The Italians have a name for it — Sprezzatura — studied carelessness — works apparently done without effort. In the Italian High Renaissance, courtiers and artists alike wanted to put on a kind of performance, a subtle one, without allowing anyone to know it was self-conscious and deliberate behavior. Vasari, Raphael and Leonardo were exponents.
A great deal of contemporary work is blessed with sprezzatura. Picasso’s drawings are a good example — simple expressive lines with little or no attention to anatomy. For some artists, being careless is as difficult as undercooking the spaghetti.
Apart from the appealing demonstration of bravura, the casual, hand-made look can be a contributor to creative genuineness. Painters such as John Singer Sargent and Joachim Sorolla couldn’t live without it. “Start with a whisk and end with a broom,” said Sargent. It is amazing what a few big final and facile flourishes will do to cover up undersurface toil. Here are a few ideas on how to get a little sprezzatura in your work:
Put velocita (speed) in your strokes by lengthening them.
Leave parts unfinished — let the viewer complete for you.
Put your mark “near,” not “on” the place it should be.
Just for a while, don’t take yourself so seriously.
Calculate to obscure, hide, overwrite and mystify.
Add a drop of divertimento (fun) to your paint.
Let the paint mix serendipitously on the canvas.
Use the whole brush — right down to the ferrule.
Calculate to make mistakes, then study them.
Choose your brush, then take a bigger one.
Think of your brush as part of your voice.
Fight the common tendency to tighten up.
Try working with “idea,” not “style.”
Don’t fret the Freudian slips.
Be esuberante (exuberant).
Trust your instincts.
Sing Italian arias.
With calculated carelessness, new forms are found. An artist’s automatic tendencies are magnified. Personality and individuality come to the surface. It’s all in the pianificazione (planning).
Esoterica: Try making a painting that looks like it was painted in five minutes. Take at least a couple of hours to make it. This exercise is the fastest way I know of to start giving your work a new freshness. In case you hadn’t thought about it, there are two main schools of paint application: (1) The “Put on and see how it looks and wipe it off and try again” school. (2) The “Think about it and get it right the first time and let it be” school.
Letting the inner composer loose
Sintha Anderson, Walbridge, OH, USA
Your letter today reinforces the idea that painting with elan (sprezzatura) is a wonderful way to paint. I love to paint this way and when I forget about the rules and let my inner composer loose, I usually get better results than when I labor over a painting. Sometimes, when I have a painting that’s not working, I use this approach and adopt an “It’s only paint and a piece of paper” attitude and bring off something very exciting. Painting as fast as I can releases some form of energy within my brain that travels to my hand and leads me on an exciting new journey.
Your sprezzatura and velocita were just what I needed this morning! I could feel a goofing-off day coming on until I read your letter. I went to my studio con velocita, picked up your challenge and a 2″ brush and completed the attached painting in an hour fifty! I haven’t painted this fast, except on location, ever! Okay, so great art it ain’t, and it’s only 13″ x 16″ but it was great fun and got me going for the day. Perhaps you’ve given me a new ‘kick-start’ method.
For the past month a group I paint with has been painting one-hour pictures. We start with putting paint down, usually with a palette knife, and continue with an active “wait and see” attitude. If something familiar begins to take shape, we can make the choice to develop it or just continue to go more by feeling. Things have happened. At first, we all were pretty abstract. Still, all were very different. After a few sessions themes began to develop. Some went to a place in their memories, others unstressed present moments. All were very fresh and alive. All were very different than their usual expectations. None were recognizable as belonging to any one particular person. (This changed as time went on.) We are now taking the one-hour exercise and continuing it for the entire three hours. Those first one-hour paintings have caused a new approach, a fearlessness that has broken us from our safety zones, or at least the path with the same scenery as we enter into a new painting.
Third school of painting
Brenda Dyson, Keene, ON, Canada
Perhaps there is a third school; where we don’t think about it (consciously) but feel it deeply and trust ourselves to express it and leave it be. Sometimes the value won’t be seen right away. Sometimes maybe it becomes a jumping off point for a different painting on another day.
Difficulty in maintaining freshness
Allison Juris, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, USA
I am a 21 year old, soon to be college senior, studying Graphic Design with an Art History minor at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Throughout my 3 years of study, I have found it quite hard to maintain freshness in my work and am often spending too many laborious hours in the art labs trying to create a most perfect work. I have yet to succeed at that.
As an Art History minor, I am well aware of what sprezzatura is, yet I had never thought to execute it within my own work. But, I did find the answer to my problem. I was in France earlier this summer, studying art history for 3 weeks, when it all became so clear. Our main assignment on the trip was to keep a sketch journal, a marvelous idea. Early on I realized that if I wanted to keep up with my journal and be able to enjoy France, I couldn’t be feverishly working to make my sketches perfect (they were more of drawings than sketches I guess). It took a while for me to get use to it, but the sketches that are loose and full of color, often unfinished, capture so much more of the essence of France. Not to mention my memories of those places are much clearer. And with this discovery came compliments from peers that I had never received before. Suddenly, I became the one with the sketchbook everyone wanted to page through.
It took me 3 weeks in another country to find the answer to a question of 3 years. I doubt, had I received your letter any earlier, I would have learned anything. But because I was placed out of my element, forced to make adjustments, I was able to unknowingly “get a little sprezzatura in my work.” Your letter shed light onto what exactly happened to my work in France; so thank you for helping me to see what has been so dark for 3 years.
Constipation of the brain
Janet Warrick, Chicago, Illinois, USA
While I have no problem undercooking my spaghetti, I do have great difficulties painting loosely. I have always loved Sargent’s bravura style, and was surprised to read recently that he often scraped off and re-painted the same stroke dozens of times until he got it to his liking. I don’t know why this should surprise me. I suppose getting caught up in the beauty of the work, I am fooled by the magician into thinking that it was done in one fell swoop — and easily so. He did his job well. As for myself, I was once told some twenty-some-odd years ago while having my chart (which I didn’t, and still don’t believe in) done, that the location of my “planets” indicated that I had constipation of the brain. The girl went on to explain that there was so much creativity trying to get out that it was all getting stuck — sort of a creative traffic jam. The funny thing is, she turned out to be right in many respects. She missed the mark, however, when she stated that this creative constipation would last for seven years. I believe she should have multiplied the number by three. For it wasn’t until recent years, after putting aside other creative avenues and concentrating solely on my first love — painting — that the blockage began to move. When it finally breaks free I’m hoping for a nice long bout of the runs… Reading that little bit about Sargent’s working methods not only surprised me, but also sent a little light bulb off in my head. I had until now, been of the “get it right the first time” school. But realizing that I could indeed wipe it off and re-do any passage or stroke not just once, but as many times as needed, has given me the freedom to experiment and try things I might not otherwise have been willing to try. So I’ve moved to the school of the wiper-offers. I’m expecting big things. I’m expecting a flood. I’m expecting… diarrhea???
Sprezzatura has been my method for about a month. An eighth sheet, 110 give or take a few so far. Lots to burn… lots to keep. My method has been to cycle the works, no pencil, no preconceived idea… standing room only… move the body, the arm, the wrist… no tight brush holding here! Wet in Wet. Dry on Dry. Fuzzy against Hard. Opaque against Luminosity. Light against Dark. Once you stroke the paper — get on with it there is no going back here. Watercolor has its own way… it predicts the outcome of the shapes.
I must be a Sprezzatura type of guy. Actually my work takes longer than one might think, but it is certainly less deliberate than many admirers accuse me of. At least the freshness is preserved and a suddenness of apprehension is usually achieved. In some ways I think it is a form of coloured zen acrylic painting, except I am not a proponent of any religion.
Kill the canvas
Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
Paul McCartney, when he took up painting, was told by an artist friend that when standing in front of a raw white canvas, instead of worrying, he should just “kill” the canvas. Just put a mark of paint on the canvas and let yourself carry on directed by hidden instinct. That takes courage. To control but yet not to control. In my case I have tried every thing else that I know of, so why don’t I try just killing the canvas?
Eleanor Blair, Gainesville FL, USA
One of my favorite ways to loosen up is public demonstration. Last week, a few Arts In Medicine volunteers joined me in the lobby of the hospital for a concert. John Fox read his poems and Cathy DeWitt sang and played the piano, and I painted. I purposely chose a photo that was way too complicated to complete in an hour. It’s like working without a net. A small crowd gathered, and I dove in to my painting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always a complete surprise.
Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I agree with this approach to working. It happens for me in that place of surrender, just letting go and trusting something other than the rational mind, because it just tends to do what it knows. One of the reasons I work this way is because I want to capture in paintings the vitality and essence that one can get doing quick gesture drawings. When I was engaged in gesture drawing, because of the limit of time I lost control and had to rely on an intuitive intelligence. You don’t see the toil in the work, because the only effort is to be effortless and present, to really engage in the act presently. The work proved to me that there was value in letting go. Drawings were raw and captured the reality of that moment boldly. Now I allow for this in my process of painting and can maintain it throughout the time it takes to make a painting. I do this by approaching each step as a first step, remaining clear and light. I like the abandon that this sprezzatura engages. I trust all that led me to this and that all supports the outcome without my forcing it to show up.
Recommending student artists
Donna Baspaly, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I love your twice-weekly letters and have recommended them to members of my classes. I have forwarded many of them on to artists and writers alike. I personally wanted to thank you for recommending students to my classes or for critiques.
(RG note) I welcome the opportunity to directly suggest practical, sprezzaturic, hands-on instructors to those artists and students who ask, whenever I become aware of this sort of genius, wherever found.
Ricardo Inke, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sprezzatura was a workshop-in-a-letter for me. It showed me what is lacking in my present work: spontaneity, and how to get there. Everything sounded so obvious that it is amazing how I hadn’t thought of that before, and that is exactly the role of a true instructor: to have the student show his own inner side and see that everything is already inside. It is just a matter of letting it out. The how is the most valuable lesson to be learned.
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, 2003. That includes Jim Rowe who wrote,”Any automatic paintings that I have attempted have turned out to be failures and any that I have seen done by anyone else looked like garbage.”