An old Chinese proverb says, “Do not grasp the brush before the spirit and the thoughts are concentrated.” This part of the creative process — the beginning part — needs to be handled with the same sort of attention as given to the later stroking. This is where you envision the potential; this is where you sort out the variables for the dish you are about to concoct. Why go for the same automatic cold rice, when almond gai-ding or egg foo-yong could be in the wok?
A list of creative ingredients is valuable. Every artist needs his or her own, and they ought to be reassessed regularly. I’m not saying this is anyway near definitive but right now I’m playing with extenders, texture gels, glazes, giant brushes, wire brushes, combs, plastic scrapers, sponges, little rollers, linen rags. The mere thought of these tools and media when projected onto a blank canvas widens the range of possibilities. With retooling, the compositions, motifs, and passages change as the mind morphs with them. The possibility of possibilities turns jobs into adventures. Having said that, the thoughtful and intelligent elimination of variables works too. How to simplify; how to have form follow function. The architect’s job holds its own joy — and while results and outcomes can’t be too finely predicted in a creative process, the payoff is that desire and resolve are better honed in this zone.
Thinking things out in advance also leads to economy and freshness in the production zone. You empower yourself to be casual and fluent. Unpleasant over-workings and compositional boo-boos have a better chance of being avoided. And hey, it’s not always easy. But the idea of all this early thinking and visualizing is to make later activities both more professional and a little easier. And best of all it helps your finished product to look like it was all so easy. And that makes everybody else crazy. And that’s the idea.
PS: “Easy is right. Begin right and you will be easy. Continue easy and you are right. The right way to go easy is to forget the right way, and forget that the going is easy.” (Chuang Tzu)
Esoterica: Economy of process is improved by readdressing your familiar order of doing things. Take satisfaction in the idea that every individual work may require or even demand a different order. Foreground — background, subject — surround, dark — light, strong — weak, soft — hard, big — small. Our minds are made for yin and yang.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Less can be more
by Linda Saccoccio, NY, USA
No doubt what you speak of here can really work. I can’t resist adding my two cents because of the quote by Chuang Tzu and because of your last sentences re: “the finished work looks easy and that makes everybody crazy. And that’s the idea.” One reason is that I feel that I do a lot of what inspires my work prior to entering my studio, and I am seduced by keeping things simple and trusting the power and presence of simplicity. This may come from a rebellion to masochistic hard labor ethics. It may come from a devilish part of me that wants to get away with such pleasure to the path of transcendence. Not to mention that right or appropriate action can be achieved almost effortlessly if we are able to be present. It also comes from a respect and admiration for those who have proved less can definitely be more; more elegant, more poetic and more other, which is the mystery that captures the viewer.
by Cesar Girolamo, Padova, Italy
So why when I plan so much and divide my tasks every which way in order to head off potential problems which may come along later do I quite often but often consistently do work that ends up looking like chop sui?
“Carry on regardless”
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
I am just recovering from rejection in a juried exhibit. It’s good that the jurors gave reasons but I must say “needs more drawing skills” cut to the quick! It takes me back to art school when one teacher said, “You know what’s wrong? You can’t draw.” My only satisfaction was that the rest of the instructors went on to become famous, and this one didn’t! Well, we bounce back and in the privacy of our cave we can examine and admit, “they are right.” I am so busy with everything else in life that I do not practice drawing enough. Lazy when it comes to preliminary composition/value sketches. I agree with you about the idea of new tools/supplies to spur the creative spirit. Going into an art supply store is to me like being let loose in a candy store. Everything looks so YUMMY, wouldn’t it be fun to try this? Anyway, I told friends that IF the painting bombed I would merely take it to the next place and drop it off for another show! Which I did. By the time I finish this month’s volunteer stint in that gallery I shall have seen my painting enough to be able to see all flaws and know better how to correct them! The one thing about being a painter is that you carry on regardless. Hopefully we learn and improve as we go.
What do you think?
by Sib Sener, Adana, Turkey
My interest in painting started early, due to my father’s versatile activities in art. Despite the fact that my only interest was in art, I studied computer science in England. I met with painting again in 1991, when I took up working in “Mustafa Dulda Gallery”, which was built in Sabanci Cultural Center in Adana, Turkey. I did oil paintings with Mustafa Dulda for 5, and watercolor paintings with Mehmet Çekenoglu for 2 years. In the meantime, I felt closer to oil painting. I am a member of Adana Painter’s Association. Is it proper to ask the members of your community to have a look at my work and tell me what they think about my paintings? But if it is not, I will understand the manner, could be so many like me asking the same thing.
Not how I want to paint
by Rita Requa
I am a beginning watercolour student, who has been training to paint realistically, when I’m sure that’s not how I want to paint. But I am learning techniques and other basics. Hopefully, my paintings will evolve to something that is deep within my brain.
(RG note) Coming to terms with how and what you want to paint is one of your central jobs. It’s important not to grow cabbages when you crave bak choi. And if you think I’ve carried this metaphor too far — I assure you I’m stopping right now. You have a dream of how your paintings ought to look. Your lessons and education pursue other directions. Don’t lose site of your initial dream — it could be the most valuable. Try every technique and method and subject until you have exhausted the possibilities. When formal school ends and all the dust settles — go back to your original dream and give it the whirl it deserves. “It takes a lifetime to unlearn an education.”
I wonder if you could help me out? My instructor does all those things you suggest using, little gadgets that don’t have much to do with the regular art studio. I find it difficult enough to learn how to use brushes properly, draw, and mix color, etc., without going into combs and knives and other odd tools. But my instructor insists we use them, because he uses them. When you come right down to it he doesn’t know how to paint properly himself, can’t do it, and yet he is an important tenured instructor in a well known art school. Please don’t use my name or email as they will find out who I am and kick me out. Incidentally the instructor I was talking about gets your letters and first recommended them to us, and a lot of other people. He says you have a few good ideas.
(RG note) I’m one of those who believe in getting all the basic, academic, proper nuts and bolts training you can. But it will not hurt you to play with the stuff your instructor suggests. Many art instructors are brilliant at stretching the imagination and getting students to see the possibilities even though they may not be interested in helping you to paint like Caravaggio. If you want to limit yourself to brushes—which I don’t recommend—you may have to find another school, or look at some of the books available.
What shall I paint?
by Ursula Medley, Powell River, BC, Canada
Sitting at the easel one day, asking myself, ‘What shall I paint?,’ noticing my grip on the easel, I came up with this painting. ‘Being there’ brought me the answer to my question. This painting was done in moment of ‘creative block’. At that time I was in one of life’s transitions: moving from supporting my 3 children and my elderly mother with a mural painting business to finding myself free of this responsibility as the children left home and mom moved to a nursing home. It was now time for me to commit to a new relationship with my painting… to paint only for myself. Having birthed 3 children I knew from the birthing experience that the ‘transition period’ is one of the most difficult times of delivery; the time that bridges the space between fear of letting go to the birth of a new life. I sat frozen at my easel. Wanting to create a ‘masterpiece.’ Trying too hard to come up with something new. I stayed with this fear. Then I noticed my hand gripping the easel. In that moment I knew what I had to paint. It was there before me. My hands are my tools of expression and instruments for experiencing that which I love… to touch another human, to feel wet soil, to stroke an animal, to touch new growth on a fir tree. Their lines and creases, their gnarly shapes tell my story. I love their uniqueness. The painting title “Get a grip” reminds me to overcome my fears.
Mimi couldn’t take it anymore. She felt abandoned. I was not the man she knew. I slept on the floor beside my easel instead of in bed with her. I dug a grave in the backyard and buried my old self. I carved a tombstone and put a notice of death on the back door. I frightened her — me plunging boldly into the unknown — her trying to raise our family and have a normal home. She hated my new name ManWoman and never took it on her lips! Mimi hated my tattoos, especially my third eye. I wanted to be a responsible mate but I was unable to resist the whirlpool of spiritual transformation that pulled at me.
(RG note) ManWoman has written a new book, Homesick for Eternity, about his ongoing poetic odyssey being an odd-ball. You can find out about it at http://www.flyfootpress.com/homesickforeternity.html
by Simon Nette, Melbourne, Australia
I have written a play based on the secret burning in the late 1850’s of JMW Turner’s erotic art by Ralph Wornum (Head of the British National Gallery) and art critic and philosopher John Ruskin, one of Turner’s executor’s. I have been a Turner aficionado forever. It was about a month ago, in my general reading about Turner, that I discovered this act of artistic barstardy had occurred. I was furious! I decided I would explore the reasons for my anger, and discovered what I was really angry about was the mindset that considers art should be subjected to certain external mandatories. That’s just fascism wearing a beret! It doesn’t matter whether the mandatory is religious, philosophical or artistic. The mindset that thinks it’s OK to disrespect, denounce and even destroy any art that doesn’t conform to what “real art” ought to be is anathema to me. (I come from a family of artists — father a painter/potter/sculptor, mother an actress, aunts writers and painters, great-grandfather painter/author.) Recently a friend attended a conference on art and spirituality, and the painter Michael Berenger was one of the speakers. He had brought some of his work for display, and the organizers (under pressure from some conference attendees who found the images offensive) took down several pictures. It was the report of this incident that galvanized me into writing the play in an intense 10-day period. I’m telling you and your readers this because the primary issue at the heart of my play is the matter of artistic integrity. Your recent letters have resonated with me so much.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Pamela Masik who says, “A friend recently reminded me that the script one has doesn’t read anything like another (your play is different than mine).”
And Gerald Liu who writes, “I have never heard of the Chinese proverb you quoted.”
Quotes on “beginning”
“I succeeded in simply attending at the birth of all my works.” (Max Ernst)
“Without delay I began work, without hesitation and all of a fever.” (Paul Gauguin)
“I must always have a clear image of the form of a work before I begin. Otherwise there is no impulse to create.” (Barbara Hepworth)
“I must begin, not with hypothesis, but with specific instances, no matter how minute.” (Paul Klee)
“I rarely begin a work with any clear or predetermined idea as to how the work should look. Even when I do, I seldom find the completed work matching up with the original projection.” (Noyes Capehart Long)
“One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite else. It is remarkable how little the ‘willing’ of the artist intervenes.” (Pablo Picasso)
“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” (Plato)
“Look with favour upon a bold beginning.” (Virgil)
(RG note) The above have been taken directly from the Resource of Art Quotations. Artists, art students, and instructors of all stripes turn to this resource when they want to prime the pump.