Like a lot of us I get quite a few calls from beginning artists in need of advice. Sometimes it starts off with a technical question that leads to larger, more motivational questions. Yesterday a neighbour lady, Carmen, phoned and wanted “general, overall mentoring” leading to “guidance on what she wanted to do.” She had painted part of a painting that very morning and wondered if she could bring it over. I gave my usual: “Paint a hundred more and then bring them over.”
This letter is dedicated to the Carmens of this world. There’s a singular habit you need to develop. You need to build a regular productive rhythm that explores your own doing. It’s going to be a bit like chain-smoking — you use the last one to light up the next. But unlike a production line where all the products are the same — this conveyor belt will only exist in order to show development, variation, possibilities. Here are a few keys to a possible adventure in “one to another”:
Start up your line every day at the same hour.
Temporarily renounce other joys of your life.
Let no one and no thing interrupt your flow.
Supplement your imagination with books.
Let motifs and ideas grow out of themselves.
Keep asking yourself “what could be?”
Keep fresh — do not linger or anguish.
Be delusional — be full of “moxie” and “mojo.”
Let your processes become your governors.
Become particular about your tools and systems.
Take joy and optimism to your growing mastery.
Be always prepared to change your mind.
Fall in love with the actual doing.
Use your intuition to assess your progress.
Accumulate your winners and toss your losers.
If you do this every day Carmen, you will find out whether you’re cut out for it or not. If you’re not, that’s fine too — you’ll be able to get on with another side of your life. Give it a try. It’s not like it’s a lifetime commitment. And if you do get to a hundred please give me a call and come on over.
PS: “He was a worker whose only desire was to penetrate with all his forces into the humble and difficult significance of his tools. Therein lay a certain renunciation of Life, but in just this renunciation lay his triumph, for Life entered into his work.” (Rainer Maria Rilke on Rodin)
Esoterica: Of all the motivational material that comes and goes for creators — there’s a single insight that’s above diamonds. It is that our currency is what we are able to make. Ideas, words, knowledge and dreams are of course important, but more than anything we need to see ourselves as simple “thing-makers.”
by Quinn McDonald
I get hit up for advice all the time (I’m a creativity coach, so I ask for it) and people get angry when I can’t hand them a sentence, or, at best, one book, that gives them the whole answer. I’ve tried saying, “we don’t look for meaning in life, we make meaning in life,” but that’s too esoteric. The next time someone asks me for the solution that will do whatever it is they don’t want to work out themselves, I’ll tell them, “make 100 like it, then call me.” I may quote you in my next newsletter, if you don’t mind. It’s such a simple truth.
Wrestling with worthiness
by Janet Vanderhoof
I guess we all worry if we are doing the right thing and want a lot of praise and support. Painting can be very lonely and a big risk, including a loss of time we could be doing other things. I constantly wrestle with the idea if I’m good enough and worthy of continuing. But, in the end the bottom line is I have to paint for the sake of my spirit.
100 is presumptuous
by Tim Simmons, West Memphis, AR, USA
I have painted only 8 portraits in my life so far (no practice ones either) and I have had nothing but raving comments about how good they are. This idea that no one can be good when they begin something is a myth. The concept of improving with each attempt is valid but I would never assign a number to it… Why not look at Carmen’s painting and then judge how many she’ll need to do before returning? Telling her to do 100 is presumptuous.
50 is enough
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
My advice to beginners:
Paint 50 paintings.
Don’t work longer than three hours on any one painting.
Don’t destroy any paintings, no matter how awful, until all fifty have been done.
Paint anything; copy, imagine, experiment, work from life.
When 50 paintings are done, line them up in order, from your first painting to your last painting, and look at them. Your own work is your best teacher.
Pay-back for a dream
by Deborah McLaren
What I know as an artist, I acquired over years of asking questions, observing and doing, and I enjoy giving back into the creative world that which I have “borrowed.” In other words, I didn’t do it alone. My art is a composite of all the teachers and fellow artists I have met and experienced over the years, and I owe it to those who are not as accomplished to give them a hand up, and they, in turn, someday will do the same to the next up and coming artist. With one response, you can encourage or discourage someone from pursuing a dream.
by Jerry Waese, Toronto, ON, Canada
You are a good mentor to be patient enough to allow beginners some access and wise enough to dispatch them to their own healing act of painting. This regular practice you are describing is much like the regular meditation practice that aspirants in monasteries apply — and the goals are not really that much different. Thankfully the act of painting is less austere than life in a monastery, and when engaged in regularly it becomes the immersion of self into beauty. The reconnection process involves many, many restarts, many regular applications and as you say, “falling in love with the actual doing.”
Peer reassurance a “trap”
by Elizabeth Azzolina, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA
A large part of creating is trusting the inner spirit and the heart. Artists must have full faith and confidence in their work. This self-assured spirit cannot be built by others; the artist must do it himself. Indeed there are techniques and skills that are brought to an artist’s knowledge base by teachers and peers, but at some point the artist must learn to stand on her/his own creative vision. There is a “trap” that an artist can create by consistently looking to peers for reassurance of the focus of their work. The more an artist works and the more work they produce, the greater their skill level becomes, yielding greater self-confidence and faith.
Ideas morph by doing
by Mary Timme, Aurora, CO, USA
Many people say to me, “You do so much! I could never…” and of course, I think to myself, but you can; you just don’t. Know you have to make mistakes and things that would embarrass anyone, but it is part of the learning curve. Not every idea arrives full born and some take a lot of time, even years, to morph into their shape. But you have to be doing to find that out. It isn’t until you make that ‘intuitive’ connection in the brain that real learning takes place.
Best of both worlds
by Ursula Rettich
We are not all as disciplined as we would like to be or have the luxury, by choice or not, to shut out the world for a few hours. Only a person who has no household to run or others’ gives advice like this. Here is an idea for the other half of all the Carmens: (we are talking about people who want to get into a routine) Go to bed with your idea of a painting, then in the morning set up your support and look at some color choices. Then do whatever you have to do at home, go to work etc. but never let the art out of your mind completely — from then on, whenever there is some extra time go to your painting. Walking away from it has the advantage that you see it with critical eyes every time you come back into the room. Continue this pattern of “art and work” — what a fun day you will have to be able to do both. The flow will continue because your brain will not let it go until the work is finished. You walk around on cloud # ? because you don’t shut out the other part of your life completely.
With and without chocolate
by Mary Klotz, Woodsboro, MD, USA
A painter friend of mine told me that it takes a painting a day for a month. I’ve not yet accomplished that. Beyond engaging oneself in the process repeatedly and consistently, there is the “afterprocess” — which acts as the bridge between finishing one piece and preparing for the next. Pondering a piece generates jumping off points for subsequent work — write down the ideas that come — and use them. Notice your thoughts as you work and as you ponder. The way you think of things is significant.
Consider working at different times of the day. Your own biorhythms and the quality of light vary — explore what working feels like in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. With chocolate and without.
Painting full time
by Kathleen Cavender, Spokane, WA, USA
Fifteen years ago I made a conscious decision that altered my life forever. After painting and selling one piece at a time for most of my life, I decided to treat painting like a 9 to 5 job. I even made myself a timecard to clock myself in and out of the studio each day. After a few months, it was no longer needed. From that time on, I have been working at a steady pace. When I have a solo exhibit approaching, you might find me working 10 to 12-hour days, six or seven days a week. But most weekdays I am at the easel painting or stretching canvas or framing during normal 9 to 5 “working hours.”
From one to one hundred
by Vicki Easingwood, Duncan, BC, Canada
I recall the first time I went into a gallery to see if they might hang anything… and after Murray looked at one of my sketch books (all done in watercolour and on both sides of each page), he just looked at me, smiled and said ‘yes.’ Well, I didn’t sell much there but Murray gave me the key to ‘it.’ Painting after painting had happened in that book and from it I saw, as in a movie, the development of me. The good ones, the bad ones, the bits here and there worth keeping and the evolution that is still taking place. Of course, I learned to not paint on both sides of the paper (I had not thought myself worthy of wasting any blank sheet), but even on the duds, of which there are still plenty, I just move on to the next. An artist is alone with his/her art, but the art comes in huge multiplicity, and an almost promiscuous sense of what’s next. The process is the fun; the product is only a possibility.
Fourth life needed
by Gerti Hilfert, Lagenfeld, Germany
As a housewife and a mother I must say that it is extremely difficult to do “a hundred paintings,” especially with no outside studio and while normal life around keeps screaming. A hundred paintings could mean a woman’s whole life. It still seems to be a man’s privilege to work all day as an artist. See the difference: women are living three ‘lives’ at the same time… as a family and home-manager, a wife, and a mother. To be an artist would mean to manage the fourth!
I want to share a few thoughts written by an unknown person (translated from German). It is an analogy about a male and a female artist:
When a woman starts painting she gets the old watercolours from her children.
When a man starts painting he buys an easel and special colours.
A painting woman seems to be bored.
A painting man feels the bondage about a message for the world.
A woman’s experimental paintings excel her play instinct.
The same experiments would bring him respect.
When a woman paints, her husband feels neglected.
When a man paints, he needs his wife to look up to him.
When a woman is busy with painting, her children degenerate.
When a man is busy with painting, his children come into art.
A male painter needs a model — for inspiration.
A female painter with a male model — she appears to be a hussy.
When a woman paints, it’s just a nice fact and she earns her pocket money.
A man earns his royalty.
Untrained women’s paintings are referred to as their hobby.
Men doing the same are self-taught.
A man who uses his pants as a cleaning rag while painting is very busy with huge work.
A woman doing the same appears as a ragbag.
A male painter who screams for food from his studio; it will be served.
If a female painter screams for food nobody will be there.
If a professor praises a woman, everybody believes he’s crazy about her.
The same praises to a man means he will start a great career.
A man talking five hours a day about paintings will be admired by his wife and all his friends.
A woman talking about the same for but five minutes a day, others will admire only her husband for listening.
If a male painter leaves his family, everybody knows he follows his “call of profession.”
A female painter who leaves her husband and child appears as a megalomaniac.
A woman always is very busy — with Life. And, too, with arts.
The man himself is an artist.
Might come over
by Ricardo Inke, Sao Paulo, Brazil
I’ve been feeling exactly like Carmen these days. My wife and I are opening an art studio in a very touristic historical town here in Brazil and I’ve been feeling very uncertain if we are good enough artists for such an enterprise. We would like to have a pro opinion on our work. After reading your letter I’ve got the feeling that the answer is exactly to keep working, as much as we can, and let the passersby judge if we deserve to be there. I’ll let you know when I have 100 paintings and I might come over.
Paint a thousand
by Ken Campbell
You may have been too easy on Carmen. Here’s why: Telling her to “…Paint a hundred more and then bring them over…” might sound like hell to a dilettante but heaven to an enthusiastic painter. So your comment may have spurred a catharsis that can go either way. On the other hand it is not surprising that your comment hit home with me. On the front of my teaching handouts, in 48 point letters, are the words “…start by doing 1000 paintings…” My purpose for stating this, while also testing the student’s resolve, is to clearly state my conviction that the process of painting is, in very large measure, the real teacher.
Okay to repeat a painting?
by Jan Yeb Ypma, Digby Island, BC, Canada
During a recent exhibition I had the pleasure of selling a few of my paintings. Things got a little complicated when someone wished to buy a large painting which had already found a home. I informed the interested party that I would be willing to paint a second one for him. I assured him it would be different and that he could view it, once completed in a few weeks, before committing himself. This one turned out quite different, in mood, proportions, tint, time of day, title, etcetera, but theme and size were identical to that of the first. What are the legal and moral implications of repeating a work? Monet painted the cathedral front over and over, remember.
(RG note) Variation on theme is the blood of creativity. “One to another” is a basic principle. Forget that someone requested that you do another. You’re doing it anyway.
One Last Time
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 Rene Seigh who wrote, “While I am doing my hundred paintings, should I stick to one medium or can I explore oils and acrylics again?”
And also J. Bruce Wilcox who wrote, “A really big rush of Love/Light exploded through me as I read the quote by Rainer Maria Rilke on Rodin, which always indicates I’m in the presence of MY Truth. There simply is no other place I’d rather be than in my studio creating.”
And also Pat McCallum who wrote, “I know you have more to say about perceiving yourself as a simple ‘thing-maker.’ I sense that you are offering some gold that I need a bit more fleshing out to fully grok.”