When I was a poverty stricken student at Art Center School in Los Angeles I was frequently called in to see Karla Martell, the registrar. Tardy payment of fees was one of the reasons for my summoning, but more than once she spoke of my failure as a student and as a human being. “Looking over the reports from your instructors,” she said, “they are pretty well consistent in saying that you talk a good job and do a poor one.”
Shocked as I was at the time, I decided on a vow of silence and to henceforth “understate and over-prove.” Overnight I became the “Silent Sam” of the classroom. Karla’s warning was an epiphany. I turned a new leaf.
More and more in later years I’ve come to realize that shutting up is not only cathartic, it’s a positive technique for quality control and improvement. Folks who know me well often remark on my reluctance to talk about my own work and my habit of dragging on about the work of others. Here’s why:
When you talk, you gradually lose your need to do. Each word is a brick removed from the wall of your desire. When you tell someone, you let the wolverine out of the oil drum and spoil the excitement of the final unveiling. Your creativity is like a dam where the floodgates must be opened only at your choosing. A crack will leak the power that lies within.
Silence focuses your eyes on your process. When you do not surround or precede your effort with your own verbiage, meaning and purpose are more likely to come out of the end of your brush. Literary considerations (the red barn and the golden sunset), the bane of visual workers, are kept in a holding cell until court can be held.
We all know of people who constantly talk about how they are going to do this and that. While it’s upsetting to them, it’s often worthwhile to let them know the reason they are not doing it is because they are talking about doing it. No matter how you encourage talkers to get on with it, it’s been my observation that talkers generally keep on talking and are most highly realized when they are in groups, conferences, classrooms, lectures and social events. Doers generally have their workplace already set up, are naturally drawn to their tools, and are comfortable not saying much about what they’re up to. Some of us have to learn that.
PS: “Silence is a source of great strength.” (Lao Tzu) “Drink at the source and speak no word.” (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev) “Learn silence. With the quiet serenity of a meditative mind, listen, absorb, transcribe, and transform.” (Pythagoras) “A closed mouth gathers no foot.” (Frank Tyger)
Esoterica: The Zen-like trance of silent working precludes overly-optimistic planning and poor-me whining. Yes, you can pipe music into your head — but be yourself mute. “Remain quiet,” says Paramanhansa Yogananda. “Don’t feel you have to talk all the time. Go within and you will see the loveliness behind all beauty.”
by Catherine Stock, France
The muse on my shoulder is very sensitive and does not abide claptrap of any kind. If I am conscious for an instant of potential financial gain or critical acclaim, or otherwise abuse her presence by talking glibly, she abandons me. This has happened many, many times. Only when I am totally immersed in and absorbed in work, even a very simple sketch, does she allow something magical to happen and I become aware of a faint heartbeat and gentle breath emanating from my brush.
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Talking to clarify plans
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
I agree with the idea that people often talk way too much and perform way too little. As Henry Ford said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” If you’re talking, you’re not doing. But I think there is another side of the story. Sometimes it’s helpful to spell out what it is you want to do, or what you intend to do. Putting your plans into words to somebody else can do two things for you. One, it helps clarify what you want to do. When you talk with somebody else about your desires, their questions and comments can help steer you toward a better solution. Two, putting your plans into words can commit you to them. You’ve said you’re going to do it, now you have to produce. Of course, that only works if you’re the type of person who is interested in living up to your words.
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Walk the Walk
by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA
I agree with your conclusions about “talking vs. doing.” There might be another deeper, embedded message here as well…
I recall artist friends who would “set up” the studio or lay out paints, only to spend the next few hours doing everything but painting (i.e. getting a second or third cup of coffee… sharpening pencils… re-arranging book cases…) In other words, they were avoiding painting, avoiding the doing aspect, just as your article suggested.
When any of us is tempted to talk instead of do, we can ask the deeper question — “What do I fear?” Success? Too much success? Or is it more likely the looming aspect of failure? Being honest about what keeps us talking instead of doing, seems to be the first step.
To your credit, Robert, you got out of your own way and just buckled down. You experienced your “moment of truth” with that critic’s comment. Ah, that there might be more moments of truth, even hitting a “bottom” rather than continue a “treading water” stance. I suspect your letter on this topic might make enough readers experience the knife-blade nudging to “Walk the Walk.”
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Falling silent out of doors
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
I have been spending a great deal of time this winter and spring painting Plein Air pieces so the “Being Silent” aspect figures prominently, as anyone who paints out of doors knows. I find that even the chattering brain shuts down after awhile when it realizes it’s not getting anywhere with me! I cherish the time spent painting in this manner, especially this spring as all the birds come back and the earth wakes up, there is so much to experience in silent wonder. I have an iPod that I am hesitant to use because it interferes with this way of being. The Canadian painter, Tom Thomson, was one who followed this path and his beautiful plein air pieces speak of his connection to natural surroundings. One can imagine him silently standing before a regal pine and rendering it in glorious paint and strokes as only he could, becoming one with his subject. The ultimate in knowing where the two become one.
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Creativity needs words
by Aleta Karstad, Bishops Mills, ON, Canada
Your thesis that artists who talk about what they want to do reduce their productivity by doing so doesn’t corroborate my experience at all. I find that talking about what I would like to do often helps me to develop it in my mind, and whips up my enthusiasm and determination. Most of my successful paintings and projects have begun with talking about the ideas with my husband, and then these developing ideas have become established as actual projects as I went on to tell other people what I’d planned to do! If they tried to discourage me, or didn’t seem to understand, I further explained the idea and that helped to justify it to myself, and increased my resolve. My sister and I e-mail back and forth about our painting ideas, inspiring and encouraging each other. I am a verbal and literary person, and part of my creativity happens in words. My paintings and journals go hand in hand. You can see this in my blog.
Writing works it out
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
Talking about our plans tricks our mind into believing we’re actually doing something about them. Sharing our projects with an audience gives us the buzz we would get from presenting the finished product. We float on admiration and applause, until the time for results actually arrives — and we’re open-mouthed and shamefaced, left in the dust.
Me? I’m 50/50 — 50% introvert and 50% introvert. So how do I handle my talkiness? I write about my thoughts and ideas, in a work journal, working out the fears and objections on paper first. I focus on creating work that pleases only me, trusting my process and focus on enchanting myself first.
And a few healthy deadlines works wonders, too!
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Talkers seem to thrive
by Sandra Sibley, Columbus, NC, USA
Several people in my weekly art class at our local community college are quite talented and work diligently on their paintings with gentle guidance from our instructor. We all socialize to some degree and encourage each other, but there are definitely some “talkers” in the group. I haven’t figured out if it affects their art. I know from years in the workplace and having the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment administered a number of times that some people draw their energy from solitary activities (introvert) and some draw it from being with other people (extrovert). I always assumed that artists are introverts, but some of the accomplished artists I’ve met and worked with are really quite social and seem to thrive on teaching workshops and classes, definitely extroverted activities. I wonder if “talkers” process by talking it out — to themselves and/or others. I also wonder if it’s a reflection of insecurity in their art. As for myself, I’m definitely an extrovert, which is why I like my weekly art class, but I do believe that I paint better when I let my painting do the talking and I simply listen and act accordingly.
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Preliminary sketches — a way out of doing
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
In the past I’ve ‘talked’ myself out of doing a series of paintings by revealing my intent to do so. Or, I’ve not followed-up on something because I’ve told ‘the world’ about it, creating the illusion that I do it, or have done it. Then, there is also the possibility that you can draw or preliminary-sketch your way out of doing a series of paintings.
In graduate school I did quite a bit of ‘doodling’ in hopes of finding something interesting to paint. I was doing abstract paintings then, and one day came up with a simple way of breaking up the flat surface that caused it to appear anything but flat. Excited by the possibilities I did two small paintings to check it out, to which my major professor suggested I do 25 more. Instead of putting paint to canvas I took out my large sketchbook and filled three pages with small drawings using various colored felt tip pens — there were maybe 25-30 compositions per page. I did one larger painting based on one of those drawings, but, it seemed like I had been-there-and-done-that. I guess, having seen the possibilities in the sketchbook, why go on? I didn’t do another, and went on to something else.
I still have the sketchbook, and over the years I’ve looked through it thinking that I missed an opportunity of possibly doing something more original and interesting. But, there it is, and things have turned out just fine.
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From speechless to talking about it
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
A normally quiet person, a listener in social situations and not usually talkative, I have the opposite problem. When I am planning to do something new, I usually try to keep it to myself and not talk about it until I am sure about all my plans, because I have the fear that talking will ruin them. If I continue with my planning, working quietly then talk about it at the right time, then it will all work out. I am a little superstitious about this.
In social situations, people like to ask me questions about my work and what my plans are. I like to have something interesting to say, and these people might come to my next opening. So I have learned to be chatty about my work to a certain extent. I have noticed that if it is not a group of artists, though, their eyes get glazed over in 2 seconds. One of the most difficult things to learn is how to talk about your own work and explain it to viewers in a coherent way. When I was just starting out, someone asking me what my inspiration for a painting was would leave me speechless. With some practice and thought ahead of time, I can now talk about my paintings without too much trouble. I have trained myself to overcome the natural inclination to be overly quiet, otherwise I would have to close myself in a dark studio somewhere and never see people.
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Talking it up to make it happen
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
When you talk about our own work, silence is best I agree. Every moment away from the easel is one less moment spent getting better. No matter what stage of painting one is at there is always “getting better.”
Painting groups are wonderful for safe painting, those informal critiques that reveal just what you needed, and finding new spots to paint. They are not so great when you get constantly interrupted at your easel. Both can happen, it’s true. Our group is trying to get a “May I approach?” type of thing going so that a flow is not interrupted. If it becomes the norm to say back… “not now” or “will get to you in a bit” then no one’s feelings are hurt and everyone pretty much learns individual respect in a painting group. Painting time just begins to stay a lot quieter. It’s interesting.
There is some time when talk is absolutely needed. If you live on either coast you will notice that although people often buy representational painting, painting that is shown in galleries is often more of the contemporary sort. Representational art is having a renaissance of sorts these years and wants a bigger spot at the table. It’s a pretty just desire since the work is there to back it up. And that is one type of situation where actually talk is needed. Because you don’t move a community to be more receptive to arts or a type of art unless you work for it. These things don’t “just happen.” They happen because artists make them happen. They get shows. They advertise them heavily. They prove they can draw a crowd. They keep showing. They form art organizations. They run plein air groups and paint-outs. They sell stuff. That actually takes talk to get done. And nothing ever happened…. not Impressionism nor Pop Art without someone talking it up, making it happen, and getting it done. Sometimes talk serves that quiet artist pretty well.
Enjoy the past comments below for Talkers and doers…
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
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 David Chapman of Burlington, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Somewhere in my pysche I have sensed these things in an unformed and incoherent manner. You have brought them to the light and expressed them with eloquence and grace. May you live 150 years and enjoy all the Scotch your heart desires.”
And also Robert Erskine of Middlesex, UK, who wrote, “Henry Moore states, “Talking about one’s work releases the energy and tension to do and make.” This is true and indeed the best talker is the one who listens and is usually the one who provides the most intelligent of observation, too.”
And also Tracy Wall of Denver, CO, USA, who wrote, “Reminds me of a quote from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, ‘There is an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.’ ”
And also Phil Lachapelle of Camino, CA, USA, who wrote, “My training at Art Center changed my life regarding my vision of what “hard work” really is all about. My four years at Providence College never taught me how to do an “all nighter” to make that crit the next morning at 9:00 a.m. sharp.”
And also Melanie Frey of Scottsdale, AZ, USA, who wrote, ” ‘Better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.’ (English proverb) Not sure whose quote it is but I like it!”