Confessions of a puny little guy

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Ann Price of Little Rock, Arkansas wrote, “You’ve written a lot about doing versus talking, and how speech inhibits creativity. I’ve been a talker since infancy. My parents swore I spoke sentences by six months. These days I’m repeatedly blocked creatively by my own verbal overload. Have you ever met someone who successfully made the switch from talker to doer?” Thanks, Ann. Yes, I have, and I can tell by looking at your work that verbalization is something you’re fighting.

Example of a work done with literary and verbal influences. Notice the theoretical nature of the eyes, the overall tightness and the somewhat rigid symmetry.

I’ve had to make the change myself. When I was a kid I learned that I could get out of scrapes by talking rather than fighting. I had to — I was a puny little guy. Later, after a few semesters at art school, the registrar called me in and told me, “You talk a good job and do a poor one.” This was when I realized I had to figure out how to be more quiet. Short of stuffing a sock in the mouth, artists with this problem can beat it. They need to start with a courageous assessment of their own work. Look for literary and theoretical concepts that may be dominating creative elan and gestural confidence. Look for places in your art where you weren’t really looking. A good place to start is eyes. Eyes drawn or painted by a talker tend to have clear lids, white sclera and over-linear design. In other words they tend not to be three-dimensional sockets of light and shadow. The overly-talkative artist tends not to be looking at an eye, but rather drawing out the verbal elements that might describe an eye. The overly-verbal artist is led by his understanding of things — rather than by direct observation of things as they are. Something else worth watching for is overindulgence in symmetry. For some reason visual equality appeals to talkers — perhaps because of some atavistic need for balance. There’s nothing wrong with symmetry, but the valuable three-quarters views and unequal positioning of elements is more often the creative way. Not only that, it’s the more challenging way. Drawing and painting what you know can be fairly limiting. The idea is to become a visual blotter, soaking up with discriminating gusto what is truly seen. And if you feel the need to say something, kiss someone. Just puckering up can do the trick. Best regards, Robert PS: “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words are superfluous.” (Ingrid Bergman) Esoterica: Whether we’re talkers or not, most of us have to unlearn habits and reboot our abilities. I’ve met many artists who improved their work by sheer willpower. And, as I’ve said somewhere before, the job requires character. Fact is, most people can draw and paint ideated images based on what they know, but it often takes a dedicated eye and an inactive tongue to overcome some pervasive shortcomings.   Turn off left brain, free the right by Jennifer Cocke, Burnaby, BC, Canada  

“Blossoms on Blue”
oil painting
by Jennifer Cocke

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards is key to helping this problem. I completed an English literature degree before I decided art was a better path for me and I found this book to be extremely helpful. It gave me a few tricks to help turn off the left side of my brain and let the right side go on uninterrupted. I found my drawing skills increased quite a bit in a short period of time, a place I thought would take years to get to. It has in turn also helped my painting as my observation skills are that much keener. Read the book, do the exercises!       There is 1 comment for Turn off left brain, free the right by Jennifer Cocke
From: Dottie Dracos — Dec 05, 2012

I agree; it’s a useful and enjoyable book.

  Other forms of distraction by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Safe harbour”
original painting
by Diane Overmyer

I teach drawing and painting and I always tell my students to paint what they see, rather than what they know. I normally use a glass and talk about the shape of its ellipse. Everyone knows that a traditionally shaped drinking glass has a round opening at the top. That is why young children will often draw the top of a glass as a totally rounded circle rather than an oval when they are in a room filled with chattering peers and other distractions. But put that same child alone in a room and tell them to really draw the shapes that they see and the results will be vastly different. Drawing is also sometimes taught to medical students and dentists as a way for them to learn eye/hand coordination, but also as a way for them to learn concentration skills. I find that when I am distracted in any way, my work usually suffers for it. This summer we had extremely high temperatures and I painted outside on several days that were over 100 degrees. I realized that even if I had been painting alone and in silence, those pieces needed more touching up in the studio than the ones that I did on more comfortable days. So I have realized that talking is not the only form of distraction that I need to be aware of.   Is this just a stage? by Robert Backmann, Arrowhead Region, Minnesota, USA   Oil painting seems to be far less laborious than drawing and at times seems deceptively easy, all things being relative. The problem I’m having is I’ll make a stroke that I know is mechanically sound to represent the object I’m attempting to depict. But when I step back and look again, it doesn’t quite look right for some reason and I end up reworking it, and reworking it, and reworking it until I almost can’t remember what the thing should even look like. Yesterday I made a vow to myself to do what I fundamentally know and not question it until the painting was finished and I had time to tuck it away for a few days. This was after having looked at what I had depicted and how I depicted it and compared my technique with other artists’ techniques that I admire. I found my technique was fundamentally sound but it still didn’t look right to me. My suspicion is that my mind is telling me I need to labour at depiction, that it can’t be as easy as using one stroke. I’m curious if this is a stage a lot of people go through or if I’m just queer and lack confidence in my ability? There are 3 comments for Is this just a stage? by Robert Backmann
From: Anonymous — Dec 04, 2012

Might it be your individual style hasn’t matured as yet? Read your words: “mechanically, fundamentally sound, depiction, reworking,” You’re not drawing an electrical schematic, you are painting. I suspect there are strides to be made in your technique. And no, painting is not easy.

From: Bob — Dec 04, 2012

Yep, it’s a stage and don’t sweat it…you will find your path whatever you do. Just try to enjoy every moment of it…

From: Tatjana — Dec 04, 2012

Your observation is correct. It’s very easy to paint on a basic level, but it is exponentially more difficult to make a great painting. Your letter reminded me of the story about putting one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, two grains on the next, and so on keep doubling the amount for each square. By the time you get to the last, 64th square, you need more than trillion grains of rice. Most people would say that a bowl of rice is a good thing :-)

  The tyranny of photography by Don Genge, ON, Canada  

“Scott dam”
original painting
by Don Genge

My problem is doing vs. photographing. I have a need to see what is around the next bend or over the hill. It’s like painting takes too long. Sometimes I think creative sensitivity is a curse rather than a blessing. I drive the back roads and highways of the drumlins of southern Ontario, not to mention waterways and trails of provincial and national parks. I actually get an ache in my stomach seeing a perfect painting site go by the car window when we have to be somewhere important. My wife says, “Stop the car! I’ll drive — You look!” So I take pictures. It’s too easy! Paint from the photograph? Not the same ache. I get the feeling that ache is the thing. What you do to express it is the question. Some paint, write, photograph, compose music, some just indulge by immersing themselves in the experience. There are 5 comments for The tyranny of photography by Don Genge
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Dec 03, 2012

I totally get it! I have the same thing. and if it sits inside me too long it becomes a scream. and there’s the craving – just like with food – if I go too long w/o painting or carving! glad to hear the word ‘ache’ – it’s perfect.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Dec 04, 2012

My word this could be me talking! I have the most patient husband in the world, which is why I can’t ask him to stop and stare for an hour or two. I suppose the answer is to go out alone and go where your spirit takes you. I am intrigued by your reference to drumlins. The furthest south I’ve been in Ontario is St Thomas, which I think is pretty far south, and nary a drumlin did I see – where are they? I’d love to know, for my next visit. Here, County Down should be called Up-and-down, because it is stiff with little drumlins, making it look like an illustration from a child’s storybook. We love it, and often go down there from Antrim just to drive and gawp.

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 04, 2012

“Not the same ache.” Priceless! However optimum immediately painting what we see before us, sometimes a photo has to suffice until we get home to the studio … not a sin especially with distant travel.

From: Anonymous — Dec 04, 2012

But what do you do with the photos? For me, taking photos is a commitment to create. If they just sit in folders on my computer, I feel their neglect and that is my ache. When I just take photos and don’t transform them into art, I wonder what was the point of taking them. The scene was there with or without me. Did I just relate myself to it without having any credit? Is it just an easy instant gratification, like eating a piece of chocolate? If we take anything, even if it’s not material, should we have some responsibility? In the past, travelers and storytellers were very important for the society.

From: Mary, Michigan — Jan 19, 2013

Oh my goodness, Anonymous, my experience exactly! The responsibility of having taken pictures, as if I’ve been called to transform and convey that beauty to the world. And the ache, that unattended to grows into a scream: YES! Thanks so much for articulating my feelings for me!

  Seeing what you need to see by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Grace and Beauty”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

We all started as talkers and evolved into doers. When you first begin the process of being an artist, everything has to be talked out. How else do you assimilate the information? As your skill increases (and the knowledge of your subject and materials used increases) you begin to talk less and do more. One thing to remember as you progress is “don’t draw things” — draw the idea of what you’re working on. What do I mean? Don’t see an eye as an eye. Your mind will trick you into identifying each aspect and convince you that you can’t draw that. You have to see only value, shape, tone, linear movement. If you are working from photos right now, turn the images upside down; look at the photo through a mirror; move them 10 feet away from you. Do whatever it takes not to see anything as it is, only as tone, value, shape and line. If you have use of a computer or Photoshop, turn your subject photos into black and white images with no halftones. Also use your pencil on its side not on the point. In fact, temporarily get rid of your pencils and use charcoal. A big fat piece. One where you can’t easily do any details. Erase with a Kneaded eraser. Try these things and see what happens.   The nature of talking by Tom Evans, Grandora, SK, Canada  

“Artist’s canoe”
wood and canvas canoe
by Tom Evans

Possibly talking is linear. My thought processes have been linear as in following a path or an outline whereas Jane’s have been “the big picture.” I have expanded my views and understanding of other outlooks by imaging the big picture. A powerful addition for me has been also imaging the scent of the big picture, be it indoors or out. Sometimes it is useful for me to image the big picture in different lights, seasons, weather, times of day, or other situations. Perhaps compartmentalizing talking and imaging the big picture would be useful. Cultivation of intuition has also been helpful to me and I find the notion of “women’s intuition” an affront. Intuition helps me pick the best cropping, lighting, colours, scale and other things to use as I image the big picture. It also helps me select my position relative to the big picture. These things have definitely made my work as a scientist and teacher more fun and they have probably made that work more useful, too.   Valuable chatter by Susan Grucci, New York, NY, USA  

watercolour painting
by Susan Grucci

I realized that I was ‘that’ talkative person — and I am working very hard to rectify the situation — daily! It is amazing how much it has helped me. Thank you for that post! I did not have to talk about the paintings that I was working on, nor my future ideas; I realized that it did not have to be out there for everyone to hear. On that note, I’d like to share with you this New York Story: I entered the 86th Street Lexington Avenue Subway one day and I realized that the subway platform seemed different. Everyone down on the platform was standing still, listening to a trio — two violins and a cellist were playing the most magical, original classical/ jazz music that I have ever heard. Young performers with huge smiles and eyes closed were swaying, making sweet music to share with their fellow New Yorkers. A young lady was taking a video of them and I later walked over told her that I was an artist and that if I had a gallery opening I would love to find out if I could have them play at the opening. The train arrived and we both boarded together, talking up a storm. She wanted the Board of the Silent Auction for the French Consulate to see the video, and she was the Director of Development. She gave me the trio’s website and we proceeded to discuss many, many things. Upon disembarking from the train, she handed me her card and said she would love it if I could donate a painting to the silent auction coming up and I should be sure to contact her. All this is lovely and all well and good, but for me the best part was, a few days before, I mentioned to my husband that I would love to have my art help children. The card she handed to me read “French-American Aid For Children, Inc. — added, too, was Help for children of ‘Hurricane Sandy.’ Fast forward, we emailed back and forth, and a painting was chosen to appear in their Silent Auction coming up on Friday. Because of the ‘chatter’ she got to know my spirit and, sight unseen, knew she would like my artwork. However, I never once mentioned what I was working on. Later, she told me that it was my beautiful spirit that helped her see that my art would be right for the auction. These words touched my heart and soul.   Virtual gallery on artist’s website by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA  

“Pacific grace”
oil painting
by Gregory Packard

Have you looked into any of the 3-D software for web sites, which can help an artist create a virtual experience? I found one from a New Zealand company that is very reasonably priced and am really impressed with it. I think it’s the neatest thing to come along for artists to show their work and create a gallery-like experience in a long time. Eventually this stuff will be widely used by artists and retailers, and with much more elaborate features for the room and atmosphere, etc. which are already available on high-end software. There is 1 comment for Virtual gallery on artist’s website by Gregory Packard
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Dec 04, 2012

Wow, I clicked the link and used the virtual experience. I have always loved Greg’s work. It was wonderful and the paintings are inspiring! Thank you!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Confessions of a puny little guy

From: jan — Nov 29, 2012

this drawing says more then boring symmetry. It says that this person is steady yet a bit off. The eyes and glasses say something. as the artist you have picked up on the difference…this implies many things and gives this person character.

From: Tom Semmes — Nov 30, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 30, 2012

This is a meaty letter that makes up for your well earned absence last week. I find myself intervening constantly in the skirmishes between right and left brain. It is most evident when I paint something profound and come up with an ironic caption. Over indulgence in symmetry, there is something to that..sometimes I think my astigmatism drives the impulse to “get it right” in a still life. Fortunately cataract surgery may correct that soon!

From: Carole Mayne — Nov 30, 2012

Thank you, Robert, for underscoring the reason to K.I.S.S – keep it simple, sweetheart! I appreciate you so much.

From: Cherryl Meggs — Nov 30, 2012

As a teacher, I am talking as I am painting explaining as I go to the students in my demos. So how does this affect a painting? I find by verbalizing what is happening as I paint is helpful to my students. In school I always got into trouble for talking too much, but when I am really into a painting the talking ceases. When in class and we get down to the art we love, talking stops. i find when they don’t know what else to do the talking begins. Thanks for bringing this to light, a very interesting concept.

From: Jackie Davidson — Nov 30, 2012

I agree with your discussion of the verbal/non-verbal effects on an artist’s work. I don’t talk too much when I’m working, but I used to listen to music and SING ALONG with it while I painted! I discovered that to be very disruptive, but since singing is my other love, I seemed incapable of stopping…so now, when I work in my studio, I either choose soft instrumental music to play in the background or SILENCE (which really is golden!). Jackie

From: Tom Andrich — Nov 30, 2012

This letter expresses the physicality of the brain. While using the left side for talking the right side, creative side, is sitting relatively dormant. When I am giving demos I have to talk and explain what I am doing which I find interferes with looking and drawing. When I stop talking the right side clicks in and the drawing or painting goes where it should and becomes more successful.

From: Bill Burrell — Nov 30, 2012

Very insightful. As a retired art teacher my experience has been quite like that. The doers do and the talkers talk. I think I will be quiet now.

From: Brian Crawford Young — Nov 30, 2012

When I was at art school I was struck by the witty banter and bright conversation of fellow artists, but when the work started, the talking stopped. I think Ann should attend a life drawing class. When drawing from life with a model, the concentration is palpable and the talking is non-existent. Apart from honing your drawing skills, life drawing improves your social skills too. Its a double whammy, or as Americans say, a slam dunk. I’ve spoken enough. I’m off to paint. Sshhh.. Forres, Scotland

From: Marilyn Smith — Nov 30, 2012

I have learned in all aspects of life there are talkers and doers.

From: Margaret Stermer-Cox — Nov 30, 2012
From: Marie Gaffney — Dec 01, 2012
From: Libbie Soffer — Dec 01, 2012

Since art is a visual communication…put your paint where it “says” what you wish to communicate. Your job is to distill the words into images. Use your art license to be outrageous in your images! Break free of the boundaries you set and let the emotion of the words speak loudest….. be audacious with your brush and paint. Your truth is what needs to be heard!

From: Jeri Lynn Ing — Dec 01, 2012
From: Peter Brown — Dec 01, 2012

A word to artists. Show don’t tell.

From: Elihu — Dec 01, 2012

Regarding Ann Price’s work, the eyes look a little crossed, the nose cocked a bit to one side, and the two dark lines under the mouth are distracting. Aside from the other advice. Sometimes it helps to look at a work in a mirror to pick up on cockeyed elements.

From: Michael Nemeth — Dec 01, 2012

I just joined your groups a few weeks ago through David Mc Holm. He is a fine artist and he helps me a lot. I enjoy your articles, I found it interesting and educational. I am originally from Hungary Budapest, I love painting. I have been painting about 12 years– know my medium is acrylic but I am also trying watercolour too. I live in North Burnaby now, I am retired and a happy Grandfather. We have a group of 10 people we get together every Tuesday in Richmond and we brag about our painting and we have a good time. I admire your talent and enthusiasm to carry on weeks after weeks to keep people interested with articles. I am happy to be part of your programs and looking forward to read it every time.

From: Pam Shorey — Dec 01, 2012
From: Antoinette Ledzian — Dec 01, 2012
From: Susan Easton Burns — Dec 01, 2012
From: Deborah Elmquist — Dec 01, 2012

This week I dropped off three paintings to one of my galleries. One was rejected because it was different from my other work although she thought it was a good painting. The only difference was in the perspective. During the same week I saw an article about one of my favorite artists who is known for his impressionistic style with images from his latest series featuring his childhood toys painted in a realistic style. When can an artist break away from their “style” or genre and paint in a different one without repercussions from their galleries and clients?

From: Ruth Rodgers — Dec 01, 2012
From: Gwen Meyer — Dec 01, 2012

Courage! There is nothing wrong with you, you just need to go deeper, simpler. I’d recommend meditation, which can still the mind until the heart comes up. It takes practice, but is worth it.The more you exercise this path into the heart, the easier it will be to set your “talk” aside when you paint and simplify your response to what’s in front of you.

From: Linda Thoman — Dec 01, 2012

What an interesting concept…and since Ann wants to change, this is good advice. However, I do think it’s valid to express a what might be a verbal concept in a visual way. A good example of this might be expressionism, but certainly surrealism and other art forms intentionally use a “verbal” influence.

From: Blair T. Paul — Dec 01, 2012

I am a painter and teacher as you are, and it happens that one of my students at the Ottawa School of Art attended one of your painting workshops in the recent past. She spoke highly of you and your work and recommended your newsletter to me. You provide interesting insights to life and art for all who will read your words. You must be very busy writing as well as painting. Well done! I think that your work is very strong and evocative…colour and design that grab the eye and make you want to see more! As you paint the western landscape to a great extent, I do the same here in the east with my surroundings…also beautiful but more tame than yours. My mother is from Fort McLeod originally and I have visited the west a number of times…always awestruck by the majesty of the foot hills and the Rockies. Many photos have come from those trips but not that many paintings. I would like to do more in the future.

From: Linda Flaherty — Dec 01, 2012
From: Brooke Pacy — Dec 01, 2012

I love this one!! So helpful — how simple, a kiss!

From: Janis — Dec 01, 2012

I’ve also greatly valued your past comments about not letting talking take the place of doing. That could be, perhaps, even more of a danger in my main enterprise, writing, since spoken words could dissipate the energy that should go into writing them. With regard specifically to painting, though, I’m heartened by your saying that you’ve known artists who improved their work through sheer willpower. That’s so interesting that I’d love to see more about it in some future Letter.

From: Cyndie Katz — Dec 01, 2012

One way to turn off the chat is to concentrate on your breath and to say in your mind, “I am breathing in, I am breathing out.” Try this while you’re looking at anything — your artwork or the landscape — and you will notice that you see more deeply, more objectively. Practice while you’re taking a walk or being driven in the car or waiting in line at the grocery store. You’ll be amazed at what you see. Morelia, Michoacan, Mex

From: Russell Henshall — Dec 01, 2012

Instead of you being a ‘talker-doer’ why not reinvent yourself as a ‘talker-writer-doer’? I do not mean to become a best selling author over night of course, but use a clean sheet of paper each day and jot down your artistic ideas for the next few hours using words… Only then when your mind is clear on a good plan should you pick up your pallet and your brushes..It certainly works for me! Norfolk, England.

From: K. Ann Price — Dec 02, 2012

Thanks for the comments on my self portrait. The cock-eyed unbalance could be part perception…and part my muscle processing disorder. Appreciate the tips, all.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Dec 03, 2012
From: Peggy Feltmate — Dec 03, 2012

Your clickback illustration of the woman’s face (previous letter) looks very familiar to me, especially the eyes as you pointed out – very much like my beginning work. I am thankful that I found an excellent teacher who encouraged me to play and loosen up, and while I have a long way to go (doesn’t every artist say that?) she was the catalyst for “enjoying the paint” and what it does, instead of obsessing on what I know about eyes, eaves-troughs, or whatever. The gesture speaks louder than words! Toronto, Canada

From: Marvin Humphrey — Dec 05, 2012
From: Kathryn — Dec 09, 2012

I attended a Master’s Weekend and found that most of the “masters” were unable to speak while painting. At some point in time, they mentioned that they needed to stop talking and focus. Talking greatly slowed down the painting process. Only a few artists can talk and paint simultaneously – then tend to be extreme chatterboxes in the first place. I personally don’t talk much anyway and have always preferred asymmetry. Some of us are born introverts while others need to work at it. Yet, in the end extroverts will excel in the end due to their people skills whether or not their work is up to par. It seems as if a balance is needed.

     Featured Workshop: Donald Jurney
120412_robert-genn Donald Jurney workshops Held in Savannah, GA, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Green seas

mixed media, 24 x 48 inches by Pat Lohrenz, Nova Scotia, Canada

  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 Linnette Johnson of Austell, Georgia, USA, who wrote, “This is an eye opener.” And also Hammi Mussalem of Facebook who wrote, “Well based and informed criticism like Robert has given for the attempted face drawing of Ann Price is the sort of thing we need to see more often on this site.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.