Avoiding the borinary


Dear Artist,

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” said the jazz artist Miles Davis. His thought is one of the keys to avoiding the boringly ordinary — “the borinary.” Many works of art are what I call “one-two.” That is, they engage the mind and sensibilities only so far. Putting a half-filled wine glass into a landscape foreground, for example, turns borinary — for better or for worse — into a bit of a conversation piece. It becomes a “one-two-three.”

Pies, Pies, Pies (1961), 20 x 30 inches, oil on canvas by Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)

Pies, Pies, Pies (1961),
20 x 30 inches, oil on canvas
by Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)

Writing on the work of Salvador Dali, Sidra Stich noted, “Refusing to idealize, the Surrealists awakened a sensitivity to the arbitrary and the unusual.” In degree, it’s the calculated addition of visual surprise and incongruity that makes works of art speak both to the artist and her people.

There are degrees of incongruity. That wine glass is relatively benign. It mildly suggests romance, escape, maybe even the end to a lovely day in a nice location. Think also of incongruities that suggest threat, remorse, lost innocence — perhaps a child’s doll floating in a foreground puddle. Take it in another direction — inconsequential incongruity — a piece of foreground flotsam, a jet plane in the sky, a beach-ball in mid flight. Keep in mind that it’s easy to fall into conventions. For example, the ultimate illustrational cliche — birds. “Cut to seagull,” says the movie director when he can’t think of anything else.

Freeway 289 (1977) 24 x 24 inches, oil on canvas by Wayne Thiebaud

Freeway 289 (1977)
24 x 24 inches, oil on canvas
by Wayne Thiebaud

The muscle of human imagination is strong with possibilities and not all of us give it enough exercise. The idea is to make a list based on your own personality and passions. These can be the precious elements that make your work unique. I invite you to look around your own workspace and the greater world for incongruous items that you may consider putting into the stew. Just as I’m tapping this letter into my laptop, Emily, the Airedale, is coming toward me. Hanging from her mouth is the ragged leather case of one of my vintage cameras. I’m paying attention. What does this mean? “Artists,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “must preside over their states of consciousness with obstinate rigor.”

Best regards,


Night Mesa (2011–13), oil on canvas by Wayne Thiebaud

Night Mesa (2011–13),
oil on canvas
by Wayne Thiebaud

PS: “Common objects become strangely uncommon when removed from their context and ordinary ways of being seen.” (Wayne Thiebaud)

Esoterica: Try “spoiling” your work by adding an incongruous element. You might consider isolating with a varnish so that you can change your mind. Apart from the fun of monitoring the reactions to your incongruities, there’s a bonus for your own creative exploration. Incongruity stimulates. “Regard everything as an experiment.” (Corita Kent)

This letter was originally published as “Avoiding the borinary” on April 26, 2003.

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wayne thiebaud dog and shadow“Art means something very rare, an extraordinary achievement.” (Wayne Thiebaud)





  1. This business about incongruities being added to one’s art seems to me to be a “trick” for the viewer to try and figure out what the heck is going on and what the real message is that the artist is trying to convey. It definitely would get attention, if that’s what the goal is.

  2. Finding ways to visually surprise the viewer can give dividends far betpyond what is expected. I’ve always investigated these techniques, one that has always intrigued me is the use of multiples. They can be subtle or they can be i your face but they can totally change the effect of a piece of art. I love Pie, Pues, Pies. One plus one plus one is often more than three. Great letter.

  3. It seems to me, the whole point of creating visual art is to cause the viewer to stay a little longer at the painting. You have really got something if the viewer pauses to look longer or returns to look every time they pass by or sit in the room.
    Alas, I am still missing the mark, on that score. This essay is very timely.

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Discover the majestic island of Santorini with George Politis AWS, SDWS, RI. Small and large format, painting in watercolour and other watermedia like watercolour pencils, acrylic inks and collage, learning techniques and how to see and find a subject (often far from the obvious). Boost the creativity by new inspirational ideas, winning techniques for an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pure watercolour to mixed watermedia, realistic to abstract painting. All inclusive (course, hotel, all 3 meals per day, transportation in Santorini during the workshop).  Up to 12 artists, all levels accepted. anliv28@yahoo.gr



https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/james-sclater_afternoon-sun_indian-point_IMG_4191-wpcf_300x225.jpgThe late afternoon sun on the tip of Savary Island's Indian Point highlights the design elements of the logs and the summer surroundings of the island.

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My enjoyment in representing the beauty of our world with strong design and bold colours is what drives my passion for my landscape painting of Savary Island and other parts of our amazing planet.


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