As usual, some of my recent tips baffled a few folks. “Listen to the music that has been within you from your youth,” confused Peter Brown of Oakland, CA. “Is this about marching to my inner drummer,” he asked, “or the suggestion that I dust off my old Beatles albums?”
Inner drummer, Peter, sorry, not Sgt. Pepper, but it could be. The idea is to tune into and bring to life our earliest interests and passions.
“External” and “Internal” are the two main types of creative motivation. External motivation can be market forces or societal, peer or educational demands. As an example of the latter, some art school friends were recently asked by their instructor to dig around and find subject matter that “upsets or angers you.” The result was a classroom full of poverty, privation, humiliation, defeat, famine, war, fanaticism, religious prejudice, gay bashing, familial discord and various other social ills. I’m not saying these are unsuitable subjects for paintings, but they just didn’t fit in with the current thoughts of most of these students. “Life is good and I’m happy to be alive,” said one. “If I was angry I’d spray-can the boxcars. Right now I want to learn how to paint, not how to protest.”
Internal motivation, on the other hand, often originates in the purity of our pre-teen youth and is rich with unsullied integrity. An artesian well of surprise and diversity, different folks report the early highs of camping, playing sports, watching wildlife, listening to music, fishing, collecting or even quietly drawing and painting. Evolved artists, in my experience, are able to use these primal joys as guides and triggers for creative direction and satisfaction. In my observation, the results are generally superior to the proscribed demands of others.
Internal motivation can be sparked by a few minutes of quiet Zen-like reflection on earlier times and places. Work begins when you answer the question, “What do I want to do today?”
The other alternative is to do what other people want. It’s also been my observation that most of us rugged individualists would prefer a root canal to doing other people’s will.
PS: “Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film.” (Ansel Adams)
Esoterica: B.G. (Before Girls) I had an extensive collection of semi-rotten and weathered roots and gnarls from our nearby forests and beaches. Leaning against the side of our home, my museum pieces were wired to several sheets of dad-provided plywood, until mom happened to notice the carpenter ants. Visualizing the ants’ destructive march to our school, hospital and parliament buildings, multiplying like the brooms in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, overwhelming civilization as we knew it, my parents contrived with a local farmer, Albert Eales, to load my museum onto his flat-bed, take it somewhere and burn it. This covert operation hurt my folks as much as it did me, and they apologized forever after. Bugs and all, the objects and their bone-like forms still hang out lovingly in the deep folds of my B.G. soul.
The demystifying instructor
by Kim Attwooll, Tryon, NC, USA
Very few of us manage to reach the stage where the more intricate suggestions are meaningful. However, your fairly constant reminder about just having fun and playing with the medium is a message that I strive to get across to my students. Most people have a preconceived notion that they can’t possibly become an artist. It seems to me that my job is to demystify, in my case, watercolor for them. We start with the quick and simple properties and show fun effects like charging color, spraying into paint, salting, and sponging. Once the desire to explore is apparent, practice becomes fun and before you know it “Wow” is appearing on the paper. Then they start doing something that they were told they could never do.
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The negative painting
by Rhonda Bobinski, Red Lake, ON, Canada
There is something to be said about “the negative painting” that delivers us directly to our youth, in some cases. Art can be a fantastic form of catharsis, of healing, and getting those “demons” out. I can’t help but think of the art of the amazing William Kurelek who blatantly exposed his psychology on canvas. Horrific to view, but mandatory for his mind. Does cathartic art need to be shared? Sometimes it is good enough to have a good crying session in the studio with a palette of acrylic and a canvas. For instance, I am a high school teacher. I had the horrible experience of having to go through the process of assisting others as they dealt with the suicide of a friend and student. It was difficult to be strong, but I could have that release in my studio. I painted away my anger at society, at hate, at loss, and it helped me to heal. And then I turned it around and allowed my students to have a voice. We drew large scale hand portraits, with messages for the rest of the school, communicating our feelings with art and gesture. We were telling everyone who we are and that we are willing to share, to talk, to reach out. It was beautiful. Sometimes the most beautiful bloom emerges from the swampy waters.
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The slow trek to rediscover
by Donald Jurney, Boston, MA, USA
A propos of this morning’s letter, here’s a resonant Albert Camus quote: “A man’s life is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Matthew Innis did a post on kindness among artists.
I know, after 35 career years, that it is sometimes much too rare. Thanks very much for the great work you do for artists.
Anchoring with trees and plants
by Nancy Cook, NC, USA
In my case, it’s BB — before boys — loves of my life. As I have lived in new areas around the country, one of my ways of getting anchored in my new home environment is to identify the regional trees and other flora. This goes way back to my mom taking me to the woods on my grandparents’ farm and showing me which trees and plants had edible parts and sharing them with me — chestnuts, fox grapes, fresh pine needles, etc.
When I realized how ingrained this love of trees has been, and how they represent life for me, and how often I had turned to this inspiration for my art, my art productivity took off. For the last three years I have focused on the seeds and fruits of trees and shrubs for inspiration. Now it is a simple matter of tuning in to the cycles of life around me, gathering specimens to sketch and study, and make into art. As a result, I have a wealth of imagery for additional work.
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It takes work to follow your inner voices
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
A big problem I see today concerns subject matter. I see everyone painting virtually the same painting — meaning the same genre and in the same way. It’s safe there. One can get lost in the crowd and not stand out this way. Very few are challenging themselves to paint something “new,” something that will excite, something to stop you, something others may not warm to. We do this because we think it will get us into the galleries. But here’s a flash — galleries are looking for “the new” also. Whenever I write like this, people always think I mean “controversial subjects.” Painting to your inner drummer is hard. Many don’t listen to their inner voices. That takes work. It takes discovery. You are moving into unchartered territory and it’s scary.
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The vexing problem with themed art shows
by Linda Harbison, Flatwoods, KY, USA
I have always felt frustrated when entering themed art shows. I find myself trying to force the idea I’m currently focused on into the parameters of the theme. Doing this saps the life out of my work, but I hate to miss out on a show! A while back I found a dream diary I recorded when I was around thirteen. It helped me remember the sheer joy of discovery that happens in childhood. I was inspired to do a series of paintings based on it. The creative juices were flowing. But then I heard about a new art show in town. The theme had to do with water, so I immediately started trying to change my original ideas to make them somehow have something to do with water. Suddenly, it wasn’t fun anymore. It became a chore. Maybe I should just forget about themed shows and do what I want to do.
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Art student becomes the model
by Linda Roth, West Bloomfield, MI, USA
I was in a portrait painting class years ago. The hired model for the term got sick. They couldn’t find a substitute, so the instructor talked a female student into taking her place. Over the course of that pose, my painting went from very good traditional likeness to some sort of Picasso dissection and I kept getting more and more energized and loose with my approach. I ended with a pretty good abstraction that nobody understood. The instructor naturally inquired what happened. I explained the student substitute was angry and upset and those feelings radiated from her body. I painted what she was feeling. I told him I thought he should let her rejoin the class she had paid to take and hire a new model. What’s interesting about my reaction to this girl is that my painting went from a traditional portrait style to a total abstraction suggesting that different feelings dictate style changes. One artist can paint in a number of styles. In my art, my style has varied my whole life according to what I was painting.
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Resistance to external direction
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
In my BB years, my every day had a time with a notebook and a 36-color set of felt pens asking me what I wanted to draw today. All those notebooks disappeared into fire although I doubt that there were any insects involved. Last year I bought a set of colored felt pens but for some reason I never felt compelled to play with them. As they say, we can never go back home and that’s probably how it should be, we have to keep reinventing ourselves.
In my elementary school I had teachers that gave directional assignments similar to the art class that you described. I recently got a hold of my earliest gouache paintings and found a scene with WWII partisans holding guns and laying on stretchers, many bloody wounds suggesting a field hospital. I remember the assignment was to paint a scene from partisan stories and poems (hundreds of which we were inflicted). Boys loved it and drew many creative kinds of weapons and interesting consequent injuries. I found another painting, apparently of a jungle with lot of animals, greenery and flowers, much more to my liking. I remember loving to paint but even then resenting that I had to paint what I was told. Even now, when someone with best intentions suggests to me what I “should do,” I feel like a nail is being driven into my head. It’s good to remember that because sometimes I “suggest” to myself that I should do something that someone else would like — neat trick, but I suspect it is the cause of the blockage I have been fighting lately. Last weekend I intentionally did studies that I know for sure can only mean something to me, and I had a wonderful time. I guess that my little self-absorbed BB personality has been feeling neglected for a while.
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The deep well of youthful loves
by DebraAnn Salat, Saratoga County, NY, USA
My art most definitely comes from things I loved in childhood. I am a hand embroidery/fiber artist and I have been working with needles my whole life from the time I was 5 or 6 at my grandmother’s side. They have been a constant in my ever-changing life — although I must admit I was also inclined to work on kits and Afghans when I was younger. About 10 years ago I came to the awakening that people were buying the images that came from my own imagination. And just this past year I came to the realization that I am truly an artist. I hope someone who is younger than I am learns this lesson much earlier than I did. I realized that until I accepted myself as an artist I would never live up to my potential.
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Competition and cooperation
by Robert Griffin, Aurora, CO, USA
In reading about the external and internal creative motivation, I was going along, mostly agreeing. (I don’t even agree with myself all the time.) Then you said, “most of us rugged individualists would prefer a root canal to doing other people’s will.” I am reminded of the T-shirt I saw earlier in life. It said, “Life is a competition. Don’t whine. Compete.” I don’t like whiners, but I see the same defensive position in your statement regarding how you are/I am to approach life.
Some of life is a competition. However, most of it is better when it is cooperative. A few extreme examples should suffice: freeway traffic or driving anywhere others are driving, in spite of what TV portrays today, family life is much better when it isn’t competitive, in the business world (beyond the used car lot) cooperation within a company usually means better business for the company and the patron, and in education I found that much more learning occurred when the students cooperated with each other.
Carrying that idea further, and getting back to your root canal preference, I do a lot of things willingly, when it is a family member or friend who wants something done. I am not certain if it is internal or external motivation, but it clearly is not my will in many instances. I would also suggest that the men and women in the military are not doing their will when they go into harm’s way for this country and its citizens. I am not speaking of whether you agree with or disagree with the current or any past war, but of the sacrifice the servicemen and women have made and are continuing to make.
To return to the agreeing part, I also see, as members of a society, that we should be allowed to follow our bliss, searching for the muse in us. While I see nothing wrong with doing what others want, doing what others want all the time will kill the beauty and creativity in an artist. Yes, we need to be able to say (and not just with regard to our creative endeavors, whatever they may be) I am going to “do what I want to do today.” Amazingly enough for the rugged individual, nothing is really done in isolation. The Eiffel tower was and is an amazing vision of creativity, yet for its beauty to inspire, there were a lot of mundane workers doing what someone else wanted. Even my pursuit of my limited creative ability rests on the cooperation, input and support of a many others: my parents, uncles, grandparents, instructors in and out of public education — people whose efforts and actions opened doors that would have remained shut. And like my doing things for my wife and daughters, they were doing things for someone else’s will: mine.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Your primal joys…
Mesquite Flat Dunes
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 Angie Hill of Calgary, AB, Canada, who sent this quote: “You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire underneath them, but by building a fire within.” (Bob Nelson)
And also John Mix of Madison, WI, USA, who sent this quote: “The soul would rather fail at his or her own life than succeed at someone else’s.” (David Whyte)