Stephen Vizinczey‘s seventh commandment is, “Thou shalt not let a day pass without rereading something great.” I’m kind of converted. For a while I kept Bartlett’s at my elbow as I painted, flipping randomly while paint was drying, letting my finger do the walking for a quick fix between strokes. Some time back I tried reading the Britannica, all of it, mostly in bed. Of late I’ve been digging anywhere at all among the words of artists.
It hasn’t been possible to get on without “Nature is usually wrong,” (James Whistler) or “Go not to the object; let the object come to you,” (Henry David Thoreau) or “There is no art without contemplation,” (Robert Henri) or “Careful planning, and brilliant improvisation,” (Sergi Eisenstein) or “I shut my eyes in order to see,” (Paul Gauguin) or “I paint in order not to cry,” (Paul Klee) or “Painting’s a funny business,” (J.M.W. Turner) or “Mine is the horny hand of toil.” (John Singer Sargent)
Sometimes, in periods of drought, I have stooped to making up my own: “Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen,” or “Drawing is still the bottom line.”
All this by way of wondering if the habit serves a use. Correspondents to my letters tell me they love the quotes. Good quotes on hand are like pegs on which to hang the day—some of them clear little bells to ring the painting hours. Each reader takes from a quote their own meaning and values them differently according to their own experience. Perhaps it’s just my problem but in the unkempt workstation of the studio my quotations have become boon companions. They seem to make it all more worthwhile and they remind me that we’re of the sisterhood and brotherhood.
PS: “There are some among our comrades who imagine that words are nothing–but on the contrary, is it not true that saying a thing well is as interesting and as difficult as painting?” (Vincent Van Gogh)
Esoterica: At age 16, John Bartlett worked at the check-out at the University Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. His passionate book-learning made him a sought-after source of knowledge among Harvard students. Familiar Quotations, compiled from his notebooks and first published in 1855, went through 9 editions in his lifetime.
This letter was originally published as “Quotations” on Sept 22, 2000.
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