Yesterday, Stephanie Quinn of Dallas, Texas wrote, “Athletes are taught to visualize winning and to set goals. Often, when I visualize my finished product and set out to work on a piece, it doesn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. Is there a way to bring these two points — the process and the visualized expectations — together so that there is less disappointment?”
Thanks, Stephanie. This is a terrific question. Fact is, in our game, a lot of prior visualization and painterly goal-setting are not always good for our art. Sure, you can visualize painting a show, or the exploration of a subject, or even the Lamborghini you’re going to buy with the proceeds, but you don’t want to be too accurate in your preconception of your art.
Here’s why: From the evolved Impressionists to the greats of today, the most effective art-making processes follow the evolution of the works themselves. Process trumps plans. That’s why our job is called “creative.” One needs to beware of too much prior visualization. It is the inflicting of mind on an act that is ideally the progressive work of eyes and hands.
It’s been my experience when artists switch from carrying out prior visualizations to a more open-minded experience of exploration and minute-by-minute adjustment, quality goes up.
Rather than proscribing a recipe, think of your art as a dynamic event. Know that the safe guide of visualization can also be a choking straightjacket. Planning is great, but you need to get into improvisation mode. Your mind is a tyrant. It can only be subverted by the persistence of your eyes, your intuition and your heart. An exciting trip of discovery is one that keeps you coming back for more.
Further, the problem with comparing art to sport is that the latter lives within an interminable romance with numbers. Distances, times, goals and even errors are measured and traced with alarming accuracy. Numbers define athletic success. Art, on the other hand, is more arbitrary. Prowess is often a matter of opinion. As the goals and values of art are difficult to quantify, art needs to be seen as a personal, private activity where the joy is in the doing.
PS: “The mind stands in the way of the eye.” (Stained glass pioneer Arthur Stern)
Esoterica: This is just one more reason why preparatory roughs can be dangerous. If you expend too much energy on comps, particularly if somebody like you approves them, they can lock you in. Further, you may leave out the very flourishes that your final may need. I believe in “rough, rough, roughs.” That way you’re not too committed and you can jump into your venture with gusto, having not yet solved all of its problems. “Vision is not enough,” said the great playwright Vaclav Havel. “It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”
Take a break
by Jim Tubb, Waterloo, ON, Canada
I always tell people that when you are painting and start thinking too much about where you are going it is time to take a break from the particular piece because it probably means you are labouring and the process has frozen and the creative is gone. Later one can return and go deep again and work freely.
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Process trumps plans
by Debbie Baer, Hunlock Creek, PA, USA
Quote: “Process trumps plans.” This is something that I dealt with while working on the painting Willie. The idea for this work came from my husband and I spent months tossing it around in my head before finally gathering up some references (the model for the hand was my husband) and putting the initial sketches on canvas. I had a very clear visual on how I would execute everything — except the face in smoke. I decided to just start painting. The process itself is what developed the finished product. After all, you know what they say about the best laid plans.
by Carl Erickson, Stillwater, MN, USA
Visualizing a given, successful art gallery outcome is not my goal for visualizing. Visualizing success without visualizing the work needed seems cheap and destined for disaster. When I work on any studio project, especially new projects I try to visualize the steps needed to get to the outcome I am hoping for. Regardless of the medium I may be working in, it helps me to see the steps and how they interrelate each affecting the next. Preparing the surface, affecting the color, changing the texture, building the structure, providing for additions. As the project is visualized I see where there are areas to grow and problems to work through further. Rather than impeding growth this allows me to focus on the unresolved areas, areas that are often the source of future growth. Meanwhile methods and techniques that have become almost automatic can be employed quickly and effectively while integrating them with the new solutions.
Visualizing the end result
by Marsha Elliott, Covington, OH, USA
Too much visualization has oftentimes brought me disappointment when the finished painting wasn’t anything like I was hoping it would be and the masterpiece in my mind’s eye turned out to be nothing more than another piece to line the trash can. However, it doesn’t always work that way and I’m excited when what I’ve envisioned starts to develop with each brushstroke. Before I painted Behold the Lamb, I visualized the end result with thoughts running around in my head for days. I knew what I wanted, but not quite sure how to get it. I wanted my painting to be symbolic and to be presented in the most gentle, non-offensive way possible. Once I set my brush to work, everything flowed effortlessly and I feel I achieved what I was hoping for.
Deviating from your references
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I often use visualization, and now I can see how expectations can get me into trouble. For example, I am working on some sand in the foreground of a creek painting. I have a photo, and I know what I want it to look like, but it seems trite and predictable. Now I am thinking that perhaps I need to feel the sand, and create shadows that show the time of day, rather than get every footprint and paw print in place.
On a good note, I often deviate from my photos to the point that they are unrecognizable. I like it when that happens. I cringe when someone says, “The water looks so real, I touch it and feel wet.” I know that is a compliment, but that is not what I am going for. In the attached painting, From my Kayak III, the grasses have pink and red notes. You won’t find that in nature, but you will on my palette!
Projecting ‘passion for the paint’
by Nancy Bradford, Scottsboro, AL, USA
I like to use visualization when I sell my art work at an art show/sale. The night before, I decide in my mind what I will wear. I visualize myself in my booth/space with my paintings “framing” me. I see myself in my mind’s eye, meeting customers, making new friends, promoting my art with confidence, giving them my business card and engaging them in a discussion about art. By projecting my “passion for the paint” I drive my profession with commitment and enthusiasm.
Cave painter’s block?
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I do not pre-visualize, nor do I visualize. I just make images, and when I am done, I can see them. The one thing I know about art is that the more I try to see in advance, the lamer are my results. My goal is to surprise myself. Otherwise, making art is a job! It is a product, and simply hack work. I detest the rationalizations, and the credos, and the check lists.
As I see it, we human beings were put on earth to adorn the cave walls and plant gardens. Both activities involve work, but I do not try to visualize the iris flower, nor the tulip. I do not pre-taste the cabbage, nor the artichoke. What help is my thinking? It is only the work that makes things happen. This is true on the cave wall and in the garden. We artists, we image makers are not special. We are human beings doing our human business. We have been doing our work for at least 35,000 years. Can you imagine a cave painter with artist’s block? I cannot. That is it for now.
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by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I think it’s pretty simple. I’ve heard any work of art, in any form, described as a dialogue between the creator and the created. It’s a conversation, spontaneous, and there are two distinct voices. Who wants to go into a conversation knowing every word that will be said? Booooring. When I do my Distortraits, I’m usually waiting for it to surprise me and crack me up. That’s how I know I’m on the right track. But it has to surprise me.
I know some authors work from an outline, and some would rather throw themselves off a bridge, preferring to “let the characters reveal the story.” One noteworthy exception is film. Feature film production is both expensive and collaborative. Pre-planning is necessary. So early sketches evolve into storyboards, which become often complicated computer simulations of the final shots (called pre-viz), and though there is always some play, it’s not quite as free as when the conversation is just between you and the canvas. Anyway, my Distortraits are very good company, and make me laugh a lot, even the scary ones. They change frequently during the processes involved, and I usually have only a rough idea of where they’re going when we start “conversing.” I sure would hate to do them all by myself!
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Veer off course
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Visualizing is a hot buzz word these days. You should ‘visualize’ a big check and then presto, it arrives! You visualize a great painting and presto, you do it! It fits in with the philosophy of ‘attraction’ as put forth in the bestselling book, The Secret. You visualize all these positive results, and then you will ‘attract’ them to you. You can see why these ideas have gained so much traction in our results oriented culture. Visualizing is a lot quicker and easier than years of practice! Art is unlike sports in its lack of scientific predictability. You can do x-rays and measurements of an athlete’s body and measure his or her potential for many sports. Not so in painting. Many have attempted to use these corporate approaches to art production and marketing. Some succeed, especially in marketing. Goal setting can be very beneficial for often unfocussed artists. I happen to agree with Robert. Too much planning can rob a painting of its soul and excitement. If you have visualized and meditated on a sizzling grilled piece of steak, when it arrives it is rather a letdown. Science can ruin magic and spirit. Preliminary drawings box you in and encourage painting within the lines. It’s like following a navigator in your vehicle. Artists need to veer off course, to take side routes, to follow blind alleys, to make unscheduled U turns. We need to embrace serendipity. Art making is a messy business that defies the business models and empowerment fads of our era.
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Clearing your mind
by Joyce Morris
With my students I spend the first fifteen minutes of class removing any pre-conceived ideas from their heads. I also battle with their idea that paper is precious so each piece has to become a work of art. In my studio all they have to do is look around at all the works in progress: many of them torn into strips and rearranged to realize that even the messes can be redeemed by taking a different approach.
One way to clear their minds is to start with a large sheet of newsprint and a word suggestion, such as ‘falling water.’ I ask them to make a list of words associated with falling water and then to start at the top of the paper and draw the water getting to the bottom using as many impressions of their word list as possible. They are amazed with what they have done. That is the lesson. They don’t know what they’re capable of until they go with the flow. They forget what they thought they would paint and continue with the falling water. A lot of excitement compared to a flat lake with a strip of trees behind and a pale blue slab of sky.
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acrylic painting 24 x 30 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 Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic, who wrote, “Another quote from my memory for which I do not recall the source: ‘A craftsman always knows what he is going to do before he starts. An artist never does.’ ”
Enjoy the past comments below for The case for visualization…