Painting and chunking

Dear Artist, I’m not talking about a place in China. “Chunking” is a word psychologists use for a kind of learning and understanding. It means to group elements that might work in unison toward a goal. A good way to understand chunking is to look at a word. “Horse,” will do. One doesn’t need to separate the individual five letters to grasp the idea of a four-legged animal people can ride on. One quickly visualizes the animal by the letter order — a distinct pattern that implies meaning. The word “hesor,” doesn’t serve so well, even though all the horse letters are there. Understanding and learning worthwhile new skills often require chunking. The great Russian tennis academy at Spartak, near Moscow, teaches stance, reach, turn, connection and follow-through before students are given a ball. Students move slowly in balletic dances that lock in a variety of effective procedures. The system produces more tennis greats than any other school. Now let’s talk about painting. Some folks think talent is a mysterious wind that somehow just blows the door open. It can be a long wait. Often as not, these folks need to try some chunking. For example, think impasto, two or more high-key colours on the same brush-load, and a curved stroke. Or — think transparency, gradation from warm to cool, and a soft edge. It’s these sorts of multi-faceted exercises that hone skills, make things interesting and take work beyond mediocrity. If you catch my drift, you might think of chunks you can apply to your own work. Recently I wrote to you about giving your personal wiring the brilliance of broadband. Practice in bite-sized chunks works to this end and builds what is called “cognitive reserve.” By putting complex skills into your pocket, you can take them out at will. The result is better product — whether we’re talking tennis, bass fiddle or paint pushing. It’s all good for the brain too. Like the oft-touted crossword habit, chunking helps thinking, doing, and hanging in there. Chunking requires focus, repetition, a willingness to apply self-determined rules, and the postponement of gratification. Those who read my stuff will know I’m keen on fast and intense work habits. But there’s also a time to go slow. Slow chunking burns in desirable habits. Give yourself permission to speed up later. Now I’m going to jump on my hesor and ride off in all directions. Best regards, Robert PS: “There is no substitute for attentive repetition.” (Daniel Coyle) Esoterica: One summer I borrowed a Cariboo cabin and chunked for a solid week. Apart from almost going nuts, I slept, fed myself and painted like a zombie. I had a thousand panels in my car and I covered hundreds of them. I made tight little renderings of flowers and mushrooms, some oily landscapes and a few abstracts. During the event I became so punchy I sketched my left hand at least a dozen times. Looking back at the yellowed notes from my twenties, I see “Ex (for exercise) of two secondaries with neutral grays.” “Ex of equal-intensity lay-bys.” “Ex of complex patterns and juiciness.”   How instinctive is painting? by Dennis Alter, Philadelphia, PA, USA   There is a theory in tennis (and other sports) that when you’re in “the zone” you are not conscious of individual body parts moving, strategy, technique and all that you have practiced for hours on end. Rather you are flowing and as such are outside yourself just “being” on the court. I have experienced this precious few times, but nonetheless can attest to its appeal. Is there something similar in painting? Is this a state to be sought or avoided? Must we maintain our training and technique and all that we have practiced in order to perform well? Or can we do something else, something more free and instinctive on the canvas?

There are 5 comments for How instinctive is painting? by Dennis Alter
From: Julie Roberts — Apr 19, 2010

When you learn a dance you practice and practice until your muscle memory takes over, you barely think about the steps and just perform with emotion and expression. The same must be true for people who play an instrument, sing, or play a sport – after much practice one can then tap into instinct. The same must be true for artists who practice every day.

From: Lynn — Apr 19, 2010

This is actually my compelling reason to paint. When it works best it flips the switch that shuts off the verbal, deliberate overly planned everyday to the other non-verbal, completely visual experience.

From: Kirk Wassell — Apr 20, 2010

Well Julie and Lynn, my experience as an artist, athlete, and musician tells me that you are both right. Being in the moment actually happens in everything we do, we usually either ignore it or dismiss it as something unusual. In Buddhism, it is being here now, which is a state of great clarity, without thinking as the goal. My experience is that you can practice being in “the Zone”, but this does not negate the need for conscious practice, they go hand in hand.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Apr 20, 2010

There have been many times that I have watched the brush paint. Someone commented about all the decisions needed to do a non-objective abstract, and they looked at me with amazement when I said, “Thre are no decisions. The painting is already there, I just let the brush do its’ work”

From: Anonymous — Apr 21, 2010

This is actually a psychological state known as “flow.” It occurs in all fields, including sports, writing, scientific thinking, and, yes, painting. It is considered one of the most pleasant of psychological states, and can be developed with work. See the works of Mihály Csíkszentmihály.

  Advice from teachers by Patricia Duthie, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada   The Moscow tennis learning technique could be applied to many areas of learning, not just to sports. Even just imagining oneself doing something correctly must have an effect on the brain. Wasn’t there a basketball coach at SFU who taught this? Yesterday I met artist Carey Anderson who said that when he was teaching self-defense he would emphasize moving slowly in order to learn to kick correctly. Really focusing on correct, fluid movements at first, without having to deal with equipment at the same time, could help non-athletes and nervous artists like myself. Mr. Niven, our high school band teacher used to say, “Perfect practice makes perfect!” I agree that remembering to breathe and working slowly could help a person to develop efficient habits. I think the same could be applied to drawing and painting, especially when beginners lack confidence. Imagine sketching without pencil and paper, perhaps copying the movements of the instructor at work. There are 2 comments for Advice from teachers by Patricia Duthie
From: Patsy, Antrim — Apr 20, 2010

It was an American tennis coach called Timothy Gallwey, who wrote a series of books on this principle, including the Inner Game of Music, which is the only one I have read. It made sense to me. A very simple example is typing – one’s fingers “remember” where the keys are. ;-)

From: Jake — May 03, 2010
  Learning to chunk by Norman Goldstein, UK   The trouble is that most artists get used to a reliable system that tends to give a predictable result. Even those artists who “swing out wildly,” when you really look at their work, they are often working in a fairly narrow range without much sophistication. This is often the case with abstract painters who develop a stroke and keep repeating what has worked in the past. When skills are bunched, or “chunked” as you suggest, there is a greater likelihood that moves so learned will become more habitual. One part of the chunk can be a familiar and safe ploy, but another part of the ploy can be something new. In this way increased complexity and interest can be added to work over a period of time. I am not a painter, but a critic and I see this weakness all the time.   The peril of restricting habits by Jean Fournier, San Francisco, CA, USA  

“Sea Peace 1”
oil painting
by Jean Fournier

I encourage my students to experiment with whatever medium they’re working with. Unfortunately, so many artists develop habits around formulas and end up doing the same kind of painting over and over again. A lot of this is due to the market place and how quickly they can put together a show. If you look at a lot of web sites you will discover this for yourselves. This kind of art is more about money and has very little to do with true creativity. It is the death of an artist whether they are musicians or writers, etc. I believe a real artist is willing to explore the vast galaxy of light, color and form rather than lapsing into repetitive painting. I think too much specialization is killing the magic of new possibilities. We have become too specialized as a society as well. Learning is how we continue to grow. There is 1 comment for The peril of restricting habits by Jean Fournier
From: Virginia Wieringa — Apr 20, 2010

What a lovely, expansive painting of a complementary color sunset!

  Use of repetition in learning to fish by Doug Pollard, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“155 Entrance to Carmichael Passage, South Moresby, QCI”
watercolour painting
by Doug Pollard

Last year I added to my fly-fishing techniques by learning how to spey-cast. I needed to handle the Skeena River and its challenges on an upcoming trip. The instructor, Ian, was very skillful himself, and taught me, chunk by chunk, over a dozen or so lessons, until we put it all together in time for my trip — just like the Spartak tennis academy. Repetition was the key — in fact Ian told me that 1500 perfect repetitions would be needed to get it locked away. Gotta get back to my brush.     Not strong on exercises by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

This might be the main culprit that holds me down. I was never strong on exercising, nor was that ever encouraged in my family or even at school. Maybe I was just talented to the worst possible amount — enough to fly through the school with good grades without any effort and without building good working habits. It’s a setback having to rebuild yourself as an adult, but many people have to do it in much worse conditions than mine. I am forever on my journey from a winger to a pro and that’s the fight I will never quit. I still at times just do my best whack at something — kind of bulk rather than chunk. There are 4 comments for Not strong on exercises by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Loretta West — Apr 20, 2010

Well, Tatjana, whatever you are doing is paying off. This is a great dynamic painting!

From: Anonymous — Apr 20, 2010

I really like your style your art always catches my eye and I am not surprised when I look to find that they are yours, they just keep getting better, if that is possible!

From: Tatjana — Apr 21, 2010

Thanks very much for the encouragement!

From: shelly hahn — Apr 21, 2010

Minewanka reminds me of the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts style of painting. Really beautiful

  Sparks of Genius by Patricia Rucker, Golden, CO, USA   I recommend these letters to my Creative Concepts class at Foothills Art Center in Golden, Colorado. For this last session, I found and used the book Sparks of Genius – The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. Written in 1999, the information is fascinating with great examples of creative people and their tools.   The Brain That Changes Itself by Jeff Miller, Orillia, ON, Canada   Thanks for chunking and myelin. Suggestion: run don’t walk to bookstore for The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD. This change has happened to my 45 year old autistic son and his abstract painting.   Valuable chunking in art school by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA  

“Isis Search”
pastel painting
by Patricia Peterson

I studied painting for 3 semesters at Emily Carr College of Art and Design. During that time, I used what you call chunking after deciding that printmaking (namely lithography), which I was studying up until that time due to my love of drawing, was a graduate study because I did not know the basics of 2D compositing and other necessary aspects of well constructed 2D artwork. Each of my paintings at that time embodied a ratio of scale with custom made stretchers (scales of 2×4, 5×7, etc.), color use such as two color complementary, tertiary, monochromatic, or underpainting and so forth. I also did gray studies of master paintings to see the composition of complex works. Each painting also incorporated one of glazing, scumbling, etc. In other words, each painting had delineated problems to work through compositionally, using a ratio, brushwork, brush size, color, contrast, pattern, perspective et al. I settled on custom-made stretchers that embodied the golden section. One of my teachers, Ken Wallace, told me I learned in 3 semesters what many take 10 years to learn. I did not have a body of work that could be exhibited as a show when I graduated but I had an appetite for paint. Then I moved to New York and was overwhelmed by the methods at graduate schools which I faithfully tried to incorporate into my work. Eventually although I understood I could teach myself “life got in my way.” I have never forgotten those early days and the pleasure I had in reviewing masterworks and tackling their methods. Chunking throws one into an area of study, grabbing the brain’s attention like none other. There is 1 comment for Valuable chunking in art school by Patricia Peterson
From: Rose — Apr 20, 2010

Lovely painting…

    [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

Interlocking Reflections

acrylic painting by Bonnie Kramer

  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 Dianne Middleton of Calgary, AB, Canada, who wrote, “Practicing a chunk or two helps to get the ‘big picture,’ as opposed to getting bogged down with nitty details!” And also Kurt Moller of Berlin, Germany, who wrote, “Grouping or clustering of ideas together with complex technik directly put produces superiority.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Painting and chunking

From: Faith — Apr 15, 2010

I didn’t know there was a name for it! I teach voice on the basis of 5 elements. I tell my students to think of the 5 points of a star. You can swivvel a star but there is no real top or bottom to it, even as no one of the five elements in my teaching “code” could be left out,which is not the same as being left to its own devices, since the aim of chunking in sport, art, music etc. is to achieve the perfect balance between the elements. Anyone interested in the 5 elements of vocal technique can write to me at

From: Dwight Williams — Apr 16, 2010

Robert, I don’t have a hesor that can ride off in all directions of the compass at once. But I do have a eoshr that can do that and go up and down too.

From: Paul — Apr 16, 2010

Yes, Talent and the discipline to acquire it are very important, but are not creativity. Talent as a tool-kit is about all you get. Your last post made them sound interchangeable and neo-science is always making big claims, so of course they will compress “creativity” into “talent” to broaden their claims. We need a post on what you deeply feel Creativity is and then look at the science.

From: Sarah Garland — Apr 17, 2010

Robert Genn will be signing books on Saturday April 24th between 1 and 3 pm at Canada House, 201 Bear St, Banff, Alberta, Canada. He’s shy, but he’d love to say hello.

From: Peggy Hall — Apr 17, 2010

Just a quick note to tell you how much I enjoy your letters and how it has both cheered me up and inspired me. I paint, not as often or well as I think I should, and very spasmodically at the best of times. Your letters help me forgive myself and keep on keeping on.

From: June Baker — Apr 17, 2010

Robert, you just brought a big wide smile to my face after a particularly difficult day…I read all your letters with immense enjoyment and have never written to you before but your last line about your “hesor” was so amusing, I just had to comment..Keep these wonderful and very informative letters coming..You probably don’t realize how some of us look forward to them.

From: Peggy Small — Apr 17, 2010

Now that I have your wonderful book of all your letters, I have no need of all the letters I have printed out and they are slowly helping to warm our house. Thank you.

From: Ann-Marie Brown — Apr 17, 2010

Thank-you for these missives. I’m painting in a coastal outpost in B.C., and these thought provoking letters in my inbox are creative food and fuel. What you do matters.

From: Ceri House — Apr 17, 2010

The other day I had to go into town for a dentist appointment so my wife was looking after things at the workshop. There had been an inquiry about stretching a canvas but usually people want things done yesterday and for nothing so I didn’t take much notice. Anyway my wife phoned me to say that a woman had been in with the most beautiful painting of three scantily clad ladies. The picture had been cut from the frame because she had smuggled it out of her country when fleeing an uprising. Apparently the new regime had looked upon the artists work as pornographic and destroyed everything they came across. I am just waiting for her to come back and was looking on the web for articles on relining when I came across your site. I had already decided that it was such a wonderful story I would not want it tainted with such mundane issues as commerce and would do it for free.

From: Haim Mizrahi — Apr 17, 2010

Take a chunk of your brain, the one that you think is most important and vital to keep you thinking you are so great and start making a fool of yourself. I have seen more artists improve their skills and work by replacing seriousness with childish gestures. The greats of the century have already spoken, if you want to break through engage in abstract for 50 years and then, and only then, maybe, you can give it your best shot to paint your first landscape.

From: Barbara Hafner — Apr 17, 2010

I’m reading the Prado Museum book about Joaquin Sorolla and he was told “when you’re too proficient with your right hand paint with your left.” Not that I’m too proficient, but I am going to try it today. Something about stimulating the other side of the brain and getting away from mechanical strokes.

From: Dirk Ellis — Apr 17, 2010

We are in a back eddy of the growth of our civilization. Lots of people nowadays have had it easy for so long that they don’t think it is necessary to learn proper techniques. In pursuits where results can be measured, like golf, tennis or chess, proper learning is still in vogue. But a society cannot live on golf, tennis and chess. Visual art needs to pull up its socks and yes, I agree, learn to chunk. UK

From: Carol Rawlins — Apr 19, 2010

From poet Philip Booth: “Writing poems is not a career but a lifetime of looking into, and listening to, how words see.” Don’t you love those lines; how words see! He also said, “I think survival is at stake for all of us all the time. Every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done, well made, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival.”

From: Chris Everest — Apr 20, 2010

I remember a catchy headline in a newspaper once that said “Beckham as Brainy as Einstein” – the point being that both exhibited different (equally valid ?) forms of intelligence. Beckham’s ability to kick a football was essentially learned muscle-memory that stemmed from years of practice. It was a “learned” ability and that when in a stressful situation this ability became almost automatic allowing perfect execution. Unfortunately I play football like Einstein and paint like Beckham but I think I’m learning.

From: Joy Hyde — Apr 20, 2010

Hi, that is very interesting. I am going to try to do more small and fast paintings. I am enjoying these emails

From: Joy Hyde — Apr 20, 2010

I know one thing, my work took a big leep forward when I got a stutio and started painting five days a week. Joy

From: PeggySu — Apr 20, 2010

I wonder if we are better off not knowing anything about an artist as a person. I’d never heard of Mark Tobey when I first saw his work a number of years ago featured along with other Northwest artists in the Seattle Art Museum. It immediately struck me as much better than most of what I’d seen recently and I liked it a lot. There is a big difference between being arrogant and having NPD.

From: zidonja — Apr 21, 2010

I am sorry to say, I am not impressed with Mark Tobey’s Paintings. there must be somethings wrong with my eyes. for me there should be design or something .looked at the other paintings posted and I think they are wonderful


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