An artist’s process


Dear Artist,


“Snow Storm–
Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps”
oil painting by J.M.W. Turner, 1812

Imagine, if you will, an artist’s encounter group. Imagine they are sharing, in one sentence each and with impunity, their current processes. It might sound like this: “I look in nature until I see something that appeals to me.” “I look in my environment for elements that lend themselves to my style.” “I look into my imagination for images which I can make real.” “I wait for requests from dealers and patrons and give them what they want.” “I look at my recent work, see what I’m doing, and try to go further in the same direction.” “I look and find what is exciting in the work of others and transpose it to my direction.” “I study trends and popular motifs, colours, etc., and produce works that echo those trends.” “I begin work with nothing particular in mind and see what comes up.””I gather elements either simultaneously or in sequence and synthesize them.” “I think up new trends, explore their possibilities, and make them happen.”


“The Devil’s Bridge, St Gothard”
oil painting
by J.M.W. Turner, ca.1803-4

“I read reviews and find out what critics are talking about and make stuff to give them more to talk about.” “I let my reference material suggest subjects worth working on.” “I make art because I’m curious if it will sell.” “I wait until I feel like working, and when I’m quite sure I do, my work simply flows, and I let it.” There’s no right or wrong in this. If you let your mind coast over these statements, you’ll find a resonance with some of them. You may be prompted to closer identify your own processes — and defend them. You will probably think of combinations and others not mentioned. My experience has been that when artists are confronted with statements like these, they find some they believe but for some reason do not practice. They also find practices they in fact use but for some reason are reluctant to admit.


“The Iveagh Seapiece–
Coast Scene of Fishermen Hauling A Boat Ashore”
oil painting
by J.M.W. Turner

Best regards,


PS: “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.” (Martha Graham)

Esoterica: In five volumes of Modern Painters, John Ruskin (1819-1900) chipped away at the processes of the artists of his day. In the end he seems to conclude there was only one who got it right: J. M. W. Turner. Later he gave a nod or two to a couple of the Pre-Raphaelites.

This letter was originally published as “Process” on October 3, 2000.


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Tilting Back the Light

acrylic on canvas 72 x 84 inches
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