We’re all familiar with the problems associated with Sunday Painters. Cranking up the old machine once a week may be okay in the vintage car hobby — but it’s bad news in the creativity game. The steady worker who applies his craft daily is more likely to make creative gains than an intermittent one. Even when tired, or even because of it, the rolling creator can generally squeeze further. While the “tolerance for duds” is part of the serial game — and a valuable lesson in the non-preciousness of art — the effervescence that flows has to be among the truly great feelings. Curiously, it’s best if the artist doesn’t have much to say about the process. Spilling the beans interferes with series work. “I do not explain, I explore,” said Marshall McLuhan.
Developing an initial idea into an extended series is basic to the art spirit. In the natural progression from the obvious to the esoteric, it’s often in the esoteric that the better work is realized. Along the way there are stages that can help a creator get a bigger bang for her buck:
Initial attraction and recognition of potential.
Commitment to virgin understanding and first rendition.
Secondary attraction to nuance and sleeper elements.
Further “aha” recognition that the thing has legs.
Re-dedication to specific exploration and variation.
Development of personal touches and sensitivities.
Progression through excited highs to creative climax.
As the serial process unfolds, the challenges presented by earlier sorties become more and more easily retaken. While a project’s history becomes necessary to its future, previously covered ground is glossed over in favour of other concerns and attractions. Facility and speed, while they may not be ends in themselves, are byproducts of the process. If uniform sizes and means are maintained, the last often takes less time than the first. And the mind, caught up in the seductive business of exploration, stays hot and snappy like an electric swatter in a cloud of mosquitoes.
Then there was the guy who was inventing and testing soft drinks. He developed One-up, Two-up, Three-up, Four-up, Five-up, and Six-up. None of these were quite perfect, so he quit right there.
PS: “Plunge deep enough in order to see something that is hidden and glimmering.” (Matsuo Basho)
Esoterica: In series thinking I have the irresistible conceit that I may be making something of lasting value. I rationalize that to do so I must go where others may not have been — where I myself have not yet been. Often, while lingering at the delightful outer reaches of series, I have that warm feeling that I’m getting nearer to the best I can be.
Rest not! Life is sweeping by;
Go dare before you die.
Something mighty and sublime,
Leave behind to conquer time. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Flow of imagination and knowledge
by Katherine Lakeman, Calgary, AB, Canada
When one work leads to the next piece, it is an exciting process. There is a feeling of discovery, joy and anticipation with the next one, and the next one, and things really get creative. I have done landscapes and florals in an expressive, edgy way for 20 years, and now in the past 8 or more years have gotten more and more into abstractions. I feel the potential for exploring this is virtually limitless. I love the thought of working from my experience and my ideas — even though nature taught me a very great deal — and I love the process now where imagination and knowledge flow.
Persevere through perseverance
by Adan Lerma, Austin, TX, USA
I actually dropped one of the few art classes I ever started in college because the art teacher’s idea of serial painting was one of a dry barren willfulness to force oneself through some sort of artistic cleansing, I was still looking for fun in art, actually still am, but more willing to persevere through persevering itself to get there sometimes.
by Bill F, Elgin, IL, USA
I have been making same size studio variations of a plein air painting I did. I’m doing these in part to keep fresh, when I don’t have time for plein air. I avoided studio work because in the past it held me back. Now I can give myself permission to paint from plein air references and memory. Memory contains a much higher percentage of my response to a subject. One aspect I must pay attention to is the lack of boldness of composition and execution in the studio pieces. This is good because it forces me to ask: What is bold? How do I render boldness?
(RG note) Thanks, Bill. You can recreate outdoor feelings and energize boldness by visualizing air, wind, crickets, etc. It’s nuts but it works.
Keeping up the momentum
by Lisa McKay
I had a new idea for a play a couple of months ago and started of feverishly writing. It was as if the ideas were coming from somewhere else — an amazing feeling. Then work got me busy and other spring/summer activities jostled their way in and there it sits. Waiting for “the right time.” Your letter has reminded me how amazing it felt in the beginning and that the ideas do fall one on top of the other if I keep up the momentum. I often forget “now” is always the right time. I love the way your insights apply to all areas of art, even when you speak of one type of medium.
Artists make metaphors
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
When I started to paint, I was an eleven year-old child. I had a day-job at the time — I was a sixth grader. I made a decision early in life that I did not want to pay my rent with the proceeds of painting sales, which are far too sporadic to leave one with a sense of calm. I am, and have been, dedicated to art, however, and I ended up working in museums as an exhibition designer and curator. I now teach high school art.
Your statement that there is something “bad news” about Sunday Painters is completely bogus. I do not think that art is as simple as, say, tennis. Artists make metaphors. Art is not about grinding out product.
In putting exhibitions together. I have met and worked with hundreds of painters. Most, 95%, had day-jobs. I can assure you that when people came into the exhibitions, the visitors never asked about an artist’s work schedule. The art spoke or it didn’t.
A few weeks ago you were extolling Vermeer. Vermeer was a lens grinder. His total output as an artist was something like 50 paintings. Did you not also recently mention Winston Churchill? Talk about a Sunday Painter!
In a few words — Art is just something that human beings need to do. Some get to make art every day. Most just make their art when they get the chance. History does not care. History gets the work.
Muse stays close with practice
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
“If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.” (Ignace Paderewski)
Practice is essential for any art form. I discover that when I paint or create daily my “muse” stays close. When I neglect my work I get rusty, slow and less creative. This is one reason that week long workshops cause such a boost in creativity. In these workshops I typically paint every day for hours. (I love it!) When I bring the experience back into the studio and continue to paint daily, I make great leaps. But then if I take a week off I slide backwards and lose some of the gains.
Paint everyday, even when you don’t feel like it. Just go to your studio, painting table, whatever and put paint on a brush and paint. Copy a part of your last painting, or of something else you have painted. Make it better, or just different, or even the same, but paint.
“But I will waste materials,” nonsense! No paint is wasted if you paint a bad painting; you are one step closer to painting a good or even a great painting. You can gesso over the paper or canvas and go again. Just Paint.
Game of making art
by Alice Dustin, Ardmore, PA, USA
I was working on a series of still life paintings with the exact same setup with thoughts in my head — if not specifically while I was painting, but in a preparatory way — of shifting and opening up my vision and style. Sticking to the same subject was a kind of constraint and discipline that I consciously set upon myself to deepen the exploration. (Actually, I work this way much of the time — sticking to a kind of theme until I feel that it holds no more charm.) The series I was doing was more focused than my usual explorations, though. Yesterday, as a kind of “vacation” I decided to paint a welder and all thought left my mind. How great that was! As usual, it is a paradoxical game, this game of making art. I’m sure that every painting and even every thought is a necessary step to lead to the next painting and that plans are great and so is diverging from them!
Consumed by art
by Toni Ciserella, Richfield, UT, USA
I have stacks of “duds” (all were ridiculous attempts to copy someone else’s style) leaning against my worktable. I have sketch books full of renderings and thumbnail sketches. I have 3 paintings going at once and a folder full of ideas for the next one. I own every medium known to man. I paint in my head while driving to work. I carry my digital camera and shoot reference photos wherever I go. I peruse rummage sales in search of objects that catch my eye. I do not pursue art: it pursues me — it dogs me throughout my day and never rests. It is the beast I must feed that is never content. I did not choose to be an artist, to create, to express what is in my head. It chose me and I am its slave. I have tried to deny it and live a “normal” life, getting a real job, and immersing myself in relationships. It is when I finally gave up trying to deny its hold that my life became as it should be. I recognized my purpose, quit my mind-sucking job, and ended an emotional draining long-term relationship. At 46, I work as a waitress to pay my bills (seriously), moved out of a house that took up too much time tending to and filled my studio apartment with everything art. I am finally at peace with my beast. We are one; as it should be. I do not mean to sound pompous but I cannot fathom someone asking how do you become an artist. What must you do? What advice can you give me? What steps must you follow to get there? If it is in you, it will find a way to get out. I am forever grateful to my mother for letting me get my hands dirty and not having to wash up except to sit down to the table and eat. Now, I don’t even bother doing that — I eat, standing up, in front of my easel.
Meaning of self-realization
by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA
I have spent 30 years learning how to paint, and sometimes I still get ‘stuck’ and become a slave to my subject. I love the words ‘self-realization.’ I feel I have finally touched the meaning of this, and I am also thinking, not only is this a breakthrough in my work, as a painter, but it must mean that my consciousness has been raised a few notches in all aspects of my life. This is an exciting thought! I always thought that there must be tons of stuff that I have not tapped into, about who I am, and the world around me. Anyway, I guess I know how to paint now, (well, I have a pretty good handle on it) and it’s time to investigate the possibilities of how things need to be, and not always how they are. I am glad to hear that I’m not alone.
Truth about working artists
by Heidi E. Hehn, Whitehorse, YT, Canada
The issue of good art being work and practice and learning is a topic that I would enjoy seeing you expand upon. The number of times I have taught an art course and had students come to me after to ask why I did not teach them the ‘short cuts.’ I have never been able to find the short cuts myself, I explain. Maybe I am slow-witted or dyslexic. Every painting for me is hard work and new problems. Occasionally when I attempt to do a painting similar to one I have done before, thinking it may go more smoothly and easily, I am always surprised to find it is usually harder. Certainly I have grown more demanding as I have gotten longer in the tooth. But the fact remains that art is work like any other discipline and most artists and would-be artists and art lovers need to realize that.
And as you say, the old techniques still work brilliantly and need to be learned by each successive generation or they will be lost. So that rather than building on the best of the best, society will be forced to reinvent all the wheels again.
And finally, why is it that people realize that to be a dancer or a writer or a karate expert or a singer you must first master your technique through hard work and effort? Yet they think that art is just the result of an impulsive gesture captured in a fleeting moment or two. My own conclusion is that too many of us have been misled by self-appointed art experts, gallery owners and critics who in the end do not know the first thing about art.
Too close for comfort
by Angus Bungay, Vancouver, BC, Canada
An artist in the Netherlands, Wally Thissen, saw my “fantastic sculptures” on the Internet and used the work as inspiration for some self-portraits.
I own the copyright to my sculptures and the reproduction of them in photographs, but what happens when someone wants to paint or draw my sculptures or even take the concept and use it in their own ‘artistic environment’? Is there any recourse?
(RG note) Thanks Angus. Litigation would be long and tedious and might sap your brilliant creative energy. Mr. Thissen is suffering from the creative shorts. To his credit he has given recognition to you on his website. People should just shame him to cease and desist from cloning your work. Those who follow someone else this closely pretty well always lag behind — and that will be Mr. Thissen’s main punishment.
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, 2006.
That includes Faith Puleston who wrote, “I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. The word ‘talent’ is curiously hackneyed and gets confused with ‘accomplishment.’ I think ‘aptitude’ is a better term. But whatever name one gives it, the predilection to do something does not actually achieve anything!”
And also Joy Hanser of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Wow! If that isn’t some fancy digging into the real stuff! Bless your left brain for synthesizing the gleanings of your right!”
And also Brian Jones Cortaro, AZ, USA who wrote, “I believe it was Barnett Newman that suggested when a painter feels the need to make a shift toward self-discovery, they turn to black and white for a time. This method greatly assisted me at a similar time in my work.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “What happened to the people who were testing Preparation A through G?”