Though he’s only been painting for a decade or so, Ross Penhall is now an international success. Ross’s story is a good one. Finding spaces of idleness in his job as a fireman, he took up painting as an antidote to cards, gabbing, and the tedium of waiting for alarms. To the amusement of his firefighter buddies, Ross persisted and developed a unique style and vision. When I bumped into him again the other day, he raised his arm to point to something and I noticed a small tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. “It’s new,” he said, “My son was getting a tattoo and I decided to get one too. I really don’t believe in tattoos, but this one I do.” Ross’s tattoo is a simple one-liner: “Shut up and paint.”
Ross is onto a good thing. The art of remaining mute is one of the keys to personal creative evolution. By speaking out and expressing our plans we often diffuse our need to do. It’s as if some of the energy required to produce the creative product is already used up by the words themselves. Here are a few thoughts:
Never explain to others what you intend to do.
Never submit half-baked concepts to anyone.
If you make written notes beforehand, don’t leak them.
Start work first and self-workshop further development.
Sanctify your working space by limiting interlopers.
Cover up serious projects until they are well along.
Learn to be your own best counsel and private advocate.
Do not be concerned when you talk to yourself.
Prior sharing leads to the defusing of motivation and can often trigger unwarranted misgivings. Even a discussion or show-and-tell that leads to positive enthusiasm and encouragement can take the wind out of your sails. It’s almost as if the approval is enough — a work of art on its own. Repeating the habit of garnering approval leads to chronic self-delusion and negative commiserating with others. While it may help you feel a bit better at the time, it will surely lead to further disheartenment. “Misery loves company,” says the proverb. It’s better to be quiet about your winnings and your losings — both in the future and in the past. Artists can learn from the methodology of successful salespeople: “Understate and over-prove.” Don’t extinguish the fire of passion by saying too much.
PS: “Never complain, never explain.” (Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Jennifer Jones, Henry Ford II, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Parker and others) “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” (Publilius Syrus, 1st Century B.C.)
Esoterica: Prior explanation is one of the great hazards when applying for a grant. The powers-that-be often expect a full disclosure of what you intend to do. Trouble is, by the time you finally get approval, let’s say, to harness the artistry of worms, you have realized that it’s the worm holes that are most worthy of development. With all their wisdom, the powers-that-be may fail to recognize that the further private breeding of ideas is vital not only to your creative progress but to the history of the world.
Sharing defuses motivation
by Richard Marsh, Dublin, Eire
Prior sharing leads to the defusing of motivation. It applies to my creative work, that is, fiction and poetry. I learned long ago that if I tell it to a person I don’t tell it to the typewriter. It can also be a problem when one is sharing accommodation with a woman. She tends to assume that a creative trance is a sign of laziness, or worse, reflection on another woman, but in any case she complains, “You’re ignoring me.” I mentioned this to the Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc and he said, “Ah, yes. She senses the presence of the Muse, and she’s jealous.” That’s probably the reason the Maine Coast poet Wilbert Snow built a writer’s shack 50 yards from the house on Spruce Head Island as soon as he could afford it.
The sea is forever quivering;
The shore is forever still.
And the boy who is born in a seacoast town
Is born with a dual will:
The sand and the rocks and the beeches
Inveigle him to stay,
While every wave that breaches
Is a nudge to be up and away.
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Ross Penhall is hands down one of my most favourite artists in the world. I have sat back in awe of his paintings and watched not only his style develop into a Global brand, but I have watched his meteoric rise to success. There were shows where you had to be on a preferred buyers list and you had one minute to buy a painting. All the while the little Gallerina’s were running out to the disappointed waiting crowd of the pieces that have sold. Ross is also a very nice guy and speaks beautifully about his works. I am always so humbled in the presence of artists like this. But Ross puts you at ease, speaks a layman’s language and always remembers my name.
What’s the truth?
by Dave Kuczynski, Fulton, MO, USA
Your letter is one that is at the very least perplexing to me — because on the one hand, I agree with your firefighter friend — painting is a “silent” expression and I once saw the very same words on a tee-shirt worn by a plein air painter. On the other hand, without talking about our paths, as you, I, and many others do, there would be no art schools, workshops, guidance, etc. I have a tendency to agree with Ross Penhall because painting — like religion, politics, music, poetry, and love are nebulous feelings at best. So what’s the truth Robert? “Shut up and paint” — or do a twice weekly letter talking about art — with many respondents doing likewise? It is a subject that is “food for thought”!!
by Marla Ripperda, Austin, TX, USA
This is the first time I’ve ever been spurred to respond to a letter. I believe to talk about something happening — painting or whatever it might be, makes it “real” and more likely to happen. My talking about projects with anyone makes me accountable and motivates me to “Just Do It.” Although actual work does not always follow, I’ve completed more art that I’ve talked out loud about than the dream visions that I’ve never vocalized to anyone but my inner self. There’s also that wonderful synergism that occurs when you’re discussing projects with other creative people. The give and take of creative minds is an awesome engine. Respectfully disagreeing, this time.
Hazards of ‘accountability’
by Carol Morrison, Oakville, NS, Canada
Your comment about the hazards of applying for a grant struck a nerve with me. In my previous life as a research scientist, we used to be able to concentrate on our research, following the leads that appeared to be the most productive. As years passed “accountability” became the mantra, and we were required to write a report at the beginning of each year describing what we planned to do, and a report at the end of the year showing how successful we were in achieving our objectives. Of course the whole concept was nonsense except to bureaucrats. The whole point of any creative act, whether it be painting or scientific research, is to follow your passion. One cannot foretell where one will end up. Is it worthwhile trying to apply for grants, or does this just stultify creativity?
(RG note) Thanks, Carol. Some people can handle the grant game, but I’m not one of them. I don’t sponsor people either. I’ve seen too many go off the rails, and that includes the artists who applied. A grant can be the kiss of death for creativity and unfulfilled obligations can lock people up for years. One woman I know finally threw up her hands and went out and blew the cash on a Toyota. My advice is to make the art first and see if any government, consortium or individual wants it. It’s a good principle, similar to consignment. Getting grants is an art in itself and I don’t care for that type of art.
Silence keeps ideas intense
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO/East Boothbay, ME, USA
Ernest Hemingway had some insights about keeping the power of ideas and emotions intense by not talking them to death. He underscores this idea in his short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber when the title character is trying to describe the exhilaration of his first dangerous confrontation with big game. Robert Wilson, the big game hunter and guide, advises him: “Doesn’t do to talk much about all this. Talk the whole thing away.” In our enthusiasm for a new idea, we can destroy not only the incentive to act on it, but also the intensity of the emotions that would drive us to the word processor or the easel. Hemingway also once commented, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
Ideas only improve upon discussion
by Lorna Neufeld, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I totally disagree that silence is golden. Now, I will confess I am in the early stages of artistry, but my experience in working in the world of ideas all of my life is that they only improve upon discussion. After all, we are in the world of communication. That doesn’t mean stuffin’ stuff” down other’s craw or cuttin’ out from the universe, but. . . Prior to and after discussion of one’s ideas, pieces, etc. only leads to better communication and exchange.
It is better to shut up
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Silence is indeed golden. I have been running my mouth lately and the results are negative. I feel weakened and bored with myself and my thoughts. Author/philosopher Carlos Casteneda use to preach the gospel of erasing personal history and quieting what he called the “internal dialogue’ we carry on with ourselves. He felt that we needed to create a sense of mystery that was shattered when he verbalized everything. We limited ourselves and defined what others thought about us and our potential. We made a wonderful mysterious world boring and predictable. There is some truth to these ideas. We gain power by acting not by talking. As an art teacher I am often called upon to talk about paintings and about the ideas of painters. My students are beginners who like me to come around and “fix’ the paintings they are working on. When I am in a good frame of mind, I know what to do to their paintings. Often in a few strokes of pastel the paintings come alive or are reborn. It is certainly not that I am a great artist that I have this ability. It is the ability to turn off my mind and tap into the creative process and ‘go with the flow.’ By acting on my intuition I gain power and insight. By acting I am decisive and strong. Talking robs me of this strength. I watched a James Bond movie the other day. James Bond is a male fantasy figure. He doesn’t do much talking. He acts and reacts with impeccable intuition about people and situations. It is the power of action that gives him strength. People are attracted to strength. When you tell them about your weaknesses and insecurity you are being honest but all it does is bring you down in your own eyes and in theirs as well. It is better to shut up!
Talking deflates excitement
by Helen Zapata, Phoenix, AZ, USA
It has taken me a lifetime to learn to keep my mouth shut when it comes to my art. Nothing can suck the energy and enthusiasm out of an idea faster than talking about it. Whether I’m telling my “wonderful new concept” to my husband, or my best friend, potential clients, or my fellow artists… the moment I stop talking I can feel my excitement deflating. In much the same way, I dislike showing my work in progress because either people hate it and I get insecure, or they love it and I get insecure.
Both points valid
by Alexander Petti, New York, NY, USA
Your letter raises excellent and very valid points — ideas are delicate and fragile creatures which can shrivel and die if brought to light prematurely. However, used judiciously, voicing ideas can be a positive force. Research has shown that sometimes publicly announcing your intention to do something can be helpful as you can create a bond between you and the recipient which can keep you committed to seeing it through — or face the embarrassment of saying you did nothing about it.
This can also be especially useful for emerging artists who wish to establish themselves and their ideas. Instead of describing themselves by their “day job” (“I’m a sales manager, but I paint at night”), introducing yourself as an artist can be a very powerful force for change, as well as motivation, and within that context, provide validation for your ideas (and potential clients) as you’ll likely be asked what kind of an artist are you, or what are you working on?
I personally also find that talking about my ideas to my wife can shed light on some of my planned works, further solidifying directions, themes, motifs which then adopt greater purpose and significance.
Again, having said this, I do agree with you. Voicing your thoughts should be done judiciously and at your own peril, lest you kill that which you wanted to see grow. If you must share your thoughts, an in-studio diary can be a much better alternative.
Photography diffuses drive to paint
by Esmie G. McLaren, Vancouver, BC, Canada
To add to the things that diffuse the creative process, I found out a few years ago that photography has the same effect as discussing my ideas for painting. I’ve already paid “homage to the image” once I’ve recorded it, so the drive to paint it is no longer as critical at that moment. For freshness and excitement in the painting, I need to plein-air it first, then record it in photograph for later reference.
Having said that, when I’ve “snapped” to heart’s content, and my canvas looks disappointing, at least I have the photos. Being a shutterbug allows for ample time for studying composition and trying new ideas with those photos. I later go back to them to rekindle memories and spark more creative process… this time, I do more than record the image. Now I need to shut up and paint.
Nothing wrong with sharing
by Aaron Zacharias, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I disagree that it’s good to shut up. What you are suggesting to me, anyway, leads to misanthropy and simply reinforces the myth of the socially isolated artist. Before the French Impressionists came along, art was a much more communal affair, involving guilds, workshops and apprentices working with and alongside many famous artists. My own experience has proven that there is nothing wrong with sharing or collaborating as long as it isn’t being done out of a motive of insecurity, and even then it can still be part of the experience of growth. This has incidentally done nothing at all to stem my creative output.
(RG note) Thanks, Aaron. For more thoughts on collaborating see: ‘Collaboration’ Art Quotations.
Living up to your words
by Lawrence Morrell, Portland, OR, USA
Wow, of all your columns, Silence is Golden resonated with me the most. How many times have I started to describe a great idea only to never even start it, much less finish. As a long time Custom Artist making “Art to Order” I am now trying to switch over to make a body of work to sell in galleries… and yet again, I am stuck with a commission that has to live up to my words… and I am experiencing such personal resistance that I can barely finish.
Falling into the trap
by Harriet Rosen, NY, USA
I’m sure many of us have fallen into the trap now and then of seeking approval for our work from family and friends. However, if this is a constant, I can see where this can definitely be a problem and stunt our creativity.
I have sent a copy of this particular letter to a friend of mine who falls into this category. All the “nevers” in your letter — are what she always does. As a result, she never finishes what she starts and never starts what she has in mind. The pity of it is that she is a very talented and creative woman.
Networking sharpens performance
by Lois Sprengnether Keel, MI, USA
I believe in networking. It can show flaws you’d later wish you caught and can also spark ideas you wouldn’t get otherwise. I value those people who understand what I want to achieve and don’t get upset when I don’t take ALL of their advice. As to talking to myself, I always enjoyed the concept that I was talking to somebody who understood me.
Workers in the arts need to find positive outlets to avoid feeling alone, unable to find the way to resolve problems, and to grow. Yes, working with others can be aggravating at times, but it can lead to progress. If it proves to be a toxic combination, get out of it, learn from it, and keep looking for others who create that positive outlet for you. As performing artists, we especially can become sharpened by such contacts.
Never give up
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
Winston Churchill told the English people, when they were just about at the lowest point in WW2, “we will never, ever, ever give up.” This has been a constant reminder for me. I had a career running my own business for 23 years, and 2 1/2 years ago decided it was time to do something meaningful for the rest of my life — as Jill Kerr Conway’s father in the outback of Australia with 30,000 head of sheep told her, “Go make something of yourself.” I loved what I did in my business for 23 years, but it simply was not enough for me to feel like I had done something meaningful with my life. I have only been painting for 7 years and have never taken a painting course — not even at RISD. And two years ago I decided that I would paint full time — every day, like most people go to work — to make a living. This was a big decision, as my wife also opened a retail shop at the same time. Crazy? Maybe. Financially scary? Absolutely. Are we happier? Definitely. Crazy lives? Yes. Especially since we have two teens, one in college, and one going in the fall of 2008. The point is, you never know what is possible, or where your life can lead if you are willing to take a chance and try something. I think I can make this happen. One thing I know… I will never ever give up.
Cornice Mountain (Selkirks)
oil painting on canvas by Heinz Pirnke, Revelstoke, BC, Canada
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 Jeffrey Hessing of Nice, France who wrote, “I am able to practice silence completely when future paintings projects are involved out of an almost superstitious fear. In Denmark there is a saying, “Never talk away the magic.”
And also Maxine Cassin of New Orleans, VA, USA who sent this quote: “Never discuss the poem you contemplate writing. It’s like turning on the outside spigot. It takes all the pressure off the upstairs bathroom.” (Robert Frost to his students)
And also Thomas Bowler of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Guilty as charged! Just what I need, although I’m not quite ready for the tattoo… yet. Talk about your plans and schemes and you don’t have to do them. Takes the power away, for sure.”
And also Dale Goorskey of Blacksburg, VA, USA who wrote, “Proverbs 29:11 (King James Version) ‘A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.’ ”
And also Diane Voyentzie of CT, USA who wrote, “Your letter about silence reminds me of something I recently saw: ‘Lord, please keep one hand on my shoulder and one over my mouth!’ ”
And also Gentlehawk Richard James of Livingston, CA, USA who wrote, “There once was an owl who sat in an oak, the more it heard, the less it spoke… the less it spoke, the more it heard.”
And also Jennifer Bellinger of Ketchum, ID, USA who wrote, “Three little Post-it-Notes on my easel: ‘Say less, do more’ ‘You can’t edit a blank page’ (Leonard Wolfe) ‘Never let too much criticism or too much praise get in your way.’ ”
And also Cassidy Kanorof Hastings, NY, USA who wrote, “This is why I find artist statements non-productive. My statement is in the work. If I wanted to “talk” about it, I would be a writer.”
And also Ion Danu of Sherbrooke, QC, Canada who wrote, “I liked and approved entirely your letter about “the silence”…and I was pleasantly surprised to read about Ross Penhall’s tattoo. Because, here is what Goethe was saying: ‘Your job is to create images, painter, not talk!’ ”
And also Adele Bower of Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “YIKES! How do you and Mr. Penhall know so much about me since we’ve never met?”
Enjoy the past comments below for Silence is golden…