All my life I’ve been trying to figure out ways to improve my painting. That includes study of the work of those I consider masters, trying to get the hang of their ideas, techniques and processes, and, on my own part, simple, garden-variety toil.
Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve built up a word list that has been gradually added to and subtracted from. At one point the words actually added up to 365. I called them “Keys.” They could be both negative and positive. They might be everyday common sense and they might be personal preferences. They pop up mainly while painting, afterwards when vetting my work, and often when I’m walking in the woods with Dorothy. These words remind me where I am, what pitfalls I’ve fallen into on previous occasions, what I am doing wrong right now and, from time to time, what I might be doing right.
You may have heard of the concept of “name it and claim it.” When you identify something that’s going on — a method, a technique, an attitude — and put a name to it, a natural human tendency is to hang on to it and to more readily make it your own. Naming often nails down a situation.
In my occasional forays into mentoring and workshopping, I also found myself encouraging painters to build lists for themselves — lists that might reflect their own techniques and tastes. Inevitably, I had to explain some items in my own list.
An alphabetical list that might encourage thought and the building of your own lists can be found after the letter. You might find some on my list to be self-contradictory, but that’s the nature of the beast. While anyone can paint, it’s difficult to paint well. If it were easy to paint well, perhaps everyone would be doing it. Our work is also complicated by the fact that we often don’t know what glue we’re in until we’re already into it. A life in art seems to be forever a work in progress. If you catch my drift, you may find that your own words and phrases will pop up and down like a whack-a-mole.
As the lady said, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”
PS: “My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think.” (French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1908-1961)
Esoterica: I recently printed out and ran my list past a group of artists in a two-hour Q and A. The participants seemed to be stimulated, and some great discussions arose. Some participants have continued to fire off input by email. Without completely throwing away the mystery of it all, I’ve added a short explanation after each key. “A word,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a struck note on the keyboard of the imagination.” It’s my sincere wish that your imagination might at least be teased. It’s also my hope that from my list you get a few ideas for your own list.
365 Words and Phrases
Abstract core — abstraction strengthening realism
Activation — magic spots that direct the eye
Arial perspective — going back easy
Art schooly — some march to a different drum
Avoidance activity — the thief of productivity
Bee-action — brushwork like a bee at flowers
Big picture — broad design trumps fiddling
Blocked — some artists simply are
Box canyon — places you can’t get out of
Bravura — confident, flamboyant brushwork
Broom and whisk — brush size for style
Butterfly mind — your key to imagination
Chair and feet — hat on and how you work
Chiaroscuro — form by light and shade
Cigar time — civilized, reflective self-crit
Circulation — moving the eye around a work
Clientosis — too much attention to customer
Colour surprise — unexpected pictorial focus
Coming to light — basic principle of life
Commit and correct — a creative principle
Condition — What’s happening in there?
Constipation — creative tightening up
Counterpoint — the secondary leitmotif
Defocus — softening up for mystique
Desire — the world’s greatest power
Distractive creativity — gifted subconscious flow
Edgemanship — know your edges
Educosis — work blinded by education
Ego-force — the power that billows your sails
Eye control — management of the viewer’s eyes
Faxification — imited range of tonal values
Flow — automatic right-brain painting
Focus — here’s the climax?
Form — when all else fails
Glaze down — toning a painting for mother colour
Grace notes — extra nuances for added interest
Gradations and flats — main ways of treating areas
Grey power — sophisticated, delicious neutrals
Guilt — the thief of power
Half-closed eyes — the way to really see
Hard and soft — the two buddies of joy
Homeostasis — the creeping crime of equality
Horizontality — the alpha of back and forth
Infectious dilettantism — good enough is okay
Interlocking patterns — hidden design strength
Iron will – the power to overcome
Joy stroke — where visual happiness prevails
Kitch and callow — beginner’s potholes
Leave out — subtraction as creative ploy
Leave out a primary — a winning colour device
Limited palette — less is more
Literary entrapment — the “red” barn
Lost and found — the music of disappearances
Low expectations — aim low and hit the mark
Magic hour — a great time to paint
Mishmash — a work of too many subjects
Mother colour – chosen colour pervading all
Nap time — the shut down that reboots
Overworking — the boo-boo of perfectionists
Painterly senility — watch for it as you age
Paucity — absence of; key to pictorial charm
Photographosis — photo dependence; it shows
Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention
Plein air cure — the advent of authenticity
Point system — every work has its points
Pomodoro — the tomato of time
Pump priming — methods of getting started
Put more into it — adding without cluttering
Rebrushification — change brushes; often up
Reflected light — the gentle lift that reads
Scumble — dragging a lighter colour over
Secondary easel — a change of personality
Squeeze out — first thing in the morning
Stringy and thready — a terminal danger
Studiothrombosis — art and you can die of this
Style alert — triggering the advent of style
Surface quality — the work you love to cruise
Syncopation — boogie-woogie energy
Syntagma — similar forms montaging
Talk back — let the painting speak to you
Three four five — stepping back well into
Three sixty — rotate your view
Time inversion — slow work that looks quick
Toil — the professional’s secret weapon
Too one two — a simplistic work
Toolitis — the reliance on tools
Verticality — the power of up and down
Volume — the benefits of making many
What could be? — the golden question
Zips and flourishes — Final focus fun
Guilt and power
by Hannah Pazderka, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I noticed that one of your Keys was: “Guilt — the thief of power.” I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk more about that?
(RG note) Thanks, Hannah. This was the most frequently queried key on the list. I used to see a lot of guilt, particularly among women artists with issues over the perception of keeping house, etc, but this has certainly diminished. Other forms of guilt—often laid on us by one person or another who disapproves of one part of our lives or another. Guilt can help enable ambition, of course, but it’s mostly like a flat tire that slows down progress. One can either identify the guilt source and confront it, or one can go the other way. For the free flow of independent joy and creativity, artists need to chuck out as much guilt from their lives as possible.
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by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA
I am wondering just what is “painterly senility?” Worried here!
(RG note) Thanks, Diane. The second most queried key. Identified by critics and older artists themselves, “painterly senility” might involve tightening up, repetition, overworking, unsure stroking and sloppy compositions. Some of it may have to do with garden-variety boredom from doing the same thing for some time. As in the fight against Alzheimer’s, taking on new projects and challenging old neural pathways is vital. Artists need to stay alive to the very end, and they can.
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by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA
Curious about Pink focus — noses and elbows; a convention.
(RG note) Thanks, Larry. Several asked this. If you are a believer in finding colour and emphasizing it in your work, take a look at how you can make people come alive when you make their noses just a bit redder, their knees and elbows just a bit pinker. In my books it’s an inexcusable illusion, but it rings true.
Words to live by
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
My beloved grandfather used to collect and repeatedly reuse phrases. One of his favourite ones was “love across the water” for anything promising that may not pan out, especially when we were playing chess or cards. I always thought that this habit was a sign of old age. My vocabulary has been egalitarian, but I am noticing that it’s getting cluttered. Your list has some of my misplaced darling ones and I am very glad that you shared it with us. Maybe it’s the time for me to start writing things down before nature takes its toll.
Here are my contributions for the list:
Parenthood – Protect and cherish, don’t try to make it look like something else
Sincerity – Give it all you have, never become slick or sly
Keep moving – Start, work, finish and repeat
Keep growing – Learn something new every day
Forgive – shortcomings build character
…and thanks very much for publishing so many of my letters and paintings! I love PKeys!
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. The people who choose the letters are fond of yours because they are sometimes feisty, sometimes sweet, always informed and always intelligent, and we all think your fellow artists will get value from them.
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by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
At the risk of screwing up the calendar, here’s another good one:
Mirror; check it out in horizontal flip.
And to give a broader sweep to educosis:
Forget; all these words.
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Lists are meaningless
by Roberta Pyx Sutherland, Grassy Point, Hornby Island, BC, Canada
A recent article by Roger Cohen for the New York Times while traveling and observing in Germany contained the following paragraphs:
Germans have a good word for something authentic: “echt.” We have an echt deficit these days. Everything seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption. The thrill of the unexpected is lost.
The modern world’s tech-giddy control and facilitation makes us stupid. Awareness atrophies. Dumb gets dumber. Lists are everywhere — the five things you need to know about so-and-so; the eight essential qualities of such-and-such; the 11 delights of somewhere or other. We demand shortcuts, as if there are shortcuts to genuine experience. Lists are meaningless.”
I am a person who dislikes poor manners and confrontation. There have been several letters to you lately in both the clickbacks and live comments that go too far. I also notice that you did not illustrate the really nasty one with his work. Is this a policy when they are bad?
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Apparently there are three Bill Gahl’s in the USA and we were not able to find art from any of them. If we had found some work we would certainly have illustrated it.
Pomodoro, the tomato of time
by Olga Rybalko, BC, Canada
We met at the FCA workshop at Whistler BC last month when I had a 15 minute mentoring session with you on the last day. Thank you again for all the advice. I’ve been so inspired from that week and have been painting lots. One of the things you suggested was to try the 37 minute and 37 stroke painting. I really enjoyed the 37 stroke one; it was like a life drawing exercise where you can’t take your pencil off the paper, so it really gets the brain working. The 37 minute painting with the timer was great as well; it made me really plan out the painting in advance. I think I’ll start doing this before I start any big pieces.
(RG note) Thanks, Olga. For artists who might want to help others, this sort of mentoring system is useful. One-on-one and behind closed doors gives a good opportunity to see what they do and hear where they’re coming from. I don’t actually charge for these sessions because when I started out doing them a few years ago I figured that I needed to get the unsullied goods, get straight to the point and give them a thought or two to carry on. For some, not all, I’ve found these private meetings to be priceless. The most students I recommend talking to in one day is 24.
by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece
We’ve been everywhere on Santorini — the most comprehensive tour of the most microcosmic place. Lighthouse, monastery at the mountaintop, radioactive WWII radar station and bunker, battery, octopus cove, port, marina (with sloops), donkey stairs, cable car station, cathedral, mountain pass, switchbacks, cliff edges, luxury balconies, winery, olive grove, aforementioned goat farm, bee keeper’s spot, kitten cafe with lobsterman meeting, volcano sulphur belching hot spring, white chalk beach, new age restaurant with whole fried sea bass and octopus carpaccio, trinket row, exotic foot spa with fish nibblers, slouvaki cafe, windmills, Nona’s taverna with tomato dumplings, straw hat shop, supermarket, beach umbrella paradise, Sorolla pink rock face, tiny white barnacle hotel clump, sunset points, cruise ship empty-spot, prehistoric volcano petrification village, fresco museum in private home, clay replica gallery, millions of Greek cookies bakery, sleepy beach, and every road connecting them, and here…our white terrace overlooking the submerged Atoll (imploded 1613 BC) and central lava Island (1950). The whole thing has been fueled by Santorini cherry tomatoes, baby cukes, red onion and local capers, Kalamata olives with slabs of Crete feta laying over them, glugged in olive oil and herbs. P drags chips through globs of garlicky tzastiki and breaks up the scampis.
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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 Luann Udell of Keene, NH, USA, who wrote, “Writing has become a huge part of who I am as an artist. When I talk about my art, I say who I am. When I write about it, I discover who I want to be.”
Enjoy the past comments below for 365 words and phrases…