Whenever I offer tips to fellow artists I’m aware that a tip may be valuable to one person and a poison pill to another. Lately, on the speaking circuit, I’ve been giving a little talk I call, “Two dozen tips for painterly happiness and success.” I start by suggesting that we all need to be our own tipsters and some of my so-called tips may not be for everyone. Nevertheless, I have a copy of my current batch printed out to hand around after the event. We’ve posted this tip-sheet at the bottom of this letter. If you go there, you’re on your own.
Curiously, when following other tip-givers who also go from club to club, I often find the eager tip-takers have taken down some wonderfully contradictory tips. Typical is “Before starting, draw your composition carefully,” and “Do not draw–go directly to composing with patches of colour and tone.” Such are the hazards of tipstering.
That being said, here are three tips you may not have heard before:
1. Rather than go with your first choice in a composition, go with your second choice. Your first is likely to be in your comfort zone, but it is your second choice that will stretch your capabilities and expose new creativity. How to do this? Slowly rotate yourself in a full circle, taking every possibility into consideration. Sort out and at least anticipate the potentials of every angle before you start.
2. Pause frequently during the production of your work and reconsider your options. The simple business of strategizing and thinking ahead can save you a lot of downstream angst. If you find yourself too far into your end-game and not in good shape, courageously strike out an over-rendered passage. This audacious act often frees you up for further improvement.
3. Regularly refill your “Patience Bucket.” While fresh, energetic, speedy brushing can be desirable, there is often a time to slow down and let things evolve with a more deliberate, tender and measured stroking. A work-in-progress can be your confederate friend. Let him gently speak to you and don’t be socially embarrassed if you gently answer back. Your half-realized friend secretly wants to help you win big.
I should wind this up with one of my all time best tips: “You are your own best tipster.”
PS: “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.” (Warren Buffett)
Esoterica: In the “Zingers” section on page 947 of my book The Twice-Weekly Letters are two consecutive items. Ralph wrote, “I like it because you don’t give pat little recipes like some other instructors.” Then Phyllis wrote, “I really appreciate all the little tips from time to time.” Then there’s Henry’s contribution on page 943: “Stick to tips, Robert, we are tired of your philosophizing all the time. There is no room for philosophy in this business.” I love it when people give me tips.
Two dozen tips for painterly happiness and success
1. Have your paint squeezed out before your mind is in gear.
2. Accept a lifetime of perpetual studenthood.
3. Learn to love the masters and to know who they truly are but don’t fall in love with the media that presents them.
4. Appreciate the value of silence and private thought. Value work above words.
5. Alternate your work zones with some form of physical activity.
6. Listen to the music that has been within you from your youth.
7. Constantly ask of yourself and your work “what could be?”
8. Strategize your time, your playtime and your worktime.
9. Build a strong ego and sense of entitlement. Know thyself.
10. Learn to work under all conditions and privations.
11. Work from life, from your own reference, and from your imagination.
12. Accept the gift of a life in art and know it is a high and noble calling–both a miracle and a responsibility.
13. Learn to be your own best critic and counsel.
14. Purge your lesser work regularly.
15. Don’t enter too many group shows, contests or competitions.
16. Don’t even think about applying for grants.
17. Do take occasional workshops from competent professionals.
18. Have a lifelong mission to enhance the lives of others.
19. If you decide to be commercial, find effective and motivated dealers and galleries in other cities, give them geographical protection, and replace their stock often. Run the commerce side of your business like a mutual fund and don’t become dependent on one stock. Follow your nose, not your dealer’s. Be prolific. If you want to be an apple vendor you’ve got to have apples in your apple cart.
20. Know that no matter what happens, most of the joy is in the craft.
21. Know that you’re part of a great international brotherhood and sisterhood of artists who are living now and have gone before.
22. Be philosophic about art trends and fashions and the often perceived unfairness of the game. Follow your own nose, it is a good guide for a lot of things in life, and above all know that quality will always be in style.
23. Give generously of yourself, but don’t burn up all your creativity by teaching. There is a time to give and a time to sell. Accept your gift. Neither an ogre nor a patsy be.
24. Go to your room.
Digital view of progress
by David Martin, Las Vegas, New Mexico, USA
Using a digital camera to examine my work at various stages of completion allows me to identify what I most want to change, what to keep as is, and what to save for later. I usually photograph the work and transfer the image to Photoshop or Viewnx2. What happens, I think, is that viewing the work on my computer eliminates the surrounding, distracting visuals in my studio, much the same effect as framing a piece, only more dramatically.
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Following your lead, here are some of my own tips:
— Put your work in different rooms, with different light to look at before finishing it
— As your painting progresses, discard your reference (photo, landscape, etc.) and let the painting speak to you.
— Put in a zing of color
— Know all the rules but feel free to break them
— Painting is solving one problem after another and keeps us young.
— Listen to your inner creative spirit about what to paint.
— Be a life learner and never stop improving your painting skills.
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
No tip goes wasted on me. My deep pockets always welcome such shiny additions. However, your tipstering inspired me to offer the following tipping tip. When drinking Vodka and feeling tipsy, never use the spirit as the culprit. Straighten your tipping slanting posture and be proud of imbibing of the Russian divine spirits.
Now, silliness aside, I must add that lately I decided not to any longer pioneer art. I create only for artists in spirit with me. To keep my enthusiasm alive I revert to my ancient chef’s d’oeuvres and revamp them through profound psychological analysis first and then imbue them with yet undetected life fresh to the naked eye.
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Advice about advice
by Barbara Youtz, New Harbor, ME, USA
After giving a friend advice about how to improve the composition in a painting she had asked me about, I thought about my reactions to other people’s advice to me. Later that day I wrote her an e-mail with more advice about advice.
It went something like this. When a person tells you how you might fix your painting it will usually be the way they would probably fix their own painting. Each person you ask may have a different way of correcting your painting according to the style they paint. It is sort of subconscious with them.
First of all, if you don’t understand what they are telling you to do or why you should do it, don’t do it. If you do understand and agree with them you may want to consider how to make the change using your own style. If you just blindly do what they tell you to do, it is not much different than having someone paint on your painting to make the correction for you.
The next morning my friend showed me her corrected and finished painting. She had not only made the change I had suggested, she had done it in her own charming style, in a way that I would have never thought of, and it was really nice. I felt so good to have helped her in the way that I did.
Complicated game of solitaire
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Twenty-four tips!? All at once? Amongst these tips, Number 4, you wrote, “Value work above words.
Now, that was some good advice. I took it, and headed directly up to the studio.
While doing some painting, my mind wandered to this whole notion of “tips for painterly happiness and success.” For instance: Is there some ultimate piece of advice? Do I have any good tips that might help other painters? Is there an attitude involved? What does “success” really mean? What is it about painting that interests me?
Looking back on nearly 50 years of messing about with pigments, it occurred to me that the activity is, in essence, a complicated game of solitaire. The painter’s deck of cards contains a seeming infinity of combinations and outcomes, creating perhaps the grandest and most intellectually challenging game possible. When a painting match is over, the results remain to be seen. One can move on to a new match, or demand a rematch by trying to make the same painting over again, only better and/or slightly different.
Obviously, if one plays the painting game and always demands a rematch, the activity will cease to be much fun and a sense of futility or ennui can ensue. In a realm of infinite possibilities, any technique, style, ism, subject matter, palette or formula can become a sand trap or dead end. This often happens to painters who stumble onto a style which creates sales and monetary “success.” They end up painting the same painting, with slight changes, over and over again. The game eventually becomes mere labor – busy work. The joy of playing a game with infinite possibilities is to explore the infinite possibilities!
It is a game of solitaire, after all, and no game is much fun if you win it, every time.
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Learning to see
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
You have a very good list of tips and all of them important and useful. But, there is something very important and essential that is missing: Teach yourself to see.
I hate to sound like a broken record because I’ve written about the following several times in the past, but without having a good set of eyes to see what the world actually looks like, it is impossible to make a strong work of art. There is a huge difference between noticing the beauty that is out there… most people can recognize it… and actually seeing it.
One of your readers mentioned that Monet wished that he had been born blind and suddenly gain sight and saw the world with a clean eye. I understand what he is suggesting – to see the world fresh and without preconceptions, to see it without the veil of words and knowledge, to see it in a pure and unconditioned way. Words and knowledge are important, and they have their place, but they can also prevent us from seeing.
Years ago I read… “We tend to see the world through our beliefs and expectations.” I think this is very true, and this basically prevents us from seeing anything completely and totally. The only way beyond these ‘blinders’ is to recognize the motion and action of our mind, our thoughts and emotion, as we go about our daily affairs. And when we recognize that we have strayed, we must gently bring our focus back to observing the visual world. The visual world is silent and wordless; we have to see it for what it is and not for what we think it is. Knowledge and belief and the rest of it is important, but we have to put it all aside if we are to see with “clean eyes.”
Our school sponsored a trip to New York City during the spring break. I helped organize this trip for twelve years straight, every year seeing the same permanent collections over and over. After awhile I noticed that some work I thought was strong one year didn’t seem so strong the next and that other work remained strong and some even got better. This recognition occurred about five years into the twelve year stint. It took another couple of years before I consciously realized what the difference was between the diminished work and the stronger work. It was all good work but the work that remained strong or seemed to get stronger was the work with a superior visual structure and with everything seemingly perfectly in place. In other words, the artists who painted these stronger images were the better and more accurate observers.
One of the best places to train the eye is to observe the visual nature or structure of our everyday surroundings. The other, of course, is looking at great works of art. And looking at a lot of the same work again and again and again, after awhile we’ll notice that some work remains strong and well balanced and composed while other work not so much. But, the visual structure of our everyday world is always in balance and harmony. And, as are all natural designs, this would be the third area of study to train our eye to see wholeness and completeness.
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Purging and hummus
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
Good tip to purge regularly. Yesterday I purged some paintings from my youth. I don’t need paintings from 1958 dragging me down. You mix paint in quantities in yogurt cups. How can you tell what color they are? I use deli and hummus containers because they’re clear. If I was really smart I’d write the color combos on the top.
(RG note) Thanks, Virginia. The reason I use yogurt cups is we eat a lot of yogurt. Deli and Hummus containers would probably work better. Regarding Yogurt cups, I put a dab of colour on the lid — when I can find a lid, but sometimes I forget. Come to think of it, I like hummus and it’s supposed to be good for the brain.
Keep on tipping and philosophizing
by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA
I think Henry believes philosophy is just a bunch of abstract ideas that don’t touch life/arts. Philosophy is about meaning. What is a painting without any meaning/idea? Just a bunch of colors smeared on a canvas. A monkey can do that. Sure all philosophy (talk ideas) and no action is not helpful to the arts, but you have already talked about that: Work, work, work, that is the Robert Genn Method as I know it.
Please keep the tips coming, we love you for it. Your gentle way makes you unique and the only Robert the Art Wise that I know of whose advice is worth gold. The tips come from years of standing/sitting/ stepping back before the easel and that is extremely valuable in our business.
by R. Wade Nelson, Thompson Falls, MT, USA
I have for many years been a card carrying IABWU member faithfully following the business end of my faithful sheep dog, Matisse, around the town. I apparently wore him out, used him up, but it was a grand parade and when he passed, I swore NO more dogs! My heart could not stand it. Well a couple of years passed and a red-head St. Bernard puppy caught my eye, and a year later, a Border terrier, both throw-away dogs from the local shelter, now we walk every morning, the old man, red dog, and the terrier much to the amusement of passersby. My art is better again, I think, as I walk, and I arrive back home and go off to the studio with energy. But I need new credentials and manifesto to up date the “new” dogs! Can you put those in your e-letter so I can download and print a new set? Thanks!
(RG note) Thanks, Wade. Wade is referring to a Twice-Weekly letter I wrote — Join the Union on September 16, 2003.
In the Esoterica I wrote, “Our Union fights for your right to be creatively aroused. Through a time-honoured negotiating technique internal artistic disputes are resolved, work tensions are relieved and your right brain will begin to bargain in good faith with your left. Membership puts you squarely into the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Other benefits kick in. Our Union has no dues.”
While many artists have joined in our brisk walking Union over the years, membership has not been without its problems. Essentially brisk walking is good for the brain and the cardio-vascular. Many artists find themselves diminishing down to un-brisk walking. They shuffle along, taking their time to look at things and dream. Sincere Union members who wish to continue carrying their cards need to constantly remind themselves to speed up and be brisk. Pays off for the dogs, too.
Enjoy the past comments below for Tips for you…
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 Anita Davis who wrote, “Do NOT, most certainly, give up philosophizing!! I need the big picture thoughts and inspiration. Tips are good, too.”
And also Patty O’Kane who wrote, “Tip #23. (Don’t burn out all your creativity by teaching) The only way that will ever happen is if someone gets a ball bat with that imprinted on it and then beats me over the head until I can read those words daily from my forehead in the mirror.”