Intuition is generally defined as the ability to acquire knowledge or perform tasks without the benefit of reason. On the other hand, bright minds have had a hard time determining just what intuition is.
The Swiss psychotherapist and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, considered intuition an “irrational function.” The reformed priest Thomas Merton thought it was a way to see what he called “spiritual reality,” describing intuition as a “legitimate struggle against conceptual knowledge.” Philosopher and architect Rudolf Steiner considered it the highest of three stages of knowledge: imagination, inspiration and intuition. More recently, psychologist and author Daniel Dennett has isolated what he calls “intuition pumps” — essentially thought experiments designed to see the forest rather than the trees. All seem to agree that enriched prior experience is a vital part of intuition.
My interest has been in practical systems that might be applied in daily easel-life. Keeping in mind that a trained and seasoned nurse is probably better able to ease a patient’s pain than someone hooked off the street, here’s a system:
— Prepare your materials
— Sit or stand before the project — new or half done
— Be both calm and excited
— Introduce a mild distraction of some sort
— Take a minute in closed-eyes meditation
— Open your eyes half way and soft focus on your project
— Begin. Go here and there — let the work be your guide
— Pay little or no attention to reference material
— Combine a sense of freedom with a persistent “What if?”
— Consciously squint and “half see” your work
— Casually divide your attention between your work and your distraction. As in variations of Transcendental Meditation, be aware that the good stuff often bubbles up between conscious thoughts.
The distraction is important to the process and can take many forms — radio, another person in the room, telephone headset, dog talk-back, self-talk, quiet chanting or other parallel activity or thought process. While this may seem peculiar, the combo of work and distraction leads to levels of innovation not often generated by structured, focused thinking alone. Whether abstract or realistic, the artist’s work tends more to variety, inventiveness, and is often more artistic.
PS: “Intuition is perception via the unconscious that brings forth ideas, images, new possibilities and ways out of blocked situations.” (Carl Jung, 1875-1961)
Esoterica: In Elbow Room, as well as the more recent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett describes thought experiments designed to focus attention on important features rather than niggling details. Applying his ideas in my studio, less is often more and understatement rules. One sees the “big picture” sooner. Work tends to be more automatic, somewhat recalling the manifesto of “Les Automatistes,” a Quebec group of painters from the 1940s. While memory, recall, emotion, world knowledge and to some degree rationality still play their part, new courage and bravado prevail. Did you notice I didn’t mention the right brain? “Trust the force, Luke.” It feels good.
Painting to music dangerous
by Michael Lang, London, England
I have read that painting with music is not a good idea as they both use the same side of the brain and can interfere with each other. I know your letter doesn’t mention music specifically, but perhaps it could be classified as a mild distraction. Personally I have not found it a problem, but normally I paint without music.
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. I’ve often wondered about that. I used to swear by Baroque music, but over the last few years I’ve preferred talk and variety radio programs (with no commercials) over music.
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Dream prompts painting
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO/East Boothbay, ME, USA
If dreaming is akin to intuition, I just had such an incident that lead to a painting. I awoke having dreamed a painting. Your suggestion that you prepare your mind strikes a chord because I had been working on a series of driftwood paintings. The day before the dream I noticed that an old tree where several crows liked to roost had been cut down and I consciously regretted not having painted them. I suppose the driftwood and the crows were combined in my dream, and I intuitively designed the composition.
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Soft-focus early on
by Mark Larsen, USA
I agree wholeheartedly that soft-focus contemplation while in the under-painting stage, when things are rather amorphous, brings to mind all kinds of interesting possibilities. As a realistic painter, however, the challenge is to bring these ideas to fruition without looking contrived, and keeping them fresh and painterly. Thinking thick/thin, hard/soft, all help ease the burden.
A list won’t work
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
Remembering a list of how to paint intuitively, and following it, just isn’t going to make it happen. A person needs to have inborn intuition, which is a higher form of sensitivity and awareness, that cannot be explained by an intellectual. It’s who a person is, and most often than not, a woman. It’s most easily recognized in persons who tend to live in a future time frame. So if you’re one of those, you know you are intuitive. They have a way of knowing that is unlike most of the thinkers around us. They paint with feeling and sensitivity, knowing what is and isn’t working, without analyzing it to death. Intuition is a gift, and those who have it are most grateful.
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New intuitive direction found
by Daphne Irving, Cornwall, PEI, Canada
Sticking to a natural subject started to bore me and I stopped painting for three years. Then I started seeing visions, and went with it, letting a painting unwrap itself like an onion, never sure of where it was going — even when I thought it was finished, sometime later it would reveal itself as only a background to something else.
Now I go with a fluid technique: I always put music on, then pour on liquid paint (watercolour, oil or acrylic — it all works on a wet surface) on the watered or turps surface, let it flow and merge and create texture. Let it dry or blow dry it.
Then work in direction, colour, using the whole canvas or paper, treating it abstractly. Even when a figure or something definite appears, it’s good to bring up the stuff around it, with deeper tones… sort of like writing a symphony.
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Your paintings are who you are
by Jill Brown, Vancouver, BC, Canada
How one paints is related to how one would be “pegged” on a Myers Briggs Test which draws strongly on the research of Carl Jung. Intuition is an extreme point on a pole with Sensing the other extreme. The theory is that we all fall somewhere along this continuum. This is the pole that determines how we take in the information from the world around us. As this position is not static, we may be able to encourage ourselves to move more one way or the other. However, I believe we should make our greatest effort and thus will receive our greatest joy from freeing ourselves up to being authentic in our painting and our approach to it. Value who we are and what we bring to the table, easel, whatever. If we are metaphorical, then our paintings will likely be metaphorical. If we are pragmatists and detail people, our paintings will reflect that.
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Trusting our inner voice
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
Having studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, I understand intuition in an eastern philosophical or Vedic way. Intellect is more superficial than intuition — it’s based on reasoning and acquired knowledge whereas intuition comes from a level of all-knowingness at a deeper level of consciousness. Intuition is available to everyone but we become more familiar with these deeper levels through meditation practices. Over time we learn not to allow our intellect to overrule our intuitions; we may not know why we don’t want to do something but we trust the feeling, rather than talking ourselves out of it because there is no obvious reason to justify the decision. As artists, we are always deciding where to put that line or what colour or value to use, based on some deep impulse we don’t rationally understand, which is why many artists say they don’t feel they really painted that painting, it just painted itself, or perhaps they feel that they were just the medium through which some divine inspiration flowed. To paint intuitively is to trust our inner voice.
Ansel Adams’ remarkable mountain insight
by Jill Painter Christierson, Maui, HI, USA
I think of something I read about a famous recollection of Ansel Adams concerning what happened on a trip into the back country of Yosemite in 1923: “I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since, the minute detail of the grasses …the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks… I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world — and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.”
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Use of a reducing glass
by Russell McCrackin, Corvallis, OR, USA
I have long heard directions to squint to lose the details but keep the color and value. Being a retired Physics professor I can understand what squinting is supposed to do, but I am short on eyelashes so it doesn’t work for me. However, I have a reducing glass — like a hand-held magnifying glass but it reduces the image instead of enlarging. A magnifying glass has a double convex lens. A reducing glass has a double concave lens. If I look at a scene to paint with it I don’t have to squint to lose the details. If I am sitting at my easel (or pochade box) I can use the reducing lens instead of getting up and walking back.
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Intuition and success
Robert, I think you paint quite intuitively, and going by your various galleries websites it looks like you seldom have a month under $100,000.00. I am represented by some of the same galleries as you but they do not seem to feature me as much or sell me nearly as much even though my prices are more reasonable than yours. What do you think is the reason for this? I am a nice person too — and easy to get along with.
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Every year, in good times and bad, my prices go up a bit to the point that my paintings now sell for more than they’re worth. This increases the amount dealers make from selling my work and my intuition tells me that this perhaps may motivate some of them to some degree.
Enjoy the past comments below for How to paint intuitively…
mixed media painting, 16 x 16 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 Peter Fiore of Matamoras, PN, USA, who wrote, “This is the only way I paint. I don’t know any other way.”
And also Lucie Patou of Cape Coral, FL, USA, who wrote, “Give up control; let the painting tell you what it wants to be.”
And also Nina Allen Freeman of Tallahassee, FL, USA, who wrote, “Without both soul and training, painting is just wallpaper.”