I’m talking about those automatic mannerisms that interfere with our creativity while at the same time contributing to our uniqueness and style. Either way, they’re worth knowing about.
With a bit of scraping around in your history, you can often trace an habitual tendency back to a very early time. In my case, drawing an edge around things that didn’t need an edge goes back to an altercation with a teacher in grade three. To this day, when tired, distracted, or perhaps in a state of self-sabotage, I still do it. Graham Norwell, a friend now painting in the big studio in the sky, went through a period of bending the tiniest tops of all his trees. “I grew up in a light wind,” he used to say.
Cruising new and old work in a systematic, relaxed and objective way, we need to ask, “What’s different here?” Perhaps surprisingly, many habitual tendencies arise around the easel, palette and tools.
A classic example of an easel-based mannerism is the work of El Greco. Striking for the elongated and particularly “holy” look of his bishops and cardinals, the effect was no doubt due to El Greco’s habit of placing his canvas high on his easel. When viewed from a lower angle, as he would have done when he painted, El Greco’s faces are closer to normal.
El Greco knew full well of his habitual tendency and made spiritual hay out of it: “The language of art is celestial in origin,” he said, “and can only be understood by the chosen.”
Your personal style is perhaps the single most valuable part of your work. Knowledge of stylistic tendencies also uncovers those habits that you might want to modify or purge. Because we get so used to looking at them, really entrenched habits, particularly in mature artists, can be tough to notice. This is the job of the artist’s “third eye” — the independently-educated one that has no ego.
Go ahead, if you have habitual tendencies, tell us about them. Your close examination of your work–and your report–will help you better understand your art.
PS: “You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to the sword those who would try to steal it.” (El Greco 1541-1614)
Esoterica: In some cases it may be the knowledgeable collector who is most aware of your habitual tendencies. “You made that mistake on another one of yours I have,” said a buyer at a recent show. Peculiarly, even “mistakes” may be treasured, because they give pleasures of superiority and talking points to the discriminating connoisseur. It’s nice, too, when collectors point out your good habits and what you’re doing right, even when they appear in the work of someone who stole them. Where’s my sword?
Giant with a pinhead
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
One of my many bad habits is with drawing and painting the figure. I almost always start with the head and work downward. As I do, the scale of my figures gradually increases. Everything looks fine until I step back and realize there’s a giant with a pinhead on my paper or canvas. It might work if I was drawing comic book figures, but not for my desired effect. Sigh. Scrub out, start over.
BTW, I am no longer in Afghanistan (yay!). I’m back home in the Asheville, NC, area. No more deployments for this guy.
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by Angela Courtney, USA
It seems as soon as I identify one habit, another one crops up. First it was subject. I seemed to be saying the same thing over and over, illustrating the same scenario. I’ve move away from this tendency, but now I seem to draw all faces too long, human, cat, dog — I have to keep correcting myself. I think it’s all about “self,” such as I have a long-ish face, so I’m drawing what I know. It does make me wonder what else I’m doing subconsciously.
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Student of life and art
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
I am always overwhelmed at your ability to step back from yourself and observe. Presently, I’m reading Eckhart Tolle‘s book A New Earth. He speaks to understanding and observing the ego as a way of finding truth and peace in one’s life. So congratulations to you for being one who is well along on that journey. And that journey is far more important than getting everything perfect. You are truly a student of life and art. We value that very much.
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by Bobbi, Burlingame, CA, USA
What can you make out of starting a loose poppy painting which painting people liken to Georgia O’Keeffe, and then I keep painting over and over this same painting to improve when unnecessary? I want to stay “loose”, but end up over doing! Do you have any suggestions on breaking this perfectionist tendency? Help, please!
(RG note) Thanks, Bobbi. There are several theories about this. I’ve noticed that women have a greater tendency to do it than men. This makes me think that it has something to do with the female need to “give more.” This may be a cultural thing, and it may have something to do with the way women are wired. In any case, the idea of “It can’t be that easy” hits both men and women, and we do go on, gradually killing that first spontaneous burst of creative energy that is often enough to carry the day. The writer E.M Forster noted the situation many years ago and coined the phrase, “Only connect.” Another theory is the “persistence of perfectionism” of my own invention. It’s something all humans have in varying degrees, and I can assure you that it is impossible to achieve.
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When collaboration kills creativity
by Betsy Schulthess, Exeter, NH, USA
I have been reading the New York Times Bestseller, Quiet by Susan Cain, and your comment about others picking up unanimity from others and being all over it like kids on a broken gumball machine, made me reflect further on some of what I had read in Chapter 3 titled, “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” and how peer pressure unknowingly affects us.
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by Ellie Siskind, Indianapolis, IN, USA
When I was in grade school I spent many hours looking at the people who came into Dad’s mobile home business — from all walks of life: gypsies, vacation travelers, soldiers back from the war. I used up a lot of letterhead stationary — with two-B pencils, drawing these folks and wondering about their lives, what made them look that way. I didn’t draw from Photos and didn’t draw “movie stars” but regular people. Now I am modestly “famous” in the Indiana region and in four museums — I have applied the idea of the way our lives mark our faces, like masks.
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Curiosity overcomes preconception
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
I am pleased to be invited to teach at the School of Curiosity. Malcolm McClean is bringing together a team of innovators and entrepreneurs to explore how we can live our lives more creatively and express more fully our hopes and dreams.
Oscar Wilde said, “I put my talent into my work. I put my genius into my life.” It is not enough to simply paint. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to make a life which supports, or allows for, full time painting. In this respect, paintings are more of a witness to creative thinking than the source of it.
Painting is a way of seeing. We see with our mind. Our eyes are merely lenses. Over the years our minds develop countless preconceptions about how things appear so it can quickly interpret the world around us.
In my class we will do simple exercises that force us to really see familiar objects as if for the first time. To short-circuit our preconceptions.
This same process applies to all problem solving. Our minds tend to go to old familiar solutions, to follow well used patterns of thought rather than see things with fresh eyes and come up with an innovative idea.
Organization of palette
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
Habitual things are hard to see until we step back and your letter has made many of us do just that. I think my most noticeable habit is the organization of my palette. Actually, it is never organized. I have noticed over the years how many artists have all their colors in a particular order and in many cases such insignificant little dobs of paint. The colors I put on my palette are never in the same order and I only ever use about six at a time — not the whole rainbow as many artists do. This haphazard palette gives every palette a feeling and personality of its own and I believe adds to the overall adventure of the next painting. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
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by Chris Christen, Florence, Italy
Habitual tendencies are what define our uniqueness, particularly evident in handwriting, drawing and painting. Our hands reveal our deepest emotions, inextricably woven in our minds. On sabbatical, I’m discovering my love for Florence, the galleries and museums — habitually rendering my experience in a little pocket-book, which I carry with me always, taking the advice of Leonardo da Vinci.
We all have tendencies — some appreciated, some not — but how often have dislikes turned out to be someone else’s likes? Ever had one of your ‘poor’ paintings become somebody’s ‘must have’? This happens in reverse, too. The one painting you think is your best, nobody wants. The collector is unique, also, with unique tendencies, even habitual tendencies, in forming a unique collection. When one person’s tendencies appeal to another, success is found for both. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” (William James)
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Everything is possible
by Warren Browne, UK
All the new age gurus such as, ETF, Psych K, NLP, Clinical Hypnosis claim it is easy to make changes in our lives to eliminate old destructive patterns and create new positive ones. Some say it takes 21 days and others about a month is needed to affect positive change. Doesn’t it boil down to “All thought is energy,” “Your thoughts create your reality” or “Energy flows where the attention goes”? We have the power to change — it only depends how much effort we are willing to put in to making changes. “Start by doing what is necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” (St. Francis of Assisi) “In the arts, as in life, everything is possible provided it is based on love.” (Marc Chagall)
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Stadium Site Study 4
mixed media photo collage 20 x 27 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 Douglas Smith of New York, NY, USA, who sent us this quote: “In painting, as in everything else, there is a fatal tendency to become accustomed to one’s faults.” (John Collier)
And also Nan Zimdars of Madison, WI, USA, who wrote, “My painting coach asked me, ‘Why are your darks and shadows always cool?’ My paintings have improved after this habit was pointed out to me and derailed. I consciously think about it now.”
And also Richard Solinger of the USA, who wrote, “Don’t worry. Be happy. ‘There is a tendency for things to right themselves.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
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