purposes. Thank you for your consideration.
(RG note) Yes, please do. And thank you to every instructor who asks this question. The answer is practically always yes.
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, 2004.
That includes Marilyn Bowles, who wrote, “I am so slow and so into detail that it would be more than hard for me to change, I think.”
And also Bud Liversidge who wrote, “I’m 70, and I must say it’s getting harder and harder to work up my stamina to complete (let alone start) a large project. You have given me the oomph to continue with an unfinished work that is within eyeshot of this computer.”