An anatomy of creative decisions

Dear Artist, Two painters played chess on a foggy Friday. “Decisions, decisions, it’s like painting — one damn thing after the other,” said my opponent, twirling the hair on the back of his head and tinkling the ice in his Aberlour Single Malt. Jack is fast at art but slow at chess. I had plenty of time to stir the fireplace. You march the pieces across the board — each piece with its built-in limitations. Sometimes you open boldly and aggressively. At other times you open timidly, testing the limitations of your cleverness. Early moves dictate later ones. Sometimes, when you can’t think of any move at all, you just move up a pawn. Other times, you make a sacrifice, even of a capital piece, just to prove up something else you have in mind. All the time you’re keeping an eye out for the possibility of scoring. And while each game has its satisfactions as well as its disappointments, there’s always the possibility that you can still start another. “What are you doing?” asked Jack. “I made my move ages ago.” “Notes,” I said. There is an opening, a middle game and an endgame. Some decisions are merely guesses with high hopes. There are short-term tactics and long-term goals. You commit and then you have to correct. Well played, there’s a nice feeling of yin and yang. Beautifully played, there’s real rhythm and flow. As you go, you learn of opportunities and potentials. The big picture is more important than the little one. Both intention and reaction play their part. The middle game is where you get serious. One must not be too confident or overdo the end game. There is great comfort in knowing it’s only a game. Jack, who had been clearing the way for his rook to prevent my queen outing, shifted a bishop right across. “Checkmate,” he said quietly, in that tasteful, understated way of his. “Chess is too difficult; let’s go paint,” I said, and we did. Best regards, Robert PS: “Theoreticians describe many elementary tactical methods and typical maneuvers, for example pins, forks, skewers, batteries, discovered attacks, zwischenzugs, deflections, decoys, sacrifices, underminings, overloadings, and interferences.” (Wikipedia article on the game of chess) Esoterica: A painting requires conscious strategy as well as subconscious action and reaction. This is one of the reasons abstract paintings are so energizing to paint and so pleasurable to look at. Freed from the constraints often brought on by reference or other preconceived material, the hand and mind wander, moving here and there like a bee at flowers. Jack and I are having a tournament. For those who may be wondering what a zwischenzug is, it’s a German term for an intermediate move — not the expected move or tactic but the insertion of another, unexpected one. “Nice zwischenzug there,” says Jack.   Anyone for Scrabble? by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA  

“High Tech Antique”
mixed media
by B.J. Adams

That is a great analogy for both, a game and painting. I feel the notes paragraph fits my Scrabble games as well as my artwork right to a seven letter word and a possible end win. However, as in my art there may be all vowels and worse, mostly U’s and I’s, and that really slows the end success. It is those end game successes that make me struggle each day with the middle game without those descriptive tactical words but always wishing for a double triple seven letter word.   The power of sacrifice by Jo Vander Woude, Sioux Falls, SD, USA  

“Keep on dancing”
oil painting
by Jo Vander Woude

You could write an entire letter on your comment, “Other times, you make a sacrifice, even of a capital piece, just to prove up something else you have in mind.” It brings to mind the many times I have fallen in love with a particular passage in a painting and struggled with the fact that it must go or be changed. It is painful to lose a passage that stands out from one’s usual work for the greater good of a painting. Thanks again Robert for a letter full of precious nuggets!       Rhythm and flow by G Tintner, Germany   To watch Kasparov or Viswanathan Anand play an untimed game is to watch a harmonic back and forth that is mesmerizing. This is particularly true in the opening, less so in the middle game and least in the end game. And so it is with painting. The rhythm and flow that was in the beginning is gone by the final strokes when the mind has to pause to make well-thought-out and less flamboyant moves. This may be part of my problem.   Taking back your moves by Henry K. Mills, NY, USA   As a writer I find your chess metaphor holds up. One can only wonder where the words come from and the subconscious strategy that put them on their squares. The nice thing about writing, however, which may not be true for painting or some of the other arts like music, is that if you make a poor move you soon spot it and sooner or later you can take it back. Often, in writing, your poor moves and poor game outcome are not evident until the end. In the game of writing one can always replay. Writing is mostly replaying the game.   Surf’s up! by L. Anne McClelland, Mountain View, AB, Canada  

original painting
by L. Anne McClelland

I like to envision my painting process and find that, although each image seems to take a different path and process, many of them are a little like surfing. Sometimes there’s no point in putting out to sea – flat water abounds — so I spend my days varnishing or stretching or preparing surfaces. Polishing the board between promising seas. If the surf is UP, you paddle out against the water searching for the moment that the image begins to form. With any luck — the middle of the process is being watchful and keeping your balance, practicing your craft — always looking to which direction will give the best ride. When the real excitement happens you’re gliding along quickly and riding the wave. As the shoreline approaches the real skill is knowing when to slip gracefully sideways and leave well enough alone. It’s important to dismount before the ordered form of the wave evolves into the chaos of a breaker. There is 1 comment for Surf’s up! by L. Anne McClelland
From: tikiwheats — Feb 05, 2010

I love a good, visual metaphor! Having watched lots of surfing on the south coast of CA I get what you are saying – now to apply it.

  The noble art of teaching by Carrie Finnestead, Manchester, MO, USA   “Since when did a teaching license give one the supposed power of Napoleon? We are not in the classroom to make others feel small or unwanted. We are there to lift them to do great things, by our words and actions!” (Carrie Finnestead) I don’t usually toot my own horn, but as a High School art teacher, I am often driven to think about the days’ events and remark on my Facebook page. I posted this yesterday as a random thought and I received an overwhelming response from friends. I thought that I would share. I was prompted to post this as I am often the sole supporter of kids that have no support. These wonderful young people share their life stories with me where sometimes they have never shared with anyone. A coach said something so abhorrent to a child that I was moved to quote my thoughts. As a working artist, I find the wonder and joy in teaching that had gone lacking when I was solely a freelancer. These kids spark a kindred feeling as we search for our place in this world as creators and people of this planet. For this I am eternally grateful. I wish all teachers knew their power and used it like the super heroes they can actually be! I often read your letters to my kids. “The object of teaching a child is to enable the child to get along without the teacher. We need to educate our children for their future, not our past…” (Arthur C. Clarke) There are 3 comments for The noble art of teaching by Carrie Finnestead
From: Veronica Stensby — Feb 04, 2010

The Clarke quote has been my mainstay in teaching piano for over 30 years:to give people the tools needed to teach themselves. Educators are critical to the passing down of ideas and tools in all the arts, as in all education. But most of all, to inspire and encourage!!! Kudos to you, Carrie. Keep the torch burning. (I’m a watercolor painter, so art is a passion of mine as well as music)

From: Sally — Feb 05, 2010

Carrie, A discouraging 7th grade art teacher kept me from pursuing my dream of painting until I was 50. As a teacher, my mission was to be a “Barnabus” the encourager of whatever gifts I could find in my active middle schoolers. Now one of my students has published an amazing book and she credits many of us who were her encouragers. Honestly, her middle school writing skills were middle of the road and rambling like a drunken sailor — but now with 3 degrees, her writing soars! How dare arrogant teachers shoot down dreams! Keep doing the work you are doing!

From: Karlyn Holloway — Feb 05, 2010

Often it’s just that one word of encouragement and smile that can last a lifetime.Almost 40 years later, I still remember my 9th grade art teacher,it was a special class for me. Keep it up

  Love across the water by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“View of Northern Mountains”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

You reminded me of many chess games I played with my late grandfather. Chess used to be very important where I came from and we kids had tournaments to which we traveled and competed. There was a chess Olympiad in my home city where I met kids from countries I never heard of before. Hundreds of any shape, color, language you could imagine — but all crazy about chess. I remember a game between a poor-looking girl from Albania playing an Italian girl in designer clothes. Children notice those things — I don’t remember who won. The whole thing was an amazing event. My grandpa never used the word zwischenzug even though he spoke German and liked dropping funny sounding German words. He had a whole other lingo when we played chess or cards. The one expression I remember was “love across the water” — he never explained what that meant, perhaps a promising opportunity which was not to be? There is 1 comment for Love across the water by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: linda mallery — Feb 05, 2010

Love your work. I can feel the chill!

  Emotion overrules technique by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“The Golden Hour”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Last week I saw a terrific film called Between the Folds that was about origami and how contemporary artists had taken this art form of folding paper to amazing heights. The film focused on a number of artists whose backgrounds, focus and philosophies varied wildly within the parameters of this art form. There were the theorists, the technicians, the way-out-there mathematicians, the romantics, etc. I highly recommend this film to you because it mirrors many of the issues and discussions about art on the Painter’s Keys. I found myself drawn to the philosophies of one veteran French artist, Eric Joisel. He lamented how the young folders were consumed by advancing the techniques with computer modeling and other methods to produce works of dizzying complexity and realism. His feeling about technique made great sense to me. He said that he mastered technique so he could strip it away to get to the point where his work captured the ’emotion’ he sought to convey. The emotion at the core of each of his works was what he was after. The technique for him was just the vehicle for getting to the emotion. This idea works for me. Without the emotion a painting is merely clever or an excuse for showing off obsessive technique or an expression of theory beyond the scope of the visual realm of painting. My feeling is that in many of the great master’s works, technique is purposely hidden and restrained. It’s like a wild English perennial cottage garden. Great thought and planning produce the wonderful look of freedom of color and texture; that is the end result. Great artists don’t need to show you how great they are. You sense the skill in the choices they have made in their painting. There are 2 comments for Emotion overrules technique by Paul deMarrais
From: Veronica Stensby — Feb 04, 2010

Great DVD!! Just saw it.

From: Anonymous — Feb 05, 2010
  The lure of abstraction by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA  

oil painting
by Alicia Chimento

The security of staying in my own game has been both rewarding and stifling at the same time. For years I found myself daydreaming about moving to abstraction, thinking all the while of how to transition what I was doing, to another approach, and still have it make sense to me. Finally, I realized that the bridge does not exist. It can’t translate seamlessly. It is what it is. . .a quantum leap. And the other side of the road is unknown territory. But the freedom of no preconceived ideas and the energy that happens when colors and spaces combine makes it worthwhile. I asked a man I know, who never liked abstract art, who never got what the deal about non-representational painting was about, to look at one of my paintings and tell me what his initial impression was. Surprisingly, more to him than to me, it did evoke a response in him. Enough to decide to name it in a pretty cool way. That told me, and him, that even those who resist abstraction are moved in some unknown way. If all it evokes in another person is a memory, a feeling or a sensitivity out of that person’s normal realm of being and thinking, the painting has done its job. It will be exciting to jump to the other side. There is 1 comment for The lure of abstraction by Alicia Chimento
From: Carol Beth Icard — Feb 05, 2010

This painting has a real presence. And I especially like your observation about those who resist abstraction. Brava!

  Art is a story by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

“The Annunciation Collage”
by Peter Brown

Painting is not a game of chess. Painting, while not simply a game, is perhaps like a game, but with no opponent; or perhaps art is a game that one plays with one’s self. But painting is not a game in any typical sense. A painter’s job is to create a metaphor. This is not an easy thing to explain, but it is true. This gets to the question of, “What are you saying?” Are you saying that this chunk of a landscape is very pretty? That this pile of a still life is beautiful? This is all well and good. My question here is very simple. What are you saying? Where are the metaphors? No one will ever be a great artist without creating a new metaphor. Forgive me for saying this essential truth. Art is, and has always been, about a new metaphor. This goes back to the caves. No challenge has ever been so extreme for the human race. We are not doing a very good job here on earth, as people or as artists. We must make new metaphors. Are we going to paint lazy, polluted streams? Well, guess what? Your art will only be a metaphor. That is what art is, eventually. A story. There are 2 comments for Art is a story by Peter Brown
From: Anonymous — Feb 05, 2010

Art isn’t art unless it tells a story? I disagree. A piece of art that brings enjoyment, joy and peace to a viewer, whether that art is a landscape, still life or abstract, is art; serves a noble purpose and may end up considered a masterpiece sometime in the future. Not all of our streams are polluted by the way and I believe there are wonderful unsung heros out there doing all they can every day to make their world and the world for others a better place. I love it when my art tells a story but it’s not the end all litmus test of art. Jo Vander Woude

From: Suzette Fram — Feb 05, 2010

I think the purpose of art is to move people. That can happen in many different ways, whether a landscape brings back some memories, or an abstract speaks to you somehow in ways that you don’t even understand but can feel. It does not have to tell a story, or make a metaphor, whatever that means; it just has to move you and speak to you in some way; then I has done its job.

  [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

Lower falls

pastel painting by Gary Gumble

  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 Frank Gordon of Leeds, UK, who wrote, “Ice in Aberlour? Is the man mad? Water — yes. Ice — never!” (RG note) Thanks, Frank, and everyone else who wrote about the matter of ice in Scotch. I received more criticism for mentioning Jack’s preferences than almost anything I’ve ever written. Actually, this event happened many years ago. Jack Hambleton was a terrific friend and when he was alive ice was considered less reprehensible. I generally took Scotch neat, (still do) and he thought that straight up was going too far. He had other peculiarities as well. He was a darned fine painter and a brilliant entrepreneur, but he was a socialist. He could sometimes be quieted down with games or painting, but he often disturbed the silence by humming Bolshevic songs. I miss him. And also Ellen Key of Dallas, TX, USA, who wrote, “I often compare chess to driving on the freeway. If you study the cars with the intent of determining their next move, it’s amazing what you can predict! Except they are moving many times faster than that rook that might take one’s self by surprise!” And also Paula Timpson who wrote this poem: “Chess has limitations, as does life, painting and writing Open hearts to freedom — that’s why they’re both so wonderful! Reality, Dreaming — Love.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for An anatomy of creative decisions

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Feb 03, 2010

Thank you Robert for pointing out these stages of a painting process. I have tried many times, and been successful some, to tell my students as well as practice myself the fine art of stepping away and getting a fresh perspective on the work on the easel. After that initial laying in of the design and thoughts which I consider the opening act of the painting. Get a glass of water, cup of coffee, or walk around the yard, then come back for the middle act — sit and study the opening and decide where the next moves will be. Sometimes it is not at all what I thought the painting would be. It tends to tell me what is required as the next few moves. This middle act is probably the most important to me. Of course I hopefully designed the beginning so it would support the middle and end. The strategy of the middle act of the painting is a bit more intuitive in my opinion. Where can I go, and what do I want to say with this painting. I am enjoying putting away the reference material at this stage — if I am in the studio. In the field, the reference is right there and does not go away, but . . . I hope I can keep from just copying what I see. The end stage or act is where I seem to have the most problem. Knowing when to quit decorating my work with unessential details. To me, this is where the higher level of work shows. The artists that we admire have learned this third act and apply their knowledge about stopping, or about adjusting, and leaving the spontaneity of stroke visible. No overdoing. Thanks Robert for this particular post, as it is where I think I need to be concentrating. Strategy, more thought, planning and study are important, not just the technical aspects of putting brush to canvas.

From: henryk ptasiewicz — Feb 03, 2010

Chess as an approach to painting doesn’t really do it for me, the analogy is wonderful nevertheless, what struck me so vividly was the scene of two men waiting for the fog to burn off warming themselves by an open fire playing chess, I would have saved the whiskey till I got back from painting. In this day and age when everything is so multitasked and plugged in, it was so ordinary, almost quaint. I could taste the woodsmoke and hear nature in the background. I treasure moments like that and don’t often enjoy them, it was a fabulous moment and one that I really felt I shared, thank you. You’re one artist who really has used the internet to it’s full potential, and you embrace modern technology with open arms, a great role model, I’m pleased you still make time to smell the flowers.

From: Susan — Feb 03, 2010

A painting requires conscious strategy as well as subconscious action and reaction. This is also true of nonrepresentational art, which is also very abstract.

From: Claudia Richmond — Feb 03, 2010

Jack may know something about chess but he knows nothing about drinking single malt if he puts ice in it, according to my husband who in turn knows nothing about art.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — Feb 03, 2010

I am not a chess player but I guess some chess moves are applicable to painting. I think that in painting one must have a plan in the overall outcome a painter wish to create as in his composition.Having laid it out then the choice of colors that best express the inspiration behind the piece is important. The application of the color comes into play what to emphasize and what to minimize to enhance image. -Toronto,Ontario

From: Angela Neumann Shogren — Feb 04, 2010

I think that art has as much room for different processes as it does for different artists – I myself appreciate the adventure of setting out with only a very general idea of where I may be going, but leaving much freedom to change direction along the way and stop anywhere that I’m comfortable and happy…or to go past my original destination if I see something better further up…to each their own!

From: Ann Creasy Rudolph — Feb 04, 2010

Your writing is definitely not a zwischenzug. Rather it is as expected: insightful, thought-provoking, and best of all, motivating. Thanks!

From: paintbunny — Feb 04, 2010

Further to pins, forks, skewers,etc, just a few of the many identifiable nuances and ploys of chess, art has it’s minor moves, some unique to the individual artist. As you have mentioned somewhere else, there is value in naming these. While specific tactics may be outside of the subconscious flow you talk about, their conscious application is just as valuable.

From: JUDY GRIFFITHS — Feb 04, 2010


From: David Hallowell — Feb 04, 2010

What I see in your paintings is such strong emotion that it is not surprising that you had a reaction to no reaction. We expect our emotions to be shared, especially when they are so nobly expressed. I agree with Robert. It is the gallery atmosphere…quiet like a library. Aside from your modern compositions which are excellent, I am amazed at how much of the character of your subjects is projected through your work. That Megan, is fine portrait art of the best sort. Yes, have a reception next go. It will make for more a more emotionally expressed feedback.

From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Feb 04, 2010

Megan’s work is very moving. She must have poured so much of herself into these portraits; small wonder she feels drained. She must paint again.

From: Bob — Feb 05, 2010

” I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art – and much more. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” ( Marcel Duchamp ) As well as being an important artist, Duchamp was also a master chess player and during his career he stopped painting for a period of six years just to play chess. He was the subject for a piece of sculpture which included a chess board called ” Cast Alive “. A fellow artist, Max Ernst, also a dedicated chess player, designed a unique chess set for him. There are only three disciplines in which prodigies are found: math, music and chess. All three can attain the definition of art.

From: Karen R. Phinney — Feb 05, 2010

Meghan, I really liked your paintings. Wonderfully skillful and full of expression! Take a deep breath and plunge in again. You have what it takes! All the best with your painting.

From: Antonia Small — Feb 05, 2010

Megan, your work is gorgeous. I’m now a photographer, was once a stage performer – I had NO idea how lonesome a show was until the first time I had work hanging. Unbearable. I much preferred the stage where I couldn’t see anyone and they were not supposed to say anything during the performance…and standard protocol: the whole crowd does not come blather on in the green room after, so only the dearest friends come to tell you how you’ve done. And, usually, you knew how you’d done by the energy passing between the audience and the stage…ALL that to say – please keep painting. Your people look for all the world like something is about to happen, the space: expectant.THe depth/dark sadness feels real and you’ve honored it so honestly…let that become your feedback loop.

From: Cyndi Egan — Feb 05, 2010

Megan, I think your paintings have a very powerful impact. They hit me at a viceral level, and I had to look at them deeply. Your painting style is wonderful. I would say your “stand” on your personal expression, will surely bring many to view your shows. Keep showing and let it happen….

From: Mary Stephens — Feb 05, 2010

Absolutely wonderful! Sensitive and stirring.4

From: Dave Reid (in BC) — Feb 05, 2010

Hi, Megan; I think your work is excellent – and it has an inner strength (that may be more than some viewers could accept). Your backgrounds (the adjusted ‘tabletop’ pattern in the Mayor painting is great) work well with your subjects to keep one’s attention in the painting. You might consider a different venue for your next show – New York or London (UK) – to elicit responses. I think you would receive accolades. PS: Robert – Some feel that since Scotch is distilled (water removed) that to add some water (not tap water, it has chlorine etc. in it) releases more of the flavour in the Scotch.

From: Janice in Toronto — Feb 05, 2010

Megan, I think your approach to portraits is fresh and dynamic – I especially like the 10021. And Robert is right about the anxiety of attending one’s own show – I hung my photography exhibition, spread some announcement cards and hoped for the best! Maybe it will get better with extending oneself in that area, as time goes by.

From: Ron Unruh — Feb 05, 2010

Well Megan, I trust for you that the bright light of serious commendation starts blasting your gloom behind you because you are a very fine portraitist and artist. Good, good work and do not stop!

From: Linda Saccoccio — Feb 05, 2010

Well I think Bob covers this concern very well. There is a tension between making work and exhibiting it. It can be a challenging shift going from one to the other, but perhaps not taking things too seriously can help. In any case I think the work is powerful and worth seeing! So exhibiting is important.

From: Mary Makuta — Feb 05, 2010

It is a huge risk to share your love and deep longing with others as you have done. When the responses are not as we had hoped or desired, the rejection can be overwhelming. The pain you are able to convey in your art may not manifest itself by glowing reports from others but if you feel good about your art, as Robert says, your admirers will find you. Your color or lack of color are very expressive.

From: linda mallery — Feb 05, 2010

Very emotionally powerful work. Beautiful and painful. Please don’t stop painting. The world would be a poorer place.

From: Donkhote — Feb 10, 2010

I really like this one. You’re riding the wave, and in surfer’s parlance, I think you’ve become one with the wave. Terrific analogy. Chess is dear to my heart. I’ve long espoused that chess is life. Really well done. I’ll continue sharing it.


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