Managing delay

Dear Artist, Frank Partnoy in his book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, tells us that procrastination is a winning formula. The idea that procrastination is evil came along with the Protestant work ethic and the Puritanical era, he claims, while most of the greats in ancient times sat around delaying decisions until they became obvious. Wise folks throughout history have waited until the last second, he says. As artists, perhaps we can take some wisdom from this. The art-vetting process: Delay tactics around the secondary easel — the place where finished works are gathered and contemplated. If you’re like me, with more than a dozen galleries handling your work, there’s fair pressure to deliver. I’ve learned to be absolutely positive about the quality before shipping. Many a time a major boo-boo is picked off the FedEx truck just in the nick of time. Further, collectors are known to hold onto works for generations, while we creators look at our work for relative nanoseconds. We need to look well and hard right up to the last minute. It’s also good to delay the commercial decision as to which works to send where. Many artists take into consideration geography, personality, and buyer sentiment. Fitting specific art to specific agents can be an art in itself. Creative delay is when you look at your work-in-progress and are unable to decide what to do next. While audacity and “seizing the day” can be valuable, also acknowledge times for prolonged reflection and consideration. During this delay the mind subconsciously continues to sort options and devise ploys. A few hours — or days or weeks — can be needed to disclose a solution. The beauty of delay is that solutions are often simpler than you originally thought, making it possible for direct and cursive flourishes that often triumph over unsure noodling. What to do with yourself while being delayed by others: I’ve found it particularly valuable to go prepared with basic materials. Ferry lineups, airport delays and the annoyance of dawdling companions can be turned into creative bonanzas. “An inconvenience,” said Confucius, “is an unrecognized opportunity.” Car-based canvases languish in the trunk calling, “Choose me, choose me.” It’s also one of the great principles of life: Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen. Keeping busy is not something you want to delay. Best regards, Robert PS: “Wait for the last possible moment to make a decision.” (Frank Partnoy) Esoterica: Delay is one of the great negotiating techniques. The controller waits patiently until his adversary has shown all his cards. If you, as the artist, are controller, then your work of art might be the adversary. “Let the painting tell you what it needs,” says Charles Reid. Unfortunately, most of us find that sometimes a work is not always ready to let you know what it needs, and you must postpone. This waiting game can be one of the great joys — when the work finally speaks, it often does so loudly and clearly and in a way that is both beautiful and motivational.   A prophecy fulfilled by McKenzie Bass, Merrifield, MN, USA  

mixed media
by McKenzie Bass

This dovetails with your idea of Strategic Patience. Seems to me that both are needed, particularly in the beginning of one’s career when there are many obstacles not only on the canvas, as in matters of composition, but beyond that to hazier things like the artist’s personal growth, environmental context, new influences, wisdom to employ the underlying messages, funding for new skills, appropriate venues, et cetera. Many times I’m stymied, but rather than force something or give up, I just have to come back to it when I’m better able to face the challenges. The Latin festina lente — make haste slowly — and Auguste Rodin‘s admonition’Il faut toujours travailler — You must always work — have kept me going more times than I can count. When things finally come together it’s worth all the effort. And generally they do — on this great circle — you feel every bit as empowered as you previously felt powerless. Like a prophecy fulfilled or a future manifested.   The happiness of weeding by June Kellogg, Brooklin, ME, USA  

“Women walking tall #14”
acrylic painting
by June Kellogg

Yesterday I was last-minute fuddling with a not-quite-right painting that is to be taken to a gallery in 3 days. All the other paintings I’m taking are strong and ready for show. At the end of the day, I decided to just leave out the troublesome painting. I felt relieved at my decision but also regretful that I was delivering one less painting than I had promised. Your email this morning has taken away all that regret.         Losing momentum through indecision by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

oil painting
by Rick Rotante

There is a big difference between delay and procrastination. While it’s wise to stop and think whether a newly finished piece has what it takes to be good, or if a work in progress is going in the right direction, it has been my experience that if one waits too long one can begin to second-guess and in the process lose momentum. The spirit that moved you in the first place starts to fade while your subconscious decides what action to take next. The one mental theme, if you will, for anything I do is moderation. There is a time for everything; time to wait and a time to act.       ‘Off the truck’ by Mark Lovett, Potomac, MD, USA  

“Pas de Deaux”
oil painting, 30 x 34 inches
by Mark Lovett

It’s a little more difficult taking a painting off the FedEx truck to fix something after the painting has had a layer or two of Gamvar varnish applied. Do you not apply any varnish or finish to your work? (RG note) Thanks, Mark. “Off the truck” was perhaps an inadequate figure of speech. I’m currently painting in acrylic, but I do leave the final varnish to the very last convenient minute. I have to admit that more than once I’ve removed fresh varnish to fix some seemingly insignificant thing that I just couldn’t stand to see rolling out the driveway. There is 1 comment for ‘Off the truck’ by Mark Lovett
From: Michael McDevitt — Jul 27, 2012

This lovely painting gets a “wow” vote. One disappointing thing about digital images is the lack of analog impact (seeing the original in good light); even so, your compostion, styling, and technique are fabulous.

  Where to exhibit by Robert McCormick, Ashland, PA, USA  

original painting
by Robert McCormick

I live in the middle of nowhere and I create art that is not traditional, so country art and craft fairs are not a suitable venue. Should I travel to Philly (about 3 hours drive) or NYC (also 3 hrs) and scope out galleries? They seem too sophisticated for me, but I fear local places (Reading, Allentown) just want traditional art. I don’t know what to do… any ideas? (RG note) Thanks, Robert. Every serious artist needs more than one outlet. I’d check out NY and Philly. But don’t overlook the Allentowns of this world. The good people of smaller cities often wish to be sophisticated. The folks in New York and Philly already think they are. There are 4 comments for Where to exhibit by Robert McCormick
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jul 27, 2012

These days no one lives in the middle of nowhere! Your fears are not justified! This is such a wonderful and sophisticated painting. There is a music genre called “Alternative Country”. You could call your genre the same thing, or Alternative Folk Art, and market it as such if you want to. I would recommend sending a page of slides to the nearest place, probably Philadelphia and I am sure you will find a gallery/dealer. Just find an honest one. Good luck.

From: Susan Avishai — Jul 27, 2012

Does anyone still send slides? Since there may be a ton of research here to do, and many possible venues, take good photos and send as a CD Rom so you don’t lose much if it’s never sent back. The CD will probably cost less than the return postage. And/Or create a website! Good luck.

From: Anonymous — Jul 27, 2012

what are slides?

From: Anonymous II — Jul 28, 2012

LOL, Anonymous!

  Rush to market by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA  

“Pathway To Antiquity”
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Nyla Witmore

Artists, by nature, could be among the best procrastinators… in a negative, unproductive way. Having to insist on perfect conditions (like avoiding a plein air painting day just because it is not warm enough, cool enough, or sunny enough) means one is not learning to experience challenges that make us better as painters. Spending too much time avoiding the studio, or just avoiding getting started with one’s painting by wasting time puttering about the studio… or doing everything BUT painting are negative examples. We all have done it — sabotaging the very muse we wish to invite and nurture. But, you, Robert, have rightly pointed out the one application of procrastination which DOES invite the muse. The “rush to market urge” now will have the urge to become more patient and thoughtful before sending out art that has not quite finished its dialogue with me. I thank you!!! There is 1 comment for Rush to market by Nyla Witmore
From: Tatjana — Jul 27, 2012

“art that has not quite finished its dialogue with me” That is well said, I know exactly what you mean!

  Negotiating by delay by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada  

by Richard Gagnon

Delaying is a great negotiating technique too. A friend on a trip to Japan was met by his hosts at the airport. The first thing they did was to find out when his return ticket was dated. They then proceeded to wine, dine and entertain him for the whole period. He had to make the ‘deal’ in the limo on the way to the airport. Needless to say he did not get the deal he wanted. I suspect that gallery and show dates would put one in a similar position. I get it from clients. Anyway, back to the day job.         Borrowing back sold art by Jill Sharpe, Vancouver, BC, Canada   Do you have any experience in selling paintings by signing a contract with a buyer that allows you to borrow the painting back for public shows? If so, do you have any wording to recommend for such a contract? I’m having my first solo show of paintings and a film… I’d like to sell the paintings however, this particular series was inspired from a film I made and that film is getting a lot of gallery invitations. So there’s a chance if I hold onto the paintings, I could show them again with the film. So I was wondering what are the pitfalls/advantages of creating a sales agreement that allows you to borrow them back? (RG note) Thanks, Jill. In a situation where sold art might be used by you to advantage later on, I would have the dealer put a notice up that says the art may be “borrowed back” with their permission, at some time for a touring exhibition. Owners are generally honoured to lend their work for further exposure to the general public, provided it’s not a regular, annoying event. You or your dealer should make up a short agreement where you make it clear that you (the artist) will be responsible for insurance, damage, wrapping, shipping, return, etc. There is 1 comment for Borrowing back sold art by Jill Sharpe
From: Susan Avishai — Jul 27, 2012

It’s also nice to offer a similar sized piece to replace the one you are taking for the duration so the client’s wall isn’t bare. Sometimes, after living with the replacement, they want that one too!

  Questions to ask a painting by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“August Afternoon”
oil painting
by Diane Overmyer

I have paintings propped up at various key places where I know I will be able to see them as I am doing my normal day to day living. I know some paintings are finished and don’t need another thing done with them… those I prop up and enjoy while they are drying… others, like you talked about in your letter, I am unsure about. It was nice to read that I just need to wait for the painting to speak to me. This is good advice… some may not make it into my show, if they don’t speak up soon! On the other hand, I have found that if I run through a quick list of questions, sometimes the answer comes in a timely fashion. 1. Where is or what is the focal point? (My plein air paintings sometimes get overly busy and end up with no clear direction.) If I don’t have a clearly stated point of interest, I work to figure out what it will be and what I need to do to communicate that in the painting. 2. Did the canvas get covered well enough in the key areas of my painting? Are the understated areas strong enough, without being distracting from the focal point? 3. Are there any drawing issues? 4. Do I need to up the contrast between the shadows and high lights? (This often is the one bit of touch up that I end up doing, since it is often rather bright while I am painting outside…) With this I also do a value check of the foreground, middle ground and back ground.

5. Are the color harmonies working or is there color on the canvas that is needs to be pumped up or toned down? …all depends on the mood I am trying to create also…

6. What areas would benefit from a little cleaning up of the edges? (This is another area that often is all I need to do to finish the painting.) Since I work in oils, occasionally the horizon or edges of the sky can get muddy so sometimes, if that is distracting, I will go back in and touch those up. 7. Are my shapes varied enough without creating too much disorder? I do a lot of garden and nature painting, so this is a real balancing act. When I am out in the field I am often in such a hurry that I don’t think enough in an abstract way about the composition in terms of how minor components interplay with one another. Example: Trees that all take on the form of round balls are a death sentence, unless of course they are intentionally painted that way …such as in folk-art paintings. 8. Lastly I ask one or two people I know, who have a good sense of art and my work, for their feedback.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Managing delay

From: Faith — Jul 23, 2012
From: Robert Sesco — Jul 24, 2012

Ironically/Unfortunately the amount of time to be given over to procrastination or contemplation in the completion of a painting is never a neat, set amount of time; furthermore, without establishing personal guidelines for the amount of time to allow for inspiration to strike one risks an inventory of unfinished works, which disorganizes the subconscious mind and creates an unattractive feed loop of clutter begetting more clutter. Elton John once wrote, when asked if he waited for inspiration when composing songs to the words Bernie Taupin wrote for him, emphatically declared that as a professional he couldn’t afford to wait. There are many ‘types’ of artists: among these are those that consider themselves professional, with deadlines, who produce on time with or without inspiration; those who understand what it takes to ‘prompt’ their inspiration; those who indulge in ‘paralysis of analysis’; etc. I would say the import of Robert’s letter is that artists need not ‘fear’ blockages, but instead should observe, write down, list, and be aware of the ways inspiration and resolution can be prompted in the most timely and efficient manner, such as when a passage grinds a painting to a halt with no resolution in sight, to take a walk in the woods, or to play with your dog, or romance your sweetie, or go shopping, or play drums in your sweat lodge, or book a mani/pedi at the salon, etc. Once you ‘know’ how to prompt inspiration/resolutions, you then become closer to a professional, you produce more, you likely produce better, and you are managing your artistic life with consciousness instead of hope.

From: Joanna — Jul 24, 2012

Above, Robert says ‘procrastination or contemplation’ but I see it as more contemplation rather than procrastination. Procrastination is a time waster, there is no doubt, and it can become paralysing and detrimental depending on what you are procrastinating about. In this case, I would think contemplation is the word to use, or in my case ‘mulling’. Whenever I need to ‘mull’, I step away from what it is I need to think about, and it is only then, when I have to conjure the image or words in my brain, does the answer come. I often see patterns, shape or colours in my mind which are not there when the actual words or pictures are in front of me. The best time for me to mull is early in the morning whilst still in bed. There is quiet and a fresh mind which has not been clogged with the daily detrious of ‘tasks to do’ and places to go. I have had many Eureka moments in this way, managing to think outside the box and coming up with a new take on things. Whatever works works, but try to find some ‘mulling time’ away from the piece of work.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jul 24, 2012

My father, Ralph Kellogg, was said to have said, “I was going to join Harvard’s Procrastinators’ Club, but I never got around to it.” Perhaps it was an old joke. I find your words about leaving solutions to your unconscious mind on target. Poetry, life strategies and solutions both to problems (also words in tough crossword puzzles) sometime reach the conscious mind during the morning shower. It never fails to amaze!

From: Brin Edelstrom — Jul 24, 2012

Eventually I will wait until the last minute to decide. But not quite yet.

From: Jacqueline Kinsey — Jul 24, 2012

I agree that it is more about contemplation, not procrastination. It took some time for me to realize (just recently actually) that I should not beat myself up for having so many unfinished paintings laying around my studio. I have become ‘aware’ that this is not procrastination or that the creative spark has died for each of those unfinished paintings, but that I really needed to step back from them and contemplate the next step(s). I now allow myself to walk away from an unfinished painting without feeling the guilt. Sometimes, I have waited so long for the answers that the answer is, ‘start over’ because it just isn’t working for me anymore. I have grown so much in the interm, that I am in a different place now. It could be that the painting did not have anything to teach me within itself. I believe this is part of the learning curve of being an artist. The word, “mull” is a good word for me too. I think it is an important part of the creative process to mull over what it is you are trying to say with a particular piece and to mull over the technical parts of a piece. Now if you don’t take the time to mull over the unfinished work, then that might end up being called procrastination!

From: Dwight — Jul 24, 2012

I had a really cool idea for right here…but I’ll hold off until later!

From: John Ferrie — Jul 24, 2012

Dear Robert, It seems there will ALWAYS be some schmuck that comes along with a theory about this and that. The Atkins diet is one of my personal favourites for idiotic ideas. But this thing about procrastination has to be the STOOPIDEST idea of them all. There is something about taking time to build up emotional resources so we can communicate something in our works. Taylor Swift was very hurt by her critics after her grammy performance. She went on to write one of the biggest hits of her career expressing her hurt feelings. But to tell an artist that procrastination is actually a good thing is irresponsible and WRONG! Yet, I know more artists who are sitting back, waiting. Waiting to get signed by a gallery, waiting for the response on a government grant, waiting for the Guggenheim to sign them or just waiting for someone to come along and tell them they are good. It is a long lonely wait and they are usually just burning day-light. I would say to any artist, before anyone will sign them for a contract of fame and fortune, they have to have 25 solid paintings and many more on the way. An artist needs to treat their career like a job, that means putting in the hours. I would want to know an artists journey, where the ideas came from, what they are communicating and where is their voice going. Nothing wrong with grabbing a quick coffee with a friend on the way back to the studio. But having coffee all day turns you into nothing more than nothing… John Ferrie

From: Claire Remsberg — Jul 24, 2012
From: DebraAnn Salat — Jul 24, 2012

Thanks for making me feel better about delay. I am going through a rough patch as a human being the last few months and have been stymied creatively and feel like a failure at life and art. I’ve not been sleeping and can’t think properly. I know I am an artist and a writer but just could not admit it. I needed help to move forward and some time to figure out who I am as an artist and a writer. It coincided with a fear of moving forward in my personal life where everybody had a different opinion for who I am and who I should be. When you are starting over everybody has an opinion on where you should be in stead of giving you a wee bit of time to figure it out yourself. I’m a hard worker and very creative but have been stuck in procrastination junction while I let fear and others opinions almost make me give up everything I am to be safe. So time to take a risk and move forward and I think I will be traveling so packing my art supplies and notebooks first. Thanks for all the posts I’ve read that seem to answer a question of my artistic journey just when I needed to read them.

From: Nina Maguire — Jul 24, 2012

I cannot tell you how many paintings over the years that I have taken back and reworked. When you don’t have a painting around to look at for a period of time, because of a rush to get it to the Gallery, etc., this can happen.

From: Jacki Prisk — Jul 24, 2012

This morning I was looking at a painting I’m in the middle of. Happy with the flowers, and some of the background, however I’m feeling like it needs more. I was tempted to start painting even though I wasn’t sure what the next step should be. I walked away, logged on, and pulled up your e-mail re Managing Delay. It always amazes me – timing is everything in life. Thank you for making me realize that I need to step away sometimes in order to see things clearly.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jul 24, 2012

I think that my whole life strategy has been determined while I was a kid in elementary school. I never did homework on time, but I was always a grade A student. There were no busy bees in my family who would interfere with my procrastinating habits, and I guess I always appeared as I knew what I was doing. Don’t I still?

From: Dwight — Jul 24, 2012

John Ferrie is right, as usual, but 25 paintings may not be enough (well, he did say “solid”). I’ve told many a beginning student that after 1000 (watercolors) they’ll begin to understand what’s happening. The Puritans may have taken busy work to extreme, but working and practicing is the way to success..period.

From: Veva — Jul 24, 2012

But what if you are a collage artist? It is all a maybe I’ll use it later.

From: Elda — Jul 24, 2012

On the art of procrastination; I sauté and simmer an idea in my mind for days before I put that first brush stroke on the canvas. However, as the painting progresses, many changes will take place until I have a satisfied work of art.

From: Claudia Roulier — Jul 24, 2012

I don’t think you’re talking about procrastination, I know some real art procrastinators and I was in fact one in school. Contemplation was not the reason at all, putting it off until the last minute, rushing and finishing and handing it in (in the case of a student) without contemplation because there was no time to contemplate ……… just say’n.

From: Darlene Marzari — Jul 24, 2012

This is for artists but it might apply to other creative types?!

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jul 24, 2012

To your last two sentences I say, ‘Amen”!

From: Juanita Smith — Jul 24, 2012

I have just one thought on ‘delay’ as I sit here looking at a painting all matted and framed and dust cover applied professionally (and expensively). If I could only just fix that little spot on the apron tie which is just one value too dark….but alas I can’t ….a little more ‘delay’ and I would have spotted that!

From: Michael Foth — Jul 24, 2012

Never do today what you can put off for tomorrow.

From: Raynald Murphy — Jul 24, 2012

Your comments regarding delay ring true if one is an oil painter, acrylic painter, printmaker or even a pastelliste. However, those of us who paint outdoors in watercolor do not define “delay” in the same manner. Watercolor, especially one painted on site, is not easily modified. It is crucial for a watercolorist to know when to stop painting because saying too much is equivalent to overstatement and failure. Yet, after years of working this way I still can’t tell exactly when it is I should stop. Nevertheless, the adrenaline rush that comes over me when clues signal me to put down my brush is probably why I have fallen in love with this unpredictable beautiful medium. Painting in watercolor on site is similar to walking a tightrope! Montreal, Canada

From: Nikki Coulombe — Jul 24, 2012

time spent not applying material to a work of art is as important as applying it. I think it’s kind of like music, where the pleasant order of a composition is only due to the calculated silence between the audible rhythms. For me the process is predictable; no matter what the medium, I always start a piece with outbursts of devil-may-care energy. The length of time spent not doing increases, until finally, like the end of a song, it becomes apparent when enough is enough.

From: Jorge Royan — Jul 25, 2012
From: Helen Bruzas — Jul 25, 2012

This is such WISE advice…Your statement regarding some collectors who will look at your work for generations to come, left its mark on me, and I shall pass your words on to my students… Thank you for the time you devote to sharing your insightful thoughts and conclusions drawn from experience… London, Ontario

From: Anne Swannell — Jul 25, 2012

I write poems as well as paint, and what you say about delaying decisions is certainly true in the literary arena! Often, I find, a poem that seems “done and dusted,” when read six months later (sometimes even later than that….a year or two) reveals obvious slippages or places where the language could be tightened or torqued or turned up a notch. Delaying sending poems out for a year is for me a wisdom, and perhaps it’s the same with paintings.

From: Chris Kazeil — Jul 25, 2012
From: Linda Saccoccio — Jul 25, 2012

Thanks for this one. It seems to be something very essential that our culture has lost the value of. We push ’til we drop. I am wondering also if there are certain personalities that this waiting process works optimally for? I do find that the answers sometimes need the space of time, and that stepping back from the painting is just as essential as picking up the brush.

From: Franco Cabanos — Jul 25, 2012

The “delay” you are talking about can be compressed into a “shorter delay.” This comes with the territory with professionals. Experienced eyes are quick at finding faults, even their own.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Jul 26, 2012

Procrastination has too many negative connotations thanks to the Protestant stanza. I’d rather look at it as foreplay. Of course waiting too long defeats the purpose also. Had I procrastinated on my first paintings 60 years ago nothing would’ve been accomplished by today since upscaling one experience in a forever learning curve. I believe in letting go of the painting within a reasonable time and try to not listen to to many inputs. I write much poetry lately and god forbid taking in too much information from workshops. Every other writer loves to rewrite another’s lyrics.

From: Pepper Hume — Jul 26, 2012

Oh my, does this speak to me! Much as I love my art form, sometimes a project stalls and I don’t know why. I look at it daily but don’t touch it because I’m not sure WHERE to touch it. In bed, in the dark behind closed eyes, I rehearse working on it. With mixed media sculpture, one must think four dimensionally, time-sequence being the 4th dimension, with the added challenge of having to think time-sequence in reverse: I must do B before I can do A, and C before B, and D before C. This is a lot easier in mental rehearsal, I can tell you! Still, a chasm of mystery may continue to gape between decision and the correct next step. Is there a Q to do before P? Procrastination can guard against making the wrong choice too soon. Or it could just be mental laziness. Been there, too.

From: Linda Owensby — Jul 28, 2012

My father used the word “dilatory” when speaking to me or my sister for chores left undone. I didn’t believe it was a word and I could never find that word in the dictionary because he verbally said dillatary and now having the on-line Dictionary word of the day, it finally came up and of course sums up our delay then as well as mine now when painting. The dictionary defination is: dilatory DIL-uh-tor-ee, adjective: 1. Tending to put off what ought to be done at once; given to procrastination. 2. Marked by procrastination or delay; intended to cause delay; — said of actions or measures. At least “dilatory” sounds much better to me than “procrastinate”.

From: Jeanne M. Roberts — Jul 30, 2012

This letter hit home for me. I had a still life painting on my easel: lilacs from my dad’s garden in a huge face, surrounded with bowl of lemons, boo, cup, etcetera. Let the thing dry. Couldn’t say “finished”….so I let it look at me, while I began work on something else, and then suddenly I saw what I needed to do! Did it, and its now finished. I just let it sit there and talk to me, when the time was right!

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The Park

oil painting by Cyn McCurry

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