Creativity methods


Dear Artist,

In looking at quotes, you have to ask two questions: “Is it true?” and “Is it true for me?” You have to be careful in this quotation game. Take, for example, this quote of Claude Monet from a letter to Gustav Geffroy: “No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”


“Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper”
pastel sketch by
Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

Even Monet, with all his thoughtful brilliance, was still a man of his times. Think of all of those paintings before, but mostly since, where no picture at all existed anywhere near its final form in the head of its creator. The idea of preconception is a popular one, and a reliable one at that, but it’s not necessarily true to the spirit of creativity. There’s a whole world out there for artists who think on their feet, move this to satisfy that, and let the painting tell them what it needs. It’s riskier — there’s going to be a loser or two — but it’s a lot more fun.

Here’s the single most compelling reason for winging it: It keeps you interested.


“Young Woman With Ibis” 1860–62
oil on canvas
by Edgar Degas

Of course, you have to know your methods, their variations, and when to break the rules. Some of us have spent a lifetime putting methods in our pockets — but to suggest you always have to stick to one puts the activity on the level of knitting. In, over, under, off. And composition: Yep, poorly conceived compositions are the cause of more misery than perhaps any other aspect of quality art-making. It’s sure nice not to be stuck with a composition that looked okay in the rehearsal.

The point is that lots of fine people, even artists, say one thing and do another. More than a few times Monet sewed extra canvas on one end or sawed an inch or two off the bottom in order to solve his problems. That’s creativity.


“The Ballet from ‘Robert le Diable’ ” 1871
oil on canvas
by Edgar Degas

Best regards,


PS: “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” (Edgar Degas)

Esoterica: Paint-by-Numbers. In 1949, an unemployed artist by the name of Dan Robbins invented a system that made it possible for the masses to get satisfaction painting between the lines. After being relegated to the garage along with the hula-hoop, Craft-Master and PBN (Paint by Numbers) are now making a comeback.


This letter was originally published as “Creativity methods” on September 26, 2000.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“One reproduces only that which is striking; that is to say, the necessary. Thus, one’s recollections and inventions are liberated from the tyranny which nature exerts.” (Edgar Degas)



  1. John Francis on

    I could not disagree more with the premise of this ‘essay’. Bear with me. If ‘it’ is ‘true’, it stands to reason that it is ‘true’ for me. So, for me, there is but one question. If any. Personally, I look for two things in a quotation. I was doing that earlier today. I was listening to the radio and the on-air host quoted from Brahms before playing a composition of his. The quotations that most hold my attention are those that embody two elements. Truth. And some humour. Be well.

    • There are many kinds of truths. I believe Robert was talking about “conventional” truth as opposed to “universal” truth. As an artist, I see everyday that my truth is not another artist’s. What is true for me may not be true for them. I believet that the purest form of art making is that of finding a way to make paintings as close to who you are as a person as possible., to express your individual sensibility. This is honest and “true” painting. Children make art that is true, true for them. We could bat this around philosophically but this is how I have experienced painting.

  2. In the very true letter above, Robert said that when moving things, thinking on our feet and really going for it, there will be a loser or two. Goodness, I should say…thousands of losers. After nearly eight decades of watercolors I could have filled my rather large, nice studio with failures, and that’s failures on both sides of the paper. But, he was really right also when he said, “…it’s a lot more fun” than over planning. At the very time of this letter and this reply I’m having some trouble being satisfied with my work. I’ve done nothing of any value, in my mind, for a few weeks. This week I also got a rejection from a serious show that I’ve been in thirty-nine times for the last forty. Do I quit? I should say NOT! On we go, because above most things…”it’s a lot more fun.” Thanks Robert and thanks Sara. Robert got it and Sara gets it.

  3. I’m one of those who has a gray canvas if my eyes are closed. I have a very weak visual memory, but very strong memories of what I hear and what I feel. I can remember conversations from early childhood, and can often hear
    multiple conversations at once, like in a restaurant. I usually have at least one song going in my mind. When I paint or draw, I let the shapes and colors themselves get things going, then I start to connect to ideas in my other faculties, and
    toggle all over the place. So satisfying to hear different interpretations of what I and others ‘see’ in the renderings. I can barely imagine carrying a picture in my head, confident of my method and composition. Different strokes for different folks’ brains.

  4. I call the image in head before I start – and I do have to have one – the “virtual image.” The finished painting never looks like that. Degas had it right: “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”

  5. At the end of my classes, during our mutual critique, I ask my students to comment on their works. More often than not, they are disappointed. The usual reason is “it isn’t what I had in mind when I started”. No matter that it is often quite a good piece of work. The rest of the class is very complimentary, since they had no idea what the artist “had in mind”. Sometimes, as I tour the room while the students paint, I’ll reach in and turn over the photo of a student who is struggling to “copy” it. When the artist recovers from the shock, I suggest to her/him “why not get creative and build on what you have already done and forget what you ‘had in mind'” Now there is a new target, new energy, new freedom.

  6. Barbara J. Brown on

    I’m delighted to know that PBNs (Paint by Number) are making a comeback. In the 1950s when I’d visit my grandparents, my grandmother inevitably had a PBN in process. While she baked gingerbread men for me, she let me work on her painting at the kitchen table. This inspired me to continue to paint “real” paintings in the future. Unfortunately my family didn’t save even one of my grandmother’s PBNs, so a few years ago I bought several on eBay to remind me of those happy childhood days. I also did a few PBNs of my own. One called The Haywain by the Reeves Company turned out so well by using their suggested blending that people who see it don’t believe it’s a PBN Thanks Reeves, it was fun re-creating that old master painting!

  7. Gabriella Morrison on

    Removing from or adding canvas to a painting is not necessarily an act of creativity – probably just one of necessity to make a more satisfying composition. Creative acts require one to give oneself permission to make decisions and alterations of all sorts outside of pre-determined limitations. After all isn’t one of our freedoms the freedom to make choices whenever we are prompted by a perceived need? I have learned more from trying out iffy attempts than from following the tried and true methodology. And, I do have a fine collection of real daubs and stinkers to remind me of where I have come from and where I have yet to go.

  8. gerald prueitt on

    I always” see” imagery in my minds eye before I execute. The joy of art for me is that I discover a world of images on the way to completion. It can be the day, the music, a taste of Vivacity gin, the conversation of those around, or just the smell of what is in front of me.

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