The creative bluff


Dear Artist,

It was an above average easel-day yesterday, and my mind turned to thoughts of cards. How like poker or bridge or blackjack or particularly solitaire it all is. In our game, a parallel methodology, when applied, simply breaks the bank at Monte Carlo. It’s a system that many creative folks know and intuitively use, while others never seem to figure it out. It starts with an understanding: “A card laid down determines the card to be laid after it.” You momentarily compare what you see with what you hold in your hand — and make your move accordingly. The mark you have made determines the mark you make. In the words of painter and instructor Charles Reid, “Let the painting tell you what it needs.”

Our game is to take control of our game. This does not mean we play our game along a predictable route to a predictable conclusion. A work of art, like a Rubik’s cube, has a billion routes. And our chances of creative variety are greatest when we are prepared to bluff. This act implies that our current hand has higher value than might immediately be evident. Fact is, it has. This little bit of self-deception is a key to creative flow and inventive imagery. It’s also the key to keeping ourselves interested in the process — in the production of the art. Withholding, subterfuge, surprise, deception and curiosity drive to a possible trump.

In an atmosphere of often trumpless art, it is the art with trump that is honestly sought. These works frequently play themselves out in their joyous rounds of curiosity. High meaning can be trumped by simple play, as if for a while a deception ruled. In art it’s called magic.

Playing my game yesterday (Mozart’s 250th birthday), I also realized that I’ve been at the same studio easel for thirty-five years. I was thinking how much this business depends on immersion. The mathematician John Littlewood, in his Miscellany, determined that immersion was the most important factor in creative invention. In his findings, creative minds need to spend a long time thinking hard, working on and rejecting permutations and combinations — often getting nowhere — before they start to be regularly blessed with winning hands. If I truly knew how to speed up your game, I would let you know right here and now, but I don’t.

Best regards,


PS: “Writing music is my one and only passion and joy.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

Esoterica: I spent the previous weekend in Las Vegas with our son Dave and a dozen of his best friends. It was his stag party. Dave and Tamara are getting married on February 4th. At one of the tables we befriended a grizzled old cowboy, about my age, who seemed to have a few systems. As he was gathering his chips, I asked him how long he’d been at it. “‘Bout thirty-five years,” he said. “Another ten, I’ll be so damned good they’ll probably cut me outta here.”


Go now, come back later
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Chiang Mai”
watercolor painting
by Eleanor Blair

In the heated rush of plein air painting, I’ve learned to keep the flow going by skimming over the various snags I encounter. I tell myself I’ll come back later and fine-tune whatever I’m tempted to fuss over, but as a rule, I never do. More often than not, it’s those most lightly rendered moments that sparkle with life and transform the painting from cliche to something better.





Slow down and consider possibilities
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Rabbit Hill Farm”
oil painting
by Linda Blondheim

I have been making myself slow down in my painting process lately, considering more than one possibility to a composition in the early stages. There are many possible paths to take, and if I am mentally prepared to accept many possibilities, I am often pleasantly surprised with the result. I used to be a slap dash kind of painter. I called myself intuitive in my painting style but what I really meant was that I was just too impatient to take the time to craft a good painting.


Constant state of bluff
by Sherry Purvis, Kennesaw, GA, USA


original painting
by Sherry Purvis

I continually bluff my way through the process. There is nothing about my work that is formulated, I just don’t think that way. In order to continue to grow and change, I have to let myself reach out for those things I’m searching for. I have found that when there has been a dry spell and I haven’t painted much, my work changes and for some reason I allow myself a bit more freedom to explore the possibilities. It is about immersion in your work, whether it is thinking about it or doing it. I’ve painted so many paintings in my head, long before they reach the canvas, only to find they have a mind of their own when I finally get there. It makes you wonder who is leading who. A friend once told me that if you can’t beat them, then dazzle them to death, and I’ve found that this is so a part of a lot of things I do. I want to be able to pull you in and make you move around looking, not just see you look and walk on by. Maybe it is a bluff, but it sure catches my attention.


Letting go unconsciously
by Georgeana Ireland, Irvine, CA, USA

My best work is created “unconsciously”. It is often in the “wee hours” when I am too tired to think. Then sometimes in just minutes or just an hour the magic happens. The brushstrokes I cannot explain or even recreate when I am consciously painting. It is not something I can will to happen — it is an infrequent visitor. But I find this “magic” element is what makes a painting sing and rise above the ordinary. Sometimes I also find I must “let go” and be willing to risk destroying a painting to bring the level to new heights.


Painting ‘at the front of the head’
by Frances Krsinich, Paekakariki, New Zealand


“Newspaper woman”
original painting
by Frances Krsinich

I agree that it’s important to get immersed, but whether it is necessary to be actually physically painting (or otherwise creating) full-time is another question. I try to remain ‘immersed’ while working full-time and being a mother of 3, by remaining around my painting (I work from home, and my painting studio and office are the same space) and, crucially, avoiding the TV! (It’s amazing how much time you save when you don’t watch the telly…) To keep my painting ‘at the front of my head’ (this is what it feels like when it’s ‘current’), I find that doing a little bit every day is one of the most effective ploys.


Navigating the unknown
by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA


“Random thoughts #865”
oil painting
by Nina Meledandri

I can, at times, find myself applying “productivity” guidelines to my self-assessment. I forget that I choose to inhabit a world where product will always take a back seat to process, and the experience of navigating the unknown is far more valuable than conforming to any imagined standards. Littlewoods’s analysis was helpful and inspiring — so helpful that an hour later I was back in the studio and ending a somewhat protracted and problematic hiatus.



Allowance of variation
by Trevor Sale, Athabaska, AB, Canada

Your analogy can be spread wider than to that of cards. Life in general (if you want to get the most enjoyment out of it) must be done with an allowance of variation. You can have as many conversations in your head as you want, but in speaking with another thought-bearing individual, the chances of them saying your predetermined responses are slim. At the beginning of my art training, I fought to make the painting look as I had it pictured in my head. Truly, I wasn’t satisfied until it was. Over the years, it became clear that a painting must be free to have a life of its own. As a result, I now put less pre-planning into each painting. I organize the important points (composition, lighting, and the general feeling of the piece) and from there, I let the previous strokes dictate the upcoming ones.


Method of staying immersed
by Elizabeth Allen, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Fire Dance”
acrylic painting
by Elizabeth Allen

I find that if I haven’t painted for a while, my creative energy becomes stiff and stilted. I then need to “immerse myself” in the work, sometimes over a period of weeks, sometimes only days or hours, until I am finally rewarded with a trump. I begin each painting by just “making marks.” I continue in that manner until the subject is suggested to me and then each successive mark is deliberately made to enhance and refine that subject. Even if I don’t know where the piece is going, I proceed as if I do, applying paint with confidence that each mark will have a purpose, even if it will later be painted out to enhance the overall painting.



Immersed with a curious purpose
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA

I have been painting today in my studio. It is well lit but cold! I have heat in there, but of course it is out of order. I have a smock and clothing that I paint in at this time of the year that are paintings in themselves. I suppose that is the reason I really do not mind when my red nose is running and I just wipe my nose on the smock. And I was so immersed into the process of painting that I picked up the wrong bottle of old water and took a drink that I had to spit out onto the floor. Lighting a cig and stepping back evaluating my work, the cig soon burns too short. I say to myself well get back to it! All the while I listen to music sometimes tuning the sound out and then I will hear an old favorite tune that allows me to sit and ponder. And I wonder why do I do this? It is in my genes, my blood, and is my purpose. It is good to have a purpose Robert, good indeed!


Cards come just in time
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA


“Monks Path”
oil painting
by Linda Saccoccio

Bluff is the vastness of the big sky, of faith in trusting what is unseen and ready to emerge. The more we paint the more we are in the flow of creativity. Having continuity in the practice of painting allows wonders to appear and it offers us the ability to link regularly with creative abundance. Just staying connected with one’s playful, ineffable source is keeping the practice of making art alive. As for self-deception, it is a tool to use when our minds might trick us into doubting. Doubt itself is deception, because creativity is infinite. Consistent connection with our creative essence through curiosity and wonder, builds faith in the process. Playing the cards well is a matter of patience, steadiness, being a good observer and trusting that the cards you need will come to you at just the right time.


Ethics of repeating yourself
by Bill Skuce, Shawnigan Lake, BC, Canada


One of the 28 painted concrete blocks in the Master Pieces series by Bill Skuce

What is your take on this? An artist sells a small painting for a moderate price. He paints a large work of the same image, say 5 times as large, and decides to market it. Is there a question of ethics here? Is there a principle, a guideline that applies?

(RG note) Thanks, Bill. The ethics, principles and guidelines are that this sort of thing is done all the time. Repeating a subject or a theme from one size to the next (usually to a larger size) is not only okay commercially, but it’s a creatively valuable process.


Shipping to and from galleries
by Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith, Wolfville, NS, Canada


“Angle View”
original painting
by Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith

One of the things that has been bothering me lately is the responsibility of shipping back and forth to galleries. I take responsibility to ship my work to a gallery and if I request work back from them, then I feel that is my responsibility also, but when a gallery doesn’t want your work any more, isn’t it their responsibility to ship the work back?

(RG note) Thanks Jeanne. The common etiquette is for the artist to pay for shipping to, and the gallery to pay for the shipping back. I’d like to think that this works no matter who does the requesting. No one likes collect deliveries, no matter how exciting the contents. Where this courtesy sometimes breaks down is when the artist is constantly requesting the return of art. If at all possible one should send work out and forget about it until such time as the dealer can’t stand it any more.


Price changes on older paintings
by Mary Ann Guliov, Oakbank, MB, Canada


“Fly Little Moon to Freedom”
watercolour painting
by Mary Ann Guliov

I plan to raise my prices again soon with all my new work. However I don’t know the right thing to do regarding the old stock I have sitting around. Do I raise the prices on those too? Most of them have been in shows and the price has been displayed on them. Is it right to raise them now as well?

(RG note) Thanks, Mary. I’m a believer in regular, conservative, fairly predictable, annual price increases. I also believe that all work, whether already in galleries or in the artist’s basement, new and old, should advance to the new prices on a given date. Different artists have different systems, not all of them useful. Artists interested in my system can see my price list and its provisions.





Passage Series

by Shirin Neshat, NYC, NY, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Vicki Cowan of Toronto, Ontario who wrote,  “I am enjoying the articulate spontaneity of these letters. Writing them is a gift to the writer as well — since it occasions such alertness to life.”

And also Karen Weyandt of Atlanta, Georgia who wrote, “Here’s what jazz genius Miles Davis said regarding creative bluff: ‘When you hit a wrong note it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.’ ”

And also Michael Foester who quoted The Cowboy’s Rules of Life : ‘Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain-dance.’ ”

And also JoAnne Lussier of Weare, NH who wrote, “As a painter of imaginary landscapes in an intuitive mode, each painting is an adventure. I let the imagery lead me to its natural conclusion.”

And also Aleta Gudelski of Durham, CT who wrote, “It’s often difficult to become immersed — perhaps for fear of the intensity of the process — but when I begin, I’m lost in a world that cannot be articulated.”

And also Len Sodenkamp of Boise, ID who wrote, “Standing in front of a blank surface preparing myself for my self-appointed task, I realize, I am bluffing. Nature is working with light; I must work with paint. We utilize every trick up the sleeve and hope we don’t draw one too many cards and go bust.”

And also Diana Mitchell who wrote, “I read your letter ‘The creative bluff’ on a Blackberry in the desert just outside the city of Bikaner in Rajasthan. I bet that’s a first!”

(RG note) Thanks, Diana. I’m going to go spot you on a map. Yep, a first.




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