When I was a callow youth I was lecturing a hundred or so painters one evening. I was talking about my then-current method of working on a bright russet-red ground and consciously leaving out one of the primaries. As I spoke, a gentleman in the front row rose to his feet. The tall, bearded Gordon Kit Thorne, an elderly and respected painter, waited until I paused in my verbosity. Having gained everyone’s attention, he then spoke out in a stentorian voice that echoed all over the auditorium: “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”
He then turned to the group and gave us all a short lecture on “correct” methodology.
Gordon and I were both expressing choices. It was a good lesson for me. Anyone who sticks to his game–any game–can fall into the trap of thinking he has an immutable system.
Today I spoke on the phone to several colleagues. We were talking about planning versus improvisation. While many fine artists plan everything in detail and then simply execute, others admit they don’t know what they’re doing from the get-go, but they start anyway and spend a lot of time fixing up. Both systems work. Just as some folks are happy and others are miserable, we can simply make choices. The nice thing about choices is that they can be changed.
If I had 50 cents for every time I’ve made different choices about grounds or primaries, for example, I could send all you subscribers a couple of bucks. Watch the mail.
Because there are so many roads leading to Rome these days, the trip must be sufficiently engaging for all pilgrims. The wayside choices we make, however minor or major, determine our signature, our style and our level of personal satisfaction.
I’ve just hung up the phone from a discussion on the business of painting the background first — working your way down like you are pulling a blind — as opposed to laying in a foreground first and working up the painting behind. I’m currently of the latter persuasion. My telephone friend is currently of the former. As the wise man said, “And this too will change.”
PS: “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.” (Kahlil Gibran) “Choice by choice, moment by moment, I build the necklace of my day, stringing together the choices that form artful living.” (Julia Cameron)
Esoterica: “Choose well,” said Homer. One of the great values of properly constituted art schools is the opening of students’ eyes to a variety of possibilities. A school’s stable of competitive instructors representing various media lays out a lifelong stage for exploration and experimentation. If you don’t have the benefit of that kind of school, you can choose one for your own studio. It’s a matter of attitude. It’s called the “Attitude of Choice.” As a perennial student, you take up the artistic equivalent of the scientific method — a seemingly endless uncovering and testing of choices.
A lifetime of curiosity
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
What’s interesting about this letter to me is not that you differ with my own practices or with others. What is interesting is that creative people just need to create. We change things because that is just part of being curious which is a mainstay of creativity. So one year we paint from top down. The next year we paint from bottom up. One year we start with our darks. Another year we put in the focal point first. It’s all good. When a painting works for me I could sit all day and figure out the rules I used to get it right. I could do the same thing the next day and use a different approach and still have a good painting. It doesn’t mean there are no rules. If I lose my darks the painting won’t hold. Period. If I muddy the lights then the painting will be muddy. Period. If that isn’t what I intended, well then that didn’t work! Period. In it all are more approaches to getting it right, or wrong, that I can learn in a lifetime. How wonderful.
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Going for the energy
by Jeanne Illenye, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
I paint where the energy is. It’s all about emotion as I do not have a subject in front of me for my larger work. I paint in the realist style yet for my larger still lifes, particularly my elaborate florals, I have a general idea or vision in my mind, then stare at the blank canvas for a few moments and begin at the focal point — the main energy. For me it’s all about ebb and flow, utilizing the basic compositional structure and movement of the Dutch Masters, playing with light and dark all laid out initially in bold washes of color — no drawing first, not photos, no still life in front of me — just my imagination. The details become evident after numerous layers of refinement, always elevating the entire painting simultaneously… It’s always interesting to hear how others paint, as we artists spend most of our time alone… creating.
The paths we take
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
We’re a lucky bunch, in general, we artists: we have so much control over what we produce, from the very beginning when we stare at our blank canvasses and either take a grand plunge, mull over, or very calculatingly plan our moves. In the very beginning, I was into studying masters, both Western and Oriental, and then as I got braver, trying to find my individuality of expression — paths that I would guess every serious emerging artist travels. At some point, like Frost’s ‘two paths,’ we make our choices. I think one of the broadest — and perhaps not consciously — is whether we are process-oriented or product-oriented. There are artists who are consumed by the motions of creating, a ‘moving meditation’ of sorts (that’s me), and those who’s eye turns unwaveringly to what will be the final outcome. The technical choices that you discuss, of ground, color, inception are further branches of these initial paths.
Thousands of ways to paint
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
Painters need to be able to problem-solve through a painting as if each one is a new experience and a vastly different set of issues. We follow a different course depending on the subject, and how we want to present it. I tell my students that beyond learning what oil paint does technically, there are no rules. Everyone will learn to use paint the way they will. There are thousands, if not more, ways to paint. It’s more about the painter, what they bring to it, how much they love it, what they are attempting to accomplish with it, through it. It is a very difficult challenge, but fulfilling and joyful at the same time.
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Another person Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
by Marilyn Timms, Courtenay, BC, Canada
I was taken back to a wakeup call of my own on reading this. I received an email link from a friend of mine that put me on to an artists website where my methods of working in watercolours were being hotly debated. It seems a new painter had found my website, read up on my methods and was quoting me as her guru. The debate centered around some basic premises that I had been teaching for many, many years about the properties of certain transparent non-staining pigments and how to handle them. Like Mr. Thorne, the responders said I too was “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!” After my ego subsided, I took a long, hard look at what they were saying — even studiously “checked it out” in paint and, much to my chagrin, they were right. I, too had fallen into the trap of thinking that my way was the only way. It changed my teaching, and my paintings, for the better immediately. Now, I am much less likely to feel the need to defend what I am doing and much more likely to be open to change.
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Yet another case of wrongness
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Boy did this come at the right moment! Yesterday I was lecturing one of my classes on the “proper” way to set up their painting tables in relation to their easels! While some obediently made the switch according to my command, er suggestion, many seemed resistant and told me they had already been taught a completely different method. Slightly miffed, I went next door into another classroom and asked the other teacher how HE had been taught. I was fully confident that he would support my method, after all, he had gone to the same art school I had! To my annoyance, he told me that my students and I were ALL wrong, and proceeded to expound a completely bone-headed, er different, system of his own. Fortunately, this quickly made me realize the same truth you just expounded in your letter: there is no accounting for tastes! Or artistic techniques. Whatever gets you to the place you want to go is fine.
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Planners and pantsters
by Lin Stepp, Knoxville, TN, USA
Writing is my primary creative endeavor and paint as a side endeavor. In writing — as in painting — there is an ongoing argument about the correct methodology for writing a novel. Many writers do get dogmatic about their methodology-of-choice, thinking they have, as you say, an immutable system. In writing, the two ends of the continuum tend to be called “Planners” and “Pantsters” — those who plan meticulously before they begin their writing , researching, plotting, and outlining their chapters ahead , and those who jump in spontaneously ‘flying by the seat of their pants,’ so to speak, writing as the muse and inspiration come, cleaning and polishing later.
My pragmatic view would be to examine whether the methodology works well — either in painting or in writing. Is the artist producing creatively and well, experiencing satisfaction versus frustration in his or her work? And is the artist actually seeing a strong, consistent output of quality work? If so, their methodology choices are probably good ones for them. If not, it might be well to explore an alternative method. It seems foolish to argue for, and continue with, a work methodology that is obviously not producing good results. Creative people should always be open to explore and consider new methods of work, but should also be wise enough to know the methods that work best for them day to day.
Clearing the mind’s palette
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Even those who fly by the seat of their paints have done some pre-planning in their mind’s eye before starting. Jackson Pollock said “…the painting has a life of its own. My mission is to bring forth this life.” Though I paint nothing like him, it’s so true that each new piece (painting, sculpture, whatever) is a brand new experience. What we do is half calculated and half mystery. However it’s done, we’re creating an illusion based on a ‘what we know/what we don’t know’ combo. Experience, visualization, attention, passion, and tenacity get the job done. In my work the method is often dictated by subject matter and the intention of it. It helps to start each painting and each day by clearing the mind’s palette first.
Fear and dread
by Ralph Giannattasio, Wyndmoor, PA, USA
Today’s letter got me to thinking about “planning” my work and reminded me of a conversation we had during a recent art class. The question was this: Do you start a new painting with joy and anticipation of the beauty you hope to create or is it a feeling of fear and dread. I must admit that I fall closer to Door #2. I really don’t start enjoying myself until I am done with all the preliminaries and I begin the “corrections” that make the painting a painting. I have a suspicion that some day this feeling will drive me away from the easel. I’ve been serious about painting for about a year and half and, like most things I have done to fill my spare time, I have approached painting with an all-consuming passion. The “book” on me is that I will improve rapidly because of my passionate approach to things but will soon hit a wall where improvement stops. In the past — when improvement stops – I stop. I wonder if this feeling of “fear and dread” is common?
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The joy of choice
by Asheley Elizabeth
There is nothing more exhilarating and simultaneously daunting than a choice… because one choice opens a door to the infinite possibility of choices. There is nothing more delicious, when confronted with an artwork’s endless possibilities, than the act of pinpointing one choice that sings of the most unique view belonging to only you.
As I progress as an artist, this action of choosing, the act of expressing my style, comes more easily… only because I’m steadily knowing myself more. When I bring a new media into the studio, it takes me longer to make choices, because it’s as if I’m wrapping the new texture around my senses… seeing how it mixes with my already defined tastes. I love mixing new baby steps with mature ones… there is play and purpose, freedom and composure, release and cultivation. A lifetime is not long enough to create all that is thought into form, but the act of choosing allows us to carefully edit, so that each artwork can become a snapshot of a creative, thriving stream.
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by Lynne Roswall
I am compelled to tell you how blessed I feel that I stumbled upon your site about a year ago and signed up for your letters. I’ve spread as much of you around as I could and still I’m surprised and excited when I get your emails. There are loving discussions / debates / opinions about art and the creation and servicing of painting as a medium, as a means, as Art. I also find comfort in quotes, be them from philosophers, artists, writers, etc. I am also curious as to how you keep your site working so very well — it is so incredibly organized! I’m wondering if it is what you envisioned it to be and do you find you are in testing mode constantly before you blast your letters out, do you have glitches and/or do you have a whole team working on keeping the site in order or is it updated easily by you through a CMS or admin tool that allows you to update content easily?
(RG note) Thanks, Lynne. As we often seem to be mired in Internet problematicals, impossible cyber-gremlins and mailing booboos, it’s a thrill to be told our site works so well and is so incredibly well organized. Believe me, it’s the team — Andrew, Michelle, Samantha, Judi, Lorna, Shawn and Sarah. Everyone has a role, and complaints are relayed to each youthful expert. As for me, every morning, after a short, abortive sortee into what must be the most congested inbox in the Western Hemisphere, I return to my easel and marvel at the relative calm, simplicity and Luddite beauty of my painting studio. As for my letters, I just write about what’s on my mind or what I think might be concerning others–and then, right or wrong, we just “blast them out.” Then the fun begins.
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Larch Hills #1
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 Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic, who wrote, ” ‘What is the difference between an artist and a craftsman? A craftsman always knows what he/she is going to do and how to do it before they start. An artist never does.’ I am both from day to day.”
And also Claudia Roulier of Idledale, CO, USA, who wrote, “Artists who plan precisely think 180 degrees differently from the artist that is more into the process journey — it’s a basic difference on how each sees and approaches the world. I prefer process and I think about that journey the whole time I’m working and yet I don’t spend much time trying to change things.”
And also Judi Birnberg of Sherman Oaks, CA, USA, wrote, “I’d like to mention the just-opened exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts: Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Worth the journey. Its only other venue will be in Paris.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Choices…