Yesterday, Jeanette Obbink of Burlington, Ontario wrote, “Is it helpful to talk through a problem in a painting — as in out loud, with or without suggestions from others — fellow artists or not? I like to ramble. I’ve found it helps me to verbalize problems, halfway-dilemmas and stuckness. It gives me keys to the next steps. Feels odd, but it seems to work. Am I alone in this?”
Thanks, Jeanette. You’re definitely not alone. Talking things out is certainly a ploy, and a popular one, but it has problems that visual artists need to be aware of. Words — spoken or written — have a way of making rigid that which needs to be exploratory and free. Words are small straitjackets when put around creative flourishes and maneuverings.
As every demo-doer knows, verbalizing aloud can be difficult, even though we all know it’s a most valuable educational tool. Many demonstrators also find that “talking demos” produce what they consider substandard work. Attempting to verbalize often mysterious brain routings is the cause.
In the real world of creative artists, care needs to be taken. Out loud, blow by blow mind-change explanations should be left to the politicians. When artists need to ask the “What could be?” question, or about colour or composition, it’s not necessary to ask out loud.
Because of our internal sense of morality, we tend to want to honour our “word.” I noticed this problem years ago and devised a system to overcome it. I’ve passed it on to other painters who swear by it. Instead of talking about what might be wrong with something, you need to sit back from the work and silently make a series of mental notes to do this and that, to get rid of this and that. When the artist moves back to the easel, some of the mental notes get executed, and those that do not are handily filtered and defeated without a word being uttered.
The creative brain needs to be above the verbal one. The artist’s brain needs to work like that of a centipede. As it turns out, a centipede has a complex nervous system and practically no brain at all. And yet it moves its hundred legs in flow and harmony. Watching a centipede walk around is delightful. If a centipede stopped to talk about which leg to move next, it would certainly stumble.
PS: “There is no evidence that the tongue is connected to the brain.” (Frank Tyger)
Esoterica: An interesting variation is to talk about anything but your work in progress. You can do this in person, by phone or on Skype. The idea is to allow your unconscious mind to do the progressive critiquing and decision making. Your work takes on an intuitive, automatic quality that can be fresher and more relaxed. In my experience, the brush slows down, becomes more deliberate, less fidgety and, surprisingly, more thoughtful. I recently had a far-ranging telephone discussion on most everything that happened at a classic car rally. My fairly reasonable painting almost completed itself.
The mouth or the mind?
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
In my life as an artist I have done what are called ‘demos.’ I consider them the nadir of my career. I have felt the obvious negativity in the room when my ‘demos’ do not match my painting. I end up feeling like a fraud. I cannot coordinate the speech with the brush. Complex color and drawing compete with speaking and, for me, neither wins. I have seen artists do marvelous demos. They look like miracle workers to me. I cannot. I am a slow painter who works from life and likes to talk only to make sure the model is still alive.
There are other things that put a painting together for me — a cracked mirror in a movie rewind; a good night sleep, a bit of meditation, or being startled into the present by something beautiful like the majestic descent of a great blue heron on this morning’s walk.
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The magic of art
by John DeCuir, La Crescenta, CA, USA
I know the old right brain left brain theory is being neurologically challenged, but its simplicity still appeals to me. As you so aptly implied, talking is such a left brain commodity that I can’t help but believe it shuts down right brain creativity. Simply put, make a left brain list of the challenges you face in your work and then go pull weeds. When you get back to work many of the answers you were looking for will resolve themselves as if by magic. After all what is art if not magic?
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After a traumatic experience
by Laurel A. Hansen, WA, USA
In February I was hit with a catastrophic perfect storm of emergency tryin’-to-kill-me illnesses. One of the aftermaths was minimum brain trauma, which I was too foggy to know about because of the, well, brain trauma. Affected were my speech, writing, and thinking and walking.
As I emerged from the fog a couple of months ago (6 months post-illness), I became aware that my creativity had been flattened. When I was physically able to return to the studio, I returned to the mosaics, but not in my formerly creative way. I have been copying ancient Roman mosaics… thank goodness that copying is a time-honored teaching technique!
I have seen the verbal and creative abilities completely severed from one another. I have felt the chasm that exists between the brain’s amorphous cloud of fantastic creativity and the ability to speak coherently or string together written thoughts. I have been my own (horrified) witness to the loss of sense memory. I have seen my inability to learn. But I have been able to work with my hands. I have begun collecting photos of artwork that takes my fancy. I have organized the studio. So, I must agree with you. Go to the nonverbal part of you. Quiet the voices. Distract yourself. Bake a cake. Eat it. The answers are there.
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Letting the subconscious do its work
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA
Talking while working through a painting problem does help. A friend and I often talk on the phone when behind the easel. Many times a painting that has hit a stalled spot can be revived through the subconscious, while talking not about the painting, but some unrelated issue. As our conversation flows, so does the paint. Letting the subconscious do its work can be helpful. We are both representational painters, but there are times when inner forces are best left to take the wheel. A combination of this process and a more mindful one can bring satisfying results in the studio.
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The cardboard programmer
by James Kissel, Canton MI, USA
Many, many years ago, while I was working in software development for ICL, and an English computer company, we had the concept of a ‘cardboard programmer.’ The name was inspired by a near life-size display advertisement in cardboard of Colonel Saunders, of fried chicken fame, we kept around the office. When we had a tough programming problem or were trying to debug a section of code, we used to consult the cardboard programmer. It usually worked something like this. 1) find a colleague to talk to 2) drag your paper list over this his/her desk 3) talking out loud, begin to explain the problem 4) Eureka! You saw the problem-solution before your colleague even spoke.
You excused yourself. Returned to your desk and fixed the problem.
The problem could have been solved by consulting the cardboard programmer, for all the input you received from your colleague. It probably wouldn’t have worked, but just talking out loud to a peer you respected enough to consult, usually allowed you to solve the problem quickly.
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Words and the art of writing
by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA
Your passage, “Words — spoken or written — have a way of making rigid that which needs to be exploratory and free,” encapsulates the very challenge of writing, as in painting. I find the effort to make the word servant to the idea is the whole of successful writing. I also very much appreciate the thought that the creative brain must hold sway…
My teacher used to say, “If you want to know how loose your thinking is, sit down and write something.” While we need to keep our thought always going deeper, we also need to develop those skills to keep focused. I also think one of the greatest temptations for an artist is to let any “given standard” have influence over the product. I believe that it is, after all, an exercise in pure uniqueness that is the valuable contribution to the whole, i.e. courageously being oneself in expression, don’t you think? This certainly supports your theme of protecting the idea from others’ thoughts while it develops and comes forth.
The art of ‘Think Aloud’
>by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA
I am in total agreement about talking out loud demos and how they too often produce substandard work. Having said that, I caution your readers who teach and give demos to keep talking. Even though you may produce a painting that is not up to your normal standards, talking is invaluable for your students. I teach and talk while doing demos. It is called a Think Aloud in the writing/teaching world. As a former teacher of young students who had to learn to write to pass state exams, I had to demonstrate an “in the head” activity by talking about what I was thinking. Just writing would have not have been much help. I took this practice to the easel when demonstrating my thought process and my adult students have been ever so grateful. My goal was not to produce a masterpiece, it was to teach. Substandard is okay if it helps someone learn.
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Verbiage only dangerous if not producing
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
As a workshop instructor I am doing a lot of talking about painting ideas. I do a great number of talking demos and don’t worry about producing masterpieces. I feel these ideas need to be in the ‘database’ of these beginning and intermediate painters. They can choose to use or discard them later on. I don’t worry about the ‘word problem’ you mention. Painting itself quiets all the words in my head. Improvising has to have some basis in theory. Jazz players have a staple of signature ‘riffs’ that fill the space and provide comfortable jumping off points for new exploration. Verbalizing and analyzing comes afterwards for me, not during. I have learned to trust my painting ‘intuition’ that is fueled by the many painting ideas I have encountered and by the stacks of paintings I have produced over the years. Verbiage is only dangerous if you aren’t producing!
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Read aloud to me while I paint
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
Your letter made me think of years ago when at SVA, I used to paint at home on Sundays. I shared a tiny apartment with a roommate I knew from my hometown. She was a theatre and British Literature major in college. When I painted on Sundays, first I had to clean my work area, then set up the subject… back then a still life and then nervously went to work. I have to say that I was able to paint with greater ease when my roommate read, which she loved to do. She would sit in the room, book in lap and read aloud. I have no idea now, many years later what she was reading, but the fact that there was another story aside from the intense focus of my still life, enabled me to be more direct and even in the way I handled my painting, which at the time, was very beneficial.
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Throw the work out? No way!
by Aurora Oberloh, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Sometimes pleasure is the best thing we can ask for as we create our artwork. It matters not what “the critics” whoever they are have to say. I’ve taken quite a number of art classes both college level and private and have seen so many interpretations of “art” and found many quite fascinating regardless of their “correctness.” Not everyone is neurotic about their involvement with art. They just want to enjoy the act of doing it. If no one else likes it, so what? A lot of us aren’t attempting to glut the market with our work. I think many of us find the process of self-expression through our artwork to be spiritually healing. That’s a healthy thing and there is nothing wrong with art playing that role.
Do I get neurotic about my work at times? Yes, unfortunately, too many times. I am always pushing myself to become better because my mental eye always sees beyond the actual outcome. Throw the work out? No way!!! I learn from each attempt and use each piece as a learning tool toward the next “improved” attempt.
Enjoy the past comments below for Talking about it…
Featured Workshop: Donna and Tom Dickson
High Desert Spring
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 Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA who wrote,
“Here’s a cameo from Richard Feynman apropos of your article:
‘A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.’ ”
And also Hans Schmidke who wrote, “Talking about it while doing it is like talking about making love while you’re making it. Kinky and fun for a while, but in the long run, counterproductive.”