Among the responses to my recent “Distractions” letter, more than 150 artists named the telephone as a major excuse for not working. Marcie wrote, “The phone is my biggest distraction. Intending to go to the studio or outdoors to paint, the phone rings and, like Pavlov’s dog, I have to answer. I don’t seem to have a choice. If I don’t start painting by late morning, I give up.”
Thanks, Marcie. Yesterday, a spandexed-chap zipped down our quiet road on a bicycle while drinking from a plastic bottle and texting. Are we transforming into animals that do more than one thing at a time?
Some years ago, after doing a few demos, I decided to try and teach myself to talk and paint at the same time. The secret, I found, was not to talk about what I was actually doing, but to run a parallel or divergent dialogue. Back in the studio I rejected the use of a speakerphone as neither private nor intimate. An “ear-thing” with the receiver in my pocket did the trick.
The results surprised me. Rather than interfering with the flow of the work, telephone conversations complement the act of painting. The paintbrush moves more automatically, often with more flourish. Work unfolds in a thoughtful, pleasant way. Phone calls come and go, and the work is completed.
According to psychologists, speech uses an area of the brain that helps some people release another area to heightened creativity. On the other hand, when serious thinking and planning are required in creative work, speech can dwindle. My telephone friends don’t seem to mind temporary mumbling or silent periods. They also do it to me.
Even for introverted folks, regular contact with family and friends gives positive points to the day and makes it all worthwhile. Fellow artists swap anecdotes, share ideas, suggest topics or discuss problems. There’s an unmistakable feeling of élan when I know the Brotherhood and Sisterhood is alive and well.
The nice thing about the phone is that you don’t need to show people the door when you’ve had enough. Sometimes, another call comes in. Among fellow artists and others, it’s amazing how callers respect, “Hey, gotta go, my easel’s on fire!”
PS: “The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink.” (Fran Lebowitz)
Esoterica: My grandmother, Grace Genn, was a child of the telephone age. On the cutting edge of technology, “Nana and Pappa” apparently had a phone by 1910. Nana loved nature, sewing, Jane Austen and Mozart. On Monday mornings she made a list and called the butcher, baker, grocer, and launderer. In those days they all delivered. My dad told me she never went inside a store. She died in 1957. I remember her talking quietly on the phone to her friends between blasts of pedalling her Singer.
Talking to your work
by Dave Robinson, Seattle, WA, USA
This one regarding phone interruptions reminded me that I don’t like being interrupted by the phone but I do talk to my work. I find that it has always had quite a bit to say to me. I found that conversing with inanimate objects often resulted in solutions that I might not have thought of on my own. It worked as a commercial photographer and it works now as a fine art photo illustrator.
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Listening to audio books
by Judith D’Agostino, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I love to listen to audio books when painting. Just as you have suggested, it relaxes me, puts me in the “zone” and is a great companion. I feel like I am getting a double benefit. I am painting and listening to a good book at the same time. Many people use music this way but for some reason, the audio books work best for me.
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Discovering the balm of the telephone
by Marie Harold, ON, Canada
I usually put my art aside when the phone rings, but a year or so ago the phone rang and I answered but managed to continue with my work. It was a good friend who has since passed away. We chatted for a good while and not until sometime later did I realize that I had probably accomplished more while not really concentrating than I usually did when agonizing! Last summer this particular piece sold at a juried show which I enter each year. I was doubly blessed!
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Mastering left and right brain technique
by Carenie Little, Whitefish, ON, Canada
In this wild country painting is a solitary profession. Using the phone became, for me, a necessity to communicate with my friends. I put on my headset, tuck the phone into my apron and phone someone. For me what happens is the left side of my brain goes ahead and talks to friends, but the right, creative side just swings into action and paints without any comments from the left (peanut gallery) If I get stuck in an area where I don’t have any clear ideas of where to go, I phone someone and let my brain just flow. For me this method works very well so I get to chat and paint, and the uninhibited side of me works very well without the constant, are you sure, oh, maybe not. This method takes out the negatives and I get a more free flow process going.
The downside is sometimes I forget what my friends have said but at this point in my life they know I am painting so they are willing to, repeat themselves. I also like to experiment with cooking and use the same method in the kitchen.
Irritating talk in class
by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA
I just started teaching art ten months ago in my home studio. Recently I have been struggling with the challenge of having some big talkers in my art class. I could see that some talkers seem to be able to concentrate on their art work even while talking. My concern is that the talkers will interfere with the concentration of the quieter artists. I am going to read your letter to them tomorrow and then ask for a group discussion to get everyone’s feedback. Maybe it is only a problem to me because I find the noise level very irritating. On the other hand I have talked on the phone and painted just as you described. In fact when I’m painting alone I find myself hoping someone will call.
If any of you teachers have any suggestions for me, I would be very grateful.
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Planning in silence, then drama
by Carole Raschella, Northridge, CA, USA
Planning and composition, the “serious thinking,” takes up about a third of the total time to finish a project, and that part requires total silence, no TV, no music, and no interruptions! But once all that is laid out, the actual “doing” of the artwork is when I play episodes of various TV dramas on my computer. Shows like “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” and most recently, for a nice contrast, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” I go through the entire series of a show beginning to end. But it has to be good drama, not just because I prefer it, but because I rarely look at the screen, so action stuff would be useless. These shows definitely complement the act of drawing (I don’t paint), and, as you said, and it’s even easier to stop when you’ve had enough!
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Obsessive, compulsive multi-tasking
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
Reading your comment about the “spandexed-chap zipping down your quiet road on a bicycle while drinking from a plastic bottle and texting” really rang my bicycle bell. I am seriously concerned about this sort of dangerous, obsessive/compulsive activity. Has anyone given any thought to the multi-tasking generation that is now piloting planes and conducting trains? Not to mention doctoring in operating rooms? The horrific ‘texting-related accidents seem to be increasingly reported in the news. We need to spend more time discussing these distractions that are now occurring in our lives.
Robert, I’m sure you’re petting your pooch, sipping on a scotch and beginning a new painting as you read this! I think, as artists, we’re safe, as long as we’re in our studios, multi-tasking!
Enjoy the past comments below for Telephonitis…
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That includes Paul RW Anthony of Bonners Ferry, ID, USA, who wrote, “Unhook, disconnect, turn it off so you can turn on!”