Music pervades the studio, the headset-phone rings from time to time, the brush proceeds. Here in the solitude of the easel-station there’s time to consider. I’m looking at hold-ups.
Did you ever stop to realize how drawing holds up brushwork? When work is prepared with a drawing, simple or complex, there’s the tendency to work around the lines and cave in to the drawing. This can be an effective way to go, of course, but for a lot of us drawing is a tyranny which impedes freshness and spontaneity. The virus of overwork easily eats away if there are lines to attend to. Drawing, while often a vital step, ought to be implied or suggested with paucity. Brushstrokes then take on a look, a beauty of their own, and the subject finds itself in the strokes.
And did you ever note how knowledge holds up flow? What we know how to do and have come to depend upon can, in an innocent wander, turn adventure to boredom. Sure, professionalism requires professional knowledge: order, theory, technique, facility. The miracle is that knowledge gives its best confidence when kept quietly in a secondary pocket. Only then comes the undisputed magic of letting go. I’m not sure about everybody but it seems what we want more than anything in our work are passages, even minor moments, of con brio.
I don’t mind confessing that I live for those moments and cherish them when they arrive. And when those moments elude me I’m most distressed.
PS: “Leave your strokes alone.” (Ted Smuskiewicz)
PPS: “Perform with elan, brilliance and dash — at concert pitch.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
Esoterica: What does not impede is the knowledge that others are and have been on the same path. While our stars may not, for the time being, shine as bright as Monet’s or Georgia O’Keeffe’s, we are nevertheless of the sisterhood and brotherhood. We’re not alone.
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing.
Like riding a bike
by Pam Wong
We know that once you learn any perceptual-motor skill it commits itself to memory. Like riding a bike, you never forget the process although you may have to hone the skill. With painting, it’s the same thing. We commit our knowledge of technique, pigment and “our own way” to memory. I make all conscious decisions before I start (pigment, layout, technique). Each time I set up I do it the same way — brushes to the right, palette to the right of that, water up top, sponge above the brushes, kleenex up and left etc. For a landscape I lay down about three lines, horizon and anything else significant, that’s it. Once I start to paint then I never have to think about where anything is. My kinesthetic (body movement) memory remembers for me. It is not a conscious act. I have ridden the bike! This allows full focus on the paper. There are few interferences to the inner process with conscious thinking. The perceptual skills and kinestheic memory allow me to move from palette to paper to water with ease. “Autopilot” is achieved. It is here we find our utmost creativity, “our own way”. Since I’m a studio painter this makes it easier. Next time you go to a workshop and space is premium see if you can find a small way to keep your own layout, it works.
by B.A. Cavin
If I do a detailed drawing first, it limits my painting creativity. In addition, my perception of an object changes depending on whether I have a pencil in my hand, or a paint brush. It doesn’t make logical sense, but that is how I am. For the last while I have been doing my paintings only with my paintbrush, and have much better success. Maybe after I paint for a long time, this discrepancy will disappear, but for now I enjoy using my paintbrush as my drawing tool.
Who are these guys Smuskiewicz and Csikszentmihalyi anyway? (several artists asked)
(RG note) To the best of my knowledge they don’t know each other, but they both happen to live in Chicago, which, as everybody knows, is a city that has a lot of people with difficult names. Ted Smuskiewicz is a much-published artist and teacher. Oil Painting Step by Step (1992), a Northlight book, has excellent material for both advanced and beginner painters. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who studies creativity, especially in art, socialization, and the evolution of cultural systems. Books include Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) and The Evolving Self (1993)
by Lesley Humphrey
I am currently doing some “bucking the system.” In other words, my gallery, a sporting art gallery who has sold everything of mine on hand was thrilled to hear I am working feverishly. However, what they do not know is that the equines that have me rushing to the studio on a daily basis are circus horses, the Queen’s huge and hairy drum horses, and the lovely donkeys with bells on in the north of England. I have to say that I am doing what my heart tells me to do… to heck with what’s selling. I need a breather from all of that. Besides, to let ‘what sells’ determine our themes, ensures we keep painting other people’s idea of art.
Just last Friday, faced with a huge canvas and an idea to paint the Queen’s drum horses (Basil and Eric), I literally heard my left-brain/censor/technical side saying things like “Oooh, we’d better draw out that composition first, it’s very complicated…” stuff like that. My creative side sank, feeling intimidated and I went to get myself a cup of tea to think this thing through. Here’s what occurred. I recalled the day when I was at Her Majesty’s Trooping of the Color in London and seeing these great beasts and hearing their booming drums. I asked myself, “If I was a four-year-old Lesley, and I saw this scene for the 40 seconds that I did, what would I find was the most interesting and exciting aspect of the scene?” Clearly, the answer was crystal clear… it was the ornate silver drums draped in red velvet threaded with gold brocade and coats of arms and stuff of Queens and Kings… That and all the hair. I had my answer and I rushed up to the studio and painted the finest drum painting you have EVER seen with a horse and some background stuff stuck to it.
I am now a firm believer that you must engage your “golden child” or whatever you wish to call it, to excavate exactly what it is you must paint. Would a child be impressed by the haughty looking musician perched atop this horse? No. My left-brain/analyzer reminded me lamely, “but Lesley, you’re a horse painter!” No one looking at this piece would ever doubt that, but I know what makes it one of the most splendid pieces I’ve ever done… I didn’t paint it for the gallery, I didn’t paint it to show off how good I can do this or that… I did it because I loved those drums and all that hair.
Freedom from drawing
by Jack Livesey
I’ve been attempting over the past year to free myself from too much drawing, without, I must say, too much success. I keep telling myself — “I’m good at drawing — so why shouldn’t I use it?” I wonder if you could take a minute to give me an idea how you go about losing this dependency — and is it really a dependency?
(RG note) Same problem I’ve had Jack — Drawing comes naturally to me — so I have had a tendency to lean on it. With good drawing — poor colour and poor composition easily creep in. It’s a matter of keeping more than one ball in the air at the same time. Actually the penny dropped one day when I was looking at some Tom Thompson sketches and I realized that he couldn’t draw very well — but they were beautifully composed and his colours were of a sophistication that supercededed my contrived efforts. For almost a year I made myself paint with no preliminary drawing whatsoever. Subject matter changed and simplified — most of the stuff came out of my head. I noticed a couple of things — First, I sped up, second, the work was fresher looking, and third I was for the first time in my life beginning to understand something about color.
It’s a personal thing, and I know lots of artists who don’t paint this way, but I go here and there, back and forth, touch here, dab there, like a bee going to flowers. I half close my eyes and the thing gradually materializes.
by Hilda Brown
In January, when I first started to subscribe to your letter I thought maybe it would be another distraction. I’ve always been a bit leery of what other artists think and do — afraid, I guess, of sullying my own pure direction. However, reading the letters and what others have to say has been beneficial. There has been a flip of the mind. I have gained confidence with the letters because you seem to be of the persuasion that what I do is right. My volume, my income, and definitely my attention to quality, are up this year, and some of the credit goes to the letters.
You may be interested to know that artists from 74 countries have visited these sites since June 1, 2000.
That includes Janet Morgan and Gregory Frux, who just had a show at the National Museum of Art of Kyrgyzstan.
That also includes almost 100 artists who continue to send in quotations for the Resource of Art Quotations.