An oblique strategy


Dear Artist,

Acting on a tip, I downloaded from the app store a deck of imagination prompts. Originally created in 1975 by musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies began as a box of index-sized cards for artists, made of cut up, discarded prints from Schmidt’s studio. Now, in 2016, the cards can arrive on your phone. I found them by following the breadcrumbs from a story in the New Yorker magazine describing a world-renowned food critic who sometimes emails his editor around deadline time to say that he’s forgotten how to write. For him, Eno and Schmidt’s “strategies” have been a go-to during moments of creative malaise. But what about deadlocks at the easel? The “strategies” include:


“Flowing in the right direction”
1971 lithograph on paper
by Peter Schmidt (1931–1980)

Use an old idea.
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Question the heroic approach.
Only one element of each kind.
Give way to your worst impulse.
What to increase? What to reduce?
Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate.
Do we need holes?
Decorate, decorate.
Disciplined self-indulgence.
From nothing to more nothing.
Ask your body.
Remove specifics and revert to ambiguities.
Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance.
Consider different fading systems.
Tidy up.
Simply a matter of work.
Use fewer notes.
What would your closest friend do?


1974: one of 1500 different silk screen portraits of Brian Eno created by Peter Schmidt, four of which are used on the cover of the LP “Taking Tiger Mountain”

Used by the bands Coldplay, Phoenix, R.E.M, MGMT and by Eno himself when producing David Bowie’s 1977-1979 Berlin trilogy, the Oblique Strategies have, over the decades, taken on a kind of mythic ethos — inspiring second and third generation brainstorming card decks, comic books and the Richard Linklater film, Slacker. While, as artists, our dreamtime may already percolate in the abstract, a prod to shake up stagnant creativity patterns is always appreciated. Here’s an idea for our collective, lateral thinking cap: might we each contribute our own “oblique strategies” in the comments, below?




Peter Schmidt : lithographs, 1960s

PS: “Not building a wall; making a brick.” (Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies)

Esoterica: Coined in 1967 by psychologist Edward de Bono, “lateral thinking” approaches problem solving indirectly, instead of by the step-by-step “vertical” logic of deduction. By embracing the value of the fluidity of ideas, a lateral thinker can migrate from a known concept to a breakthrough by using four tools: Idea generating tools like Oblique Strategies that may help disrupt thinking routines; Focus tools like meditation or experiences that can help broaden where ideas come from; Harvest tools, which extract more value from new ideas; and Treatment tools, which honour real-world constraints like resources, support or other costs of an idea. “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify.” (Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies)


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“They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear…” (from the introduction of Oblique Strategies, 2001 edition)



  1. Heather Hawthorn Doyle on

    Ah Sara once again your words and inspiration are timely. You are doing great work carrying on your father’s legacy of creativity and thoughtfulness with these letters…thank you! hhd

  2. Many times over the past decades I have told a student, who had reached a block trying newer methods, to do something old that they know they can do (strategy #1 above). It really works. Then they usually do move on.

  3. If I’m stuck it means I need to get excited by a new approach – I change the surface from canvas to wood to cera mic , go to galleries, an arts store for new developments in paint,, talk to a working artist, observe art being made – whatever fires my imagination – your column is always a great inspiration Thanks

  4. Sometimes declaring a work finished and signing it will quite quickly show you what else it needs! If too early in the piece for that to work, proceed with the style of an artist very different from you, probably best if it’s one you admire . . .

  5. Love the idea of snippets of artwork on cards. I keep blank flashcards of a sort that have a hole punched and held by one looseleaf ring, by Japanese manufacturer Maruman. I save wise phrases turned by anyone – many from the Painters Keys – which happen to resonate at the moment, including my own on occasion. I open them at random and today found this by early 20th century (1842-1910) physician/psychologist/philosopher William James: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering the attitudes of his mind.”

  6. Hi …helpful as always! Do you know what I love about my artslife? It fits. It leads faithfully and happily, with always a pathway in all weather. This week won for career goals, in a time of special need, simply by changing the type of engagement for the progress for a bit.

    Thank you for the things about Peter Schmidt –

    Invitation: tell me if I am out of line here –
    Peter Fagan, my own hero, died suddenly a year after Peter Schmidt’s heart attack, also while on a well-earned vacation, but from Aneurysm.
    SO ART is the Deus ex machina one more time:
    I use my art to fundraise for the win over aneurysm now – and September is Aneurysm month. So we are doing a site event beginning this Sunday till month’s end. Maybe the first of what will be an annual event!

  7. Happy Equinox to everyone.

    Thank you all for your inspired comments. And, thank you Sara for another wonderful letter and for mentioning the app.
    The list of strategies is a little different and refreshing. Going back to basics is getting very interesting to me, the basics seem have a clever way of expanding along with my growth.

  8. OK here are some cards I made up – imagination prompts (I hope)..

    Where did that thought come from?

    Make a wish, ride a horse!

    Go to the depths of an emotion – without losing control.

    Bounce to the opposite.

    What would you like to change?

    Do you really need happiness?

  9. Great ideas for changing the way we look at things. As a more vertical thinker, I’m constantly trying to feel/think/paint more holistically. This list and some of the replies are immediately useful to change the grooves in my brain. Thank you for these ideas for expanding awareness!

  10. Virginia Clark Levy on

    last June, while talking with my daughter, I absent- mindedly sketched her head on a canvas I was stretching, later noticed it was badly off. center. But I liked the likeness, and spent the rest of the summer adjusting the composition and solving the problems that arose with each adjustment. By late September I have a n 18 by 24 painting of my beautiful daughter holding one of her cats, another cat appearing mischeviously over her shoulder, and a paisley pattern of colors in her dress that tie the blond hair, the orange cat and the gray/ brown cat together in a somewhat unusual but compatible and compelling design. Give your drawing error a second chance— it may produce a hidden treasure! and the problem solving digs deep into your creativity.

  11. Earlier this summer I began a landscape based on the view from Leighton Art Centre outside Calgary. I had finished the background but as I approached the mid and foreground, I felt there neeeded to be something more, something else, but I didn’t know what. Fortunately I stopped painting, rather than trying to force a solution, something I’ve done at other times, to my distress.
    Later that week we were out walking at Glenbow Ranch, coming down a long trail through an aspen copse and out into a grassland when I felt rather than saw my answer… a clump of wolf willow. Natural, beautiful, not at all predictable, but true. I immediately took out my cell phone and captured as many different angles of the cluster as I could, seeing it complete my landscape in a vibrancy and authenticity that I wanted but hadn’t previously seen.
    When I returned to my easel, it was with confidence and smiles and I finished the piece which I think of as a breakthrough that led to an exciting summer of painting.
    Edward de Bono’s concept of lateral thinking has been with me since the late 1980’s but until your letter, Sara, I had forgotten it. Too often art is described as a sequential thought process, problem solving which proceeds from one step to the next. But for me, it’s more often lateral, and I suspect for other artists as well. When I l hear someone describe their creative process as sequential, I know that it likely isn’t, but for the purposes of teaching to others, it is presented that way. It’s hard to tell an expectant audience, ” at this point, I do something else, until I find a new way in. Pushing for a solution just wrecks it.” But it’s true.

  12. Very interesting email, Sara! Thanks! Docks, with all shapes, colours, lines and activities inspire me more than other places, perhaps because of the fresh salt air and mood of adventure.

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