As occasional workshop givers, my daughter Sara and I find there are a few artists we can’t help. Some of these folks may be accomplished professionals with developed careers, but most are in some way simply “blocked.”
There’s a wide range of reasons for blockage. One of the most frequent is the buildup of bad habits in basic techniques learned in lesser workshops or from hit-and-miss self-teaching. Another source of blockage is what we call “Educosis,” that is, too much theoretical knowledge with very little actual easel-time. These folks often hate what they do and abandon early. Still others have issues of self-esteem, self-loathing, imposter syndrome and guilt. The list goes on.
Trying to work around these blockages is difficult. If you praise the work of someone with self-esteem issues, for example, they’re not liable to believe you, and dealing psychologically with these folks is more than humble workshop-givers can muster. That’s why we go for practical ploys that might bypass the blockages.
One of our favourite devices is an old hourglass — for some reason ours times out at 37 minutes. Way out of some people’s comfort zone, the instrument produces some surprisingly high-quality exercises. At our recent workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, B.C., participant Jane Appleby found herself making a remarkable 10 paintings a day, each one often better than the previous. We called it “The Strange Case of Jane Appleby.” She also demonstrated the ability to do a painting in 37 strokes, winning her full membership in the “37 Club.” “When you work like this,” says Jane, “You don’t have the time to spoil things by messing around with your strokes.”
Speed, it seems, short-circuits the right brain to the painter’s hand. By not passing through the theoretical shoulds, coulds, and woulds of the left brain, the results are more likely to be “artistic.”
For homework, we suggest our workshoppers, no matter what their personal styles, hang out with the “37 Club” every morning for a month and do a quickie 8″ x 10″ or 11″ x 14″. After all, some folks do yoga, or meditate, or they worship at the altar of Facebook. We can pretty well guarantee that the first few exercises will be disappointing, but many blockages will eventually fall away like blue jeans on a nudist beach. The big payoff is to be happier in your work. Artists of the world arise, you have nothing to lose but your jeans.
PS: “Leave your strokes alone.” (Ted Smuskiewicz)
Esoterica: We recommend cutting up a pile of small primed panels. Once a day, take a panel off the deck, place it on your easel and squeeze out. Take a minute to “center yourself,” and think ahead to what you want to do. Set your timer (a kitchen timer will do) to 37 minutes, breathe deeply and go for it. If you’re not pleasantly surprised after a month, please consider chartered accountancy.
Increments of spontaneity
by Connie L. Solberg, Bergen, Norway
I have been painting all my life and have a studio in an old fish trading building in Bergen, Norway. There are 16 other artists in the building. There is a great difference in how we approach our everyday tasks. The ones with the most “formal” backgrounds seem to have the lowest output. They theorize, talk about how hard “art” is (anyone can make a painting, but REAL ART just is above most mortals), and, in general, waste a lot of time looking at other artist’s work; comparing and fretting.
I came to the conclusion years ago that if I didn’t distance myself from this hoard of nay-sayers, I would be just as paralyzed as they were. I decided that good work just had to be done every day, and I had to just dive in soon after the small rituals I have the first half hour in the studio. After all, it’s like, quality will most likely follow quantity and doing is going to bring progress, no matter how much academic ballast you have.
The most prolific painters of the past didn’t fret or analyze every stroke. I find that some of my best work happens when I am in the zone, and let things flow in short increments of spontaneity.
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Consistency in naive work
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
People have rightfully suggested that there are skills involved in making art, yet this is the only discipline where unskilled work can be passable. In fact, sometimes it can be outstanding. We have a whole group of people, like Grandma Moses, who have done some great work. We have children who sometimes put together a magnificent piece. What we rarely see is someone without skills who can put together a significant body of work. Consistency allows us to judge the work of an artist versus the accidental quality piece of an amateur, like your 9 year old daughter or cousin. Of course, when that child starts to hit the mark consistently, we know there is innate talent, which needs to be nurtured.
Just now prepared to give it a try
by David Skrypnyk, Cowichan Bay, BC, Canada
I have been busy with industry and with the last 3 1/2 years my recently departed wife who struggled with cancer. Just thinking about art was out of the question. I made up for losses with a lambda technique or two via computer manipulation which provided fast stimulation. Somehow the world today is not recognizing so much this approach to art. So like photography it will take a hundred years for the recognition it needs now. Therefore, I believe, since the industrial stimulus of my life persists even more so now Anne has passed away, that I shall try the 37-stroke method.
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Switch tools for greater range
by Cheryl Moore, Toronto, ON, Canada
Here is another method that might be considered for the “37 Club.” Use different tools. This 5 minute painting/sketch was done using a feather and the dropper from the acrylic ink bottle. It’s almost like drawing with your other hand. One tends to loosen up and expectations are suspended thus allowing for freer, more spontaneous results.
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Ten sketches to get unstuck
by Susan Holland, Bellevue, WA, USA
Part of art school was always a session of very fast drawings, with a model changing every few seconds or every few minutes. So that approach has always felt “right” for me, especially if I had not been into my paints for a period of time, and was feeling “rusty.”
Last year I was stuck… life happens… and wanted to roll again with the painting. Since I was snagged on a portrait, I gave myself an exercise — ten 8 x 10 cheap canvases. Ten sketches from all sorts of sources — I grabbed them from TV, newsprint, sports stories, sculptures, whatever, and made cartoons of the expressions on each face, choosing particularly winsome or funny ones.
I realized I must always treat all ten canvases similarly at a given sitting. So all were grounded in one sitting, all were textured and under-painted at a single setting. I enjoyed freely playing with drips and impasto and strange colors and applications, but with each little canvas receiving a similar treatment. This way I had a line up (it seemed to me like a police lineup), and then I dug in. The real point is that the exercise yielded all the good stuff one needs to get unstuck! It worked! I am off and running.
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Stompin’ on the left brain
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
This morning I wanted to demonstrate to the participants of the Southampton Art Group that some success can be had by painting fast with confidence and not letting the analytical left side of your brain butt in and explain to you that you are doing everything wrong. “Robert Genn calls it the 37 Club,” I told them. “Finish the painting in 37 minutes or 37 strokes.” I chose the 37 minutes although I think it was more like 29 which is also a prime number. The brush and oils were flying. The left side of my brain is saying at the moment, “What were you thinking Phil? You didn’t cover all of the canvas! Are you stupid or just lazy? Shape up and do it better next time… !” The right side of the brain, which is always right, is patiently waiting to tell the left side to keep its opinion to itself.
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Nuggets of knowledge
by Kathy Clarke, Salisbury, VT, USA
I started 15 minute paintings — oil on paper — about 2 weeks ago. It is a great trick to blast away all procrastinations. Who does not have 15 minutes? Probably comes down to 37 minutes because I set up a still life, mix paints, then set the timer. And when it rings, I will often continue a bit. My added assignment is to be mindful during the 15 minutes, rather than flying off the planet in excitement. I stay, feet on the ground, wiping brushes, mixing colors, observing value, etc. The stack of small paintings is piling up, as is vital experience and nuggets of knowledge.
Beginning warm-ups in classes
by Jacqueline Crawley-Ewing, Etobicoke, ON, Canada
I have had the same issues with my students in both my abstract and my realism classes. Some days I think I should take a psych course. One solution I came up with was insisting on small assignments at the beginning of the classes after I found I had students not knowing how to begin. Very simple assignments that become the starting point for gradual complexity. They are like gesture paintings — from my warm-up gesture start to drawing classes. I also have added multiples, encouraging them to move to another piece when they have no ideas for one. For the whole class, I often tell them that not every effort will produce a masterpiece and that is OK as they are learning and taking risks. Sadly the best learning experiences are through mistakes.
Just do it
by Susan Robertson, Canada
I saw you painting at Painters’ Lodge on Vancouver Island this past spring. What struck me most about you (aside from your really lovely paintings) was that you sat on the dock, all day long and got down to the business of painting. Literally for hours, you sat, looked and painted. (I was impressed that you could do this and chat with people and generously share insights at the same time.) I get the feeling that you are very prolific and that you paint a lot. I think that is why you are so darn good. I know people get blocked, or lose their inspiration or feel discouraged. I feel that way myself as a very amateur illustrated journal keeper. But what strikes me about you and your painting is that you just get on with it. Too often, I think we are so busy searching for inspiration that we forget about the discipline and hard work of painting. Obviously there is sometimes a muse involved but I really think that the more miles you put under your brush, the more likely it is that the muse will show up. Like musicians, you have to work on your chops and keep practicing. The real magic comes when you don’t have to be thinking about the mechanics all the time. Those mechanics become second nature and things start to flow.
Perhaps we think by immersing ourselves in a creative environment, that some of the artistry will rub off on us. We go to art weekends or seminars or retreats looking for insights. We think if we read enough books, we will understand the mysteries of technique. If we buy enough new paint colours, brushes or fancy notebooks, we will finally find the elusive tools to make our paintings better. To a certain extent these things are helpful. But nothing will get past the simplest of points. Be prolific. Paint a lot. And now I must follow my own advice and get painting.
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 Susie Cipolla of Whistler, BC, Canada who wrote, “Last year I did over 100 8×10’s and 9×12’s in 150 days and 16 minutes apiece. Many of them were pretty awful but there were some gems. The last 20 were a cut above the first 20. Here is number 52.”
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