Yesterday’s inbox included the short and sweet: “I’ve been painting seriously for the last fifteen years, and I now have trouble deciding what to paint. How do I decide?” The email was signed “Diane W. Reitz, BFA.”
Thanks, Diane. Maybe the BFA after your name gives us a clue. Maybe you know too much. But don’t worry, it’s a common problem, BFA or not.
The creative life requires a steady progression of experimentation and discovery. While acquired wisdom is useful, your knowledge must work in tandem with the daily exercise of your curiosity. A life in art is more a working event than the application of prior knowledge. Further, as you paint, you are able to decide what to paint. Paintings come out of themselves. Prime your pump — your work goes viral.
There’s a pile of tricks you can pull to prime the pump. Go to your earlier inspiration — drawings, reference photos, field notes. Recall the direction this material took you in the past, and then go looking for a new angle. Don’t waste time. Commit yourself to the most humble application of paint. Get it through your system and out onto your reviewing easel. Perhaps reward it with a quick framing. Consider again the possibilities and commit once more, perhaps to a larger size. Don’t be precious. Try to think like Edison when he was trying different stuff that might do for filaments in light bulbs.
First thing you know you’ll feel refreshed and renewed rather than burdened with making a decision. Further, you will see a need for further refinement. Personal refinement of vision makes creativity worthwhile. What you do may not be unique in the greater world of art, but it’s the sweet ignorance of outcome that drives you on.
When artists see themselves inching forward with minor improvements, they begin a natural flow that becomes unstoppable. I formerly told artists who were unable to decide what to paint that they might not be cut out for the game. Then I realized that our very existence is based on ignorance of where we’re going. What’s important is having the fortitude and patience to dig around and try to find out. Actually, “having trouble deciding” is a good part of the fun. Accept the fun.
PS: “Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.” (Dr. Wayne Dyer)
Esoterica: Poverty of excitement and weakness of creative opportunism can develop from a poverty of observation. Opportunities appear meager to those who are not habitually open. Part of our job as creators is to develop the faculty of being impressed with our environment. “Motivation is in the world around us. We have an infinite amount of material at our disposal, in the lives of those we meet, in what we see, feel and discuss.” (Pablo Picasso)
by Chris Bolmeier, Omaha, ME, USA
What to paint? This is such a common issue that it is laughable when I think of the excuses surrounding that monster thought. Really, anything will do, it’s just that I always want to create a masterpiece every time. Is this possible? Noooo. So why do I wonder what to paint? Do I enjoy driving myself crazy and making myself nervous thinking about this? Not really, but maybe I am getting some artistic drama out of the deal. Then I tell myself, “You’re just having an artistic identity crisis.” It’s possible you need to move your aching body around more, which in turn will churn the creative juices and get the blood moving to your brain, which in turn may get a creative thought to occur and wake up the synapses. The next thought is usually a very paranoid “Well if I don’t know what to paint, I’m afraid I can’t paint anymore.” It’s always there, but if it weren’t I might get lost in the sea of mediocrity. Then I remember, I must suffer, I must struggle, I must pout and moan and create a mess, not put caps back on tubes, its one excuse after another. Can’t find this or that brush, I’m out of Cad Yellow. Actually this is part of the revving up mode, after which I dig in and paint. I become a painting machine, the ideas flow in fast and I remember I can paint and all is well with the world.
Check-list for getting inspired
by Karen Gillmore, Victoria, BC, Canada
I often get the same question from students, so often that I have written up a list (which of course I find helpful too) of my personal “tricks to prime the pump.” It doesn’t exactly answer the question of what to paint, but usually when we ask ourselves that question, it is because we are stuck, in our thoughts or energy, and can’t move beyond the mud of stuck-ness to the clear waters of choice. So here are some of the things I do to stir up the blocked streams of creativity so that they can flow freely again. Things to do when you are stuck:
Clean the house/studio
Throw paint at paper.
Take a walk and notice everything.
Stretch canvas, or some other boring studio task that never seems to get done.
Read an art book.
Sort your paints; make a list of ones you are low on for the next time there’s a sale.
Make a collage with old sketches or magazines; paint over it.
Take a “ruined” painting and find part of it that you like and crop it – some paintings have several lovely miniatures within!
Go on a photo expedition, composing with the camera.
Paint an abstract to music.
Play, play, play.
Take a class in something new and daring.
Write a poem; paint it.
Go to the library and look at picture books: kids’ books, travel books, science books…
Above all, if you’re stuck don’t force it; distract your conscious mind and let your subconscious do its thing. Go have a cup of tea, pet the cat, and come back with fresh eyes.
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
The MOST important source of inspiration for painting ideas is our own lives… And what we like most. You have mentioned the child in us several times, and while most “men” would laugh at that, it is one of the keys. Not all of the keys, but one of the most important. But this can be daunting, because if you analyze it and over think it you kill the ideas. I find that I am painting scenes in the woods, marshes, catboats, and seascapes. For the life of me I was wondering where these images were coming from — a few years back — these paintings that seemed to just flow out of my head and hands. Then I realized it was so obvious. All my walks in the woods when I was a child (before teen hood), and my forays into the marshes with my best buddy, learning how to walk on a catboat, all my sailing experiences in and out of harbors AND ocean racing where one cannot see land… These are places where I have felt inner peace and comfort. And my clients tell me this comes through clearly in my work — as a matter of fact, it is what they like best about it. Well, enough said.
Adjusting your focus
by Glynis Doorbar, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Here are a few extra thoughts on not knowing what to paint anymore. Something as simple as new glasses can help. Whenever I don’t know what to paint it is usually because I’m not focused (in more ways than one). It is amazing how even the slightest lack of clarity in vision can block the total absorption of information needed to transpose it to canvas. Also, dealing with the distractions that can depress one is important. Avoiding depressing people, and clearing out some clutter from the studio or place where I’m working helps. It seems the artistic nature tends to hoard interesting articles, shapes and objects. In Ontario it can also mean getting away from the snow to a more colourful place for a while. When doing the same creative pursuit for many years, one can get jaded. It is a good idea to switch to some new creative hobby for a while, or use a different medium. Try going abstract, just to get the creative juices flowing. The joy of expressing emotion through colour and texture, without having to be detailed or correct is extremely freeing and regenerating. One of the greatest tools for unlocking a fused imagination is the camera. If it is digital, all the better. By putting your images on the computer you can manipulate and zoom in on the most interesting angles, and choose or create great and inspiring compositions. By flipping through my photos I can often find inspiration when my imagination can’t.
Expanding your horizons
by Rod Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada
I am surprised to find anyone suffering from painter’s block after fifteen years at the easel, but it is completely understandable at the beginning of a career in art. After a bit of derivative painting, these first models should be shelved. Copying is not a bad beginning, but it cannot remain as the underpinning for serious fun and games. I am surprised by the tendency of many painters to look for a niche in terms of subject matter, and remain there because it is unprofitable to do otherwise. Leonardo said, “It reflects no great honour on a painter to be able to execute one thing well.” My advice is, “Get over it!” There are sales for all kinds of subject matter: florals, landscapes, seascapes, figure studies, portraits, wildlife; the list is endless. Choose an untouched category and a really big canvas and have fun rather than a restrictive commercial moment. In four decades of painting, I have found that every painting has an eventual home. If it doesn’t deserve one, destroy it! At the end of a long career, I am plagued by the idea that I am not going to have the time to complete all those partially filled canvases. Subject matter proliferates once it becomes less of a concern; but for me that has meant working consistently almost every day.
Finding your voice
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
Back around 1990 I began to paint more after completing my studies. I had decided to enter an outdoor show near home. At that time, I had no trouble knowing what to paint. For much of my childhood, summers were spent on the St. Lawrence Seaway, bounded by the northern shore of New York and Canada. It’s also the life line to our Great Lakes from the Atlantic. I decided that there’s nothing I know better, or have more motivation to paint than this river. I had experienced it every summer from infancy to adulthood and still do. My father was a teacher with summers free. I hate to think how different my life would have been if we were constrained to 1-2 weeks a summer and weekends. But, that’s how it is for me now, as I pass this rich tradition onto my son today. More than not, I paint the river, as it’s in me, I understand it, fish it, sail it and swim it. We should paint what we love and know best. Singers are known for Opera, Ballads, Country, etc. Rarely, if ever, do you find an Opera singer belting out Rock and Roll. There’s a reason for that. Jack White says we have to have a “voice” of our own. That voice comes in three parts. First, our medium, second, “style or technique” and third, the subject matter, be it landscape, flowers, what have you. One may also work on a small subset of a subject, as in Fly-fishing for landscape. Commissions of course, give us few choices. Many times I feel as though I have one hand tied behind my back. For that reason, I alternate between those and my river. Ever read the book, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow? Another twist may be Paint What You Love, and the Rest Will Follow.
New take on old topics
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
Change focus. If you usually do landscape vistas, try focusing on a single tree; if you do figurative work, try working on a hand; if you work in colour, try black and white. It is an exercise, but it may well get the creative juices flowing again. Perhaps Ms. Reitz needs a “fallow” period: if her recent “serious” work has been intellectually and emotionally draining, perhaps her mind is telling her she needs some down time to regenerate (may I suggest she go on some long walks — and yes, she would likely do well to leave her BFA behind!). Another technique I use when I am between ideas is to clean my studio: I am still in the space, fulfilling my time, and surrounded by my tools, and since making art is more pleasant than cleaning up, it usually isn’t long before an idea will appear that demands to be executed.
Ways to get fired up
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA
Maybe you have been painting things you like but have not found new ways to paint them and you have gotten bored. I worked for years as an illustrator. I was told what to paint or had to come up with an idea that fit strict perimeters. The stupidest project could be made exciting by finding one thing to get excited about. Maybe an object in the composition, a new technique to use or just using color in a way I had never done before. Now as a fine artist, the same applies. In order to make marketing easier, I have chosen a specific subject. Though my subject is rather limited, I find new things all the time to get fired up about. As a painter there is a lot I know but there is even more that I don’t know. With each painting I look for at least one new thing to learn or try. So in some ways the subject is incidental (even though it is something I love to paint). So my point is, paint the things you love but beyond that, look for the little things you have not tried before. Maybe it is just a color combination you saw on someone’s shirt and you try to use it in a painting. Maybe it is trying to convey an emotion or an altruistic value. It could be a challenge that would produce creative passion.
Filling your tank
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada
For years I painted watercolour landscapes and florals. I often had the thought of “what to paint.” At that time I was also heavily influenced by what other people thought about my work. Then several years ago, when I was studying a motivational profile called the Reiss Desire Profile, I got very excited about bringing the 16 core desires to life through images. This resulted in a show of 24 paintings. It became like theatre in that people came in and spent time interacting with the work. I have since done a show of 33 paintings based on the Myers Briggs, a personality typology. This show also had the buzz created by people getting involved in discussion of what the work meant for them. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about filling your tank. For some that might mean a visit to a gallery or a walk in nature. While these things occasionally work for me too, what really gets me excited is the world of ideas and finding a way to spark engagement with others. When my subject matter is linked to my interests and motivation, I can’t wait to get to the next painting. Sometimes I paint my way through the night in my dreams. Occasionally landscapes and florals recapture my interest when I have something fresh to say. As for the grip of other people’s opinions — it is still there as a source of doubt and hesitation when I am forcing something and not following what genuinely excites me.
Looking at the bright side
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
Joe Bucher is an extraordinary wildlife artist living in Louisburg, Kansas, who creates hand carved and laser-etched duck calls for the bulk of his business; collectible and able to be used in the field. You will find Joe’s work on eBay as one of the most collected and “re-collected” artists in the duck call market, and we have always painted together, or painted via the telephone. He paints each one ad nauseam, for he may have many of the same on order at once. After air-brushing and hand painting each one (some orders may call for the same painting on 80-100 calls at a time), he still details each one, tunes each one, makes each one as if it’s the last he’ll ever make! One prospective dealer, who had never seen one of his calls up close, did not believe Joe carefully painted each call and that it was just he and his wife that ran the business! He is in such demand, that he rarely gets a chance to work on his oil paintings on linen. He longs to paint and build his experience on the canvas, while I long for his steady and wonderful demand! We both always conclude: “At least we’re painting!”
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
While I am never at a complete loss with respect to what to paint, I sometimes have to grope about a bit. I often tuck away “idea material,” sketches, my photos or clippings from publications and the like. Thinking about something to paint I may go to these piles. When I turn up some, one of my first thought is often “What on earth was I thinking?” The items are not really pictures but simply the basis of an idea and sometimes, just like my handwriting, I simply can’t play it back. Accordingly, I don’t chuck the item until I have visited it a few times, as on the next viewing I may be inclined to proceed. The item will be the basis of a new painting. I sometimes wonder how close the result is to whatever I had in mind when I stashed it away.
In the thrall of a goddess
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I suppose it’s a decision. But it feels more like a submission to me. Something comes out of the world and grabs me and forces me to paint it. Recently I heard for the first time Shoenberg’s Die Gleukiche Hand, a short music drama which begins with a winged hyena chewing on the neck of a man lying on the stage. The image had a compelling resonance… but I resisted painting such a gruesome thing. I bought the CD and listened, and eventually started trying to paint it. From there on totally unpremeditated and unanticipated things happened on the canvas. I suppose I decided to do these things, but it felt more like submitting to the paint. A few months ago I was grabbed by my white coffee cup on a white paper towel. I ended up doing four watercolors of this cup, from different angles, different lighting. I would never have DECIDED to paint a coffee cup! I feel more like the art slave of some demon — or goddess!? — who forces these bizarre images upon me. I’ve had plenty of dry spells, and I agree that looking at your earlier work can help — but then I just end up recycling the old stuff. Usually I just sit and brood, waiting for the demon. I think creativity is a combination of conscious, unconscious and purely accidental forces, all coming together in something that always feels like an epiphany — a discovery rather than a decision.
The ever-lengthening list
by Erika Schulz, Red Deer, AB, Canada
I have always kept a list going with ideas for future works. Being a list person in pretty much every part of my life, my creative side is no exception. When I take photos, listen to music, or I am just driving around and get an idea, I often add it to the “pile.” My list is so long now that I could never run out of projects. In fact the list has become a book, and I love revisiting all the ideas or subjects that struck me at some point. I find that now the creation of the list is just as satisfying as the art itself. I have lots of really great things to look forward to working on.
Enjoy the past comments below for What to paint?…
oil painting on canvas, 18 x 15 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 Elisabeth Nitteberg of Lillesand, Norway who wrote, “Sometimes I feel a lack of inspiration. What I do is paint backgrounds of colors chosen by the spur of the moment. I take my time and often meditate when making the brush strokes.”
And also Valerie Kent who wrote, “And the corollary… how is it that there never seems to be enough time to paint everything that I have lined up to paint. The ideas crowd in like the folks in the line-up at Tim Horton’s for morning coffee.”
And also Rene Wojcik of Midland, TX, USA who wrote, “My ideas come from a moleskin book of Mind Maps that I keep next to me on my work table. I believe it was Tony Buzan who wrote several books on Mind Maps and this is an excellent approach to creativity.”
And also David A. Lucht who wrote, “I recently took a workshop from Lew Lehrman of Scottsdale… he talked about how to decide what to paint. He described the English way and the French way. He favors the French way. The English spend days searching for the perfect view. Then, if they have to, they will lash themselves to a tree, enduring an onslaught of wind and pelting rain to paint that view. The French go to their favorite outdoor café, order a bottle of wine and paint whatever happens to be in view. Lehrman teaches art journaling, which is very helpful in learning to find interesting things to paint everywhere you go.”
And also Alicia Chimento who wrote, “Piggybacking a bit on your last letter, The Thought Walk, this week’s What To Paint, also serves to inspire and reflect. Walking 3 miles 5 times a week not only clears my head, and keeps my weight down, but opens my mind to the endless possibilities that abound in nature.”
And also Paul Massing of Amelia Island, FL, USA who wrote, “The Atlantic Ocean, barrier island where I live and do art has many and various changing dimensions in color and form largely due to the effect of the seasons. It provides me a never ending visual experience to inspire my work.”
And also Nikki Coulombe of Lewisville, TX, USA who wrote, “I wonder if the source behind the question, ‘What should I paint?’ is having expectations that every painting is going to be pretty, should be finished quickly, and that it has to sell. Allowing for the options of experimentation, mystery, even vulnerability to failure opens up a world of potential.”