Desultory painting

Dear Artist, My friend Jack Hambleton and I were in the town of Sao Bras de Alportel in southern Portugal. Stepping out onto the spacious flat roof of our three-story hotel one evening, we saw potential. Before sun-up the next day we were back out there, drinking our coffee and seriously rethinking the variety below. Small winding streets led away in all directions. Red-tiled roofs rubbed shoulders and formed cubist patterns with the white walls, laundry lines, and geranium-filled window boxes. Decorative chimneys studded the skyline. Jack said, “There are a million views in the tiny city.” We set up in the middle of the roof, near the potential shade of a water cistern. Our method was to walk to the parapet and assemble a view in our heads, then come back to the easel and begin. Going from one view to another, only a short time was required to lay in each composition. We set down our half-baked paintings — his watercolours and my acrylics — in a growing circle around us. By noon we both had a half dozen starts. The second phase was to walk to the parapet with a “chosen” painting in hand. Elements and points of interest not noticed before popped into view and motifs from other works begged to be included. Needless to say, midday light introduced different shadows and different challenges. Returning again to the easel brought a further degree of finish. Some works took four or five parapet-trips before signature. Less favoured ones were unceremoniously abandoned. By Scotch-time we each had several modest crackerjackers. Later, an inconvenienced but mildly amused hotelier served us a calamari and asparagus dinner right there on the roof. We revelled and anecdoted until we could no longer see. The Oxford Dictionary defines “desultory” as “skipping from one subject to another, disconnected, unmethodical.” It may be an unmethodical method, but it’s a useful one. Here’s why: Our minds are capable of far more multi-tasking and multi-tracking than we think. The critical sense that goes with the processes of art-making moves forward on both prior experience and intuition. Quick looks and automatic decisions, devoid of long-term contemplation and recrimination, often produce decent results. Going from one project to another heightens the faculty. Over time, an artist builds a repertoire of creative moves, motifs and techniques — there to be released or withheld as the artist sees fit. Desultory it may be, but it’s a valuable ploy in an artist’s ongoing obligation to play. Best regards, Robert PS: “You have no obligation under the sun other than to discover your real needs, to fulfill them, and to rejoice in doing so.” (Francois Rabelais) Esoterica: Life is a precarious balance between letting go and taking control. When we are on the very roof of our art, we see that our own reality is within reach. Accepting the gift may take the accumulated wisdom of some trodden miles, but it also opens the welcome windows of joy.   Skipping from one to another by Maritza Bermudez, Wheaton, IL, USA  

“Golden Torch”
watercolour painting
by Maritza Bermudez

That’s what I call skipping from one painting to another. Very often I dwell in 3 or 4 paintings at the same time. Of course, I use the same medium… like palette knife painting, fast, easy and fun. Then I select the one I like best and repeat it in a larger scale. I once went to a workshop in Italy. The teacher took us to a sunflower farm. We all set our easels and everybody selected the special view they wanted to paint. I divided my paper into 6 small squares and painted 6 different views. Back at home I selected some and painted them. I’ve had my students do 2 paintings at the same time (not beginners) to get their creativity going and at the end of the class we go into critique mode and they select the one they like best. Thanks, Robert, for your wonderful topics.     Scary way to paint by Catherine Orfald, Brooke Valley, ON, Canada  

“Tenacious Tree II”
original painting
by Catherine Orfald

I admire this way of working (looking, assembling in your mind, and turning away to paint). But it scares the heck out of me! I first read about doing this in Nicolaides great book, The Natural Way to Draw. I do usually have 2-4 paintings on the go at one time and will move from one to another. They’ll be different subjects and at different stages in the process. I find the desultory focus method there useful. Now, I will give the other method a try.     ‘If it’s art, sign it’ by Sarah Wallace, ON, Canada  

oil painting
by Sarah Wallace

You have drawn me out of my silent audience with you to comment on my husband’s uncle who you charmingly included in your message of desultory painting. You may recall that I was speaking with Sara at her opening at Hollander York when you phoned to congratulate her and she explained that she was speaking to an artist and Painter’s Key subscriber who also happened to be married to a Hambleton. Jack’s brother, Ronald, is in his early nineties living with his wife of 65 odd years in a home in downtown Toronto, ever observant and witty. An author, broadcaster, reviewer all his life. His comment on reading your article, which I forwarded to him, was “The only sentence I ever heard from him that contained the word ‘art’ was this: “If it’s art, sign it.” There is 1 comment for ‘If it’s art, sign it’ by Sarah Wallace
From: Ron — Jun 03, 2011

Really like your art.Hope I’m going as good as Ronald, when I get there.

  Improving the flow by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA  

original painting
by Liz Reday

I’m not sure I would call it “desultory” painting, but I have been painting on several projects at once lately and find it helpful. I was in the middle of some large gestural abstracts when I noticed that the gesture was getting overworked and stiff. The tendency to keep adding things to a painting when it’s not quite there yet is the road to perdition. So I began a series, which improved the flow and allowed me to work more unconsciously and intuitively. In the middle of that I had another series gestating, and rather than start another large canvas, I’m creating a number of small studies on a theme (Arab Spring/War) in acrylics on Bristol board smooth paper. This is a great, fun way to work, especially as I can knock out two or three in a morning, and once I have a bunch, I’m better able to assess my direction and whether or not I have enough imagery to take this somewhere. Since my biggest problem is over-working and not seeing the wood for the trees kind of thinking, switching on and off, working from my head while walking back and forth across my studio really works. Then I take a break and do some close-up figurative pieces, just taking enjoyment in the way the colors butt up against each other in a pleasurable way. I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but am happily exploring.   Renewed inspiration by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA  

original painting
by Kittie Beletic

Today I took the time within my work day to read your article about going from one piece to the next. I am in the middle of intricate and tedious stitching of one specific component in a large textile “painting.” I kept myself “disciplined” at the helm, stitching torturously — bored and frustrated. “Aha!” I shouted and ran to open some of my favorite inspirational books and to look back through photos of previous pieces that took enormous amounts of both discipline and detailed care. It only took 20 minutes from reading your article and reviewing some of the techniques and playful trials throughout my life as an artist to get to a place of renewed inspiration. Blam! Focus, creativity and joy came zooming back and I’m already creating a happier, more productive art piece!   Without expectation by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Abstract #2”
original painting
by Adrienne Moore

I have often used this way of working where I do not get hung up on one painting but multi-task by working on a couple of pieces at the same time, alternating when getting tied up with a problem area. I simply switch to another piece. I often begin with a partly finished, previously discarded composition. This one where I do not expect anything much to happen and so I allow myself the complete freedom of failing or succeeding. When nothing is expected from the end product it frequently becomes a very interesting experience just to see the work evolve. I also frequently paint right on top of an old work and allow the pigment to show through thereby strengthening with lots of underpainting. There are 2 comments for Without expectation by Adrienne Moore
From: Cristina Monier — Jun 03, 2011

I loved your painting.

From: Virginia Wieringa — Jun 03, 2011

Your textures and composition are terrific.

  Forced creativity by Jo Bain, Bella Vista, AR, USA  

“Tapestry of memories”
original painting
by Jo Bain

I think of all the time I have frittered away when I could have been creating paintings! Waiting, waiting and more waiting at the Mayo Clinic for a medical diagnosis which is requiring surgery, I went to the store and bought a roll of cooking parchment paper. I plan to sketch future paintings, roll up until back in my studio. Thank God for art and the creative spirit!       There is 1 comment for Forced creativity by Jo Bain
From: Susan Kellogg — Jun 02, 2011

Good luck! I hope you get some good images! I have never heard of using parchment paper with any medium…will these be in oil?

  Plein air vs. studio by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Two Ravens”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

What you described here is extremely difficult for me. Painting plein air, exactly what you see can be learned because it is deterministic — you learn the technique and the materials and how to see and you can create beautiful works. On the other side, there is a carefully planned studio work where you develop your process and master it. Also with experimental work, you explore possibilities without boundaries. What you were doing is a composite of what you see, your mastery of the medium and what you draw from your inner “bank.” That requires extremely fast processing of a scenery, filtering patterns that speak to you, translating them into your artistic language and applying that to the canvas. You are creating and putting together your unique puzzle as fast as those people who can put together a Rubik’s cube to beat Guinness records. I guess you go with quantity and accept low yield for the benefit of the experience. This is tough to do — but a great challenge to find what an artist is made of. I am tempted as I am to running a marathon! I feel it would take me to a higher level if I did.   Special thanks by Linda Eichorst, Placitas, NM, USA  

by Linda Eichorst

I received my first letter from you this morning, and am typing out this quick note before I head out to my studio. I am calmed and enthused and ready to get to work. I have been a “broken” artist for several years, and your email was like an encouraging love letter from a dear, dear friend I hadn’t spoken to in a long, long time. Thank you, and a special thanks to Barbara Meikle, Santa Fe who recommended your site to me. Off and running…     There are 4 comments for Special thanks by Linda Eichorst
From: Stephanie — Jun 02, 2011

You are an artist, not a “broken” anything. This work is intriguing and unusual and makes me want to see more. Go and produce!

From: Carol Duggar — Jun 03, 2011

Really like this sculpture. You have a very unique style. Hope you are working on more!

From: Anonymous — Jun 03, 2011

Good for you, Linda!

From: dennis potter — Jun 03, 2011

buddhists cultivate starting over! beginner mind is a good thing… we all should have it regularly, clear the old stuff out and start again now.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Desultory painting

From: Amy I Mann — May 31, 2011

Fascinating – but I had hoped to see the results of your desultory paintings in the current clickback. Are they posted anywhere?

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — May 31, 2011

That nails it: the unmethodical method…of the artist’s obligation to play. One follows an established formula to build a bookshelf. But the joy of creativity is a product of the freedom you feel from following the dictates of your whimsical Right Brain.

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — May 31, 2011

The rooftop dinner sounds fun!

From: Marti Walker — Jun 01, 2011

Thank you for this inspiration Robert. Have been enjoying reading your letters!

From: Susan Warner — Jun 01, 2011

You are the epitome of my favorite expression :”Joie de vivre” !! As evidenced by your roof top experience in painting , eating and drinking ! Wish I had been there!

From: Caroline Planting — Jun 01, 2011

I loved this letter! I get in trouble when I try too hard!

From: Kristine Plum — Jun 01, 2011

I love your blogs, and I now realize that I need a serious artist friend to paint with. My area art guild and an other coop I belong to is filled with “sunday painters”.

From: Paula Timpson — Jun 01, 2011

Wind~ Creating is as the wind, moving , ever- changing, growing into new perspectives and visions….. All lead to happiness, simply… for His Glory!

From: Mary Gai — Jun 01, 2011

Wow.. a revelation!! Seize the moment!! A little voice said “read this now” this is perfect for me and I have never started more than one project before.. could get me painting again!! No scotch for me, though. :)

From: Mary Doheny — Jun 01, 2011

I live in Palma, Mallorca and also have a rooftop view that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to tackle. My problem is that there is too much and I end up trying to get too much in. Would you post some pictures of the work you did on the roof in Portugal. I’d be very interested in seeing both the successes and the failures.

From: George Witter — Jun 01, 2011

I did not know this word means this! I imagined it was something more like sulking.

From: Don Edwards — Jun 01, 2011

It would be interesting to see your paintings from the Portugal rooftop, since I have painted in that same geography, but closer to Albufiera.

From: Mariane Høstmark Tveter — Jun 01, 2011

Wonderfully instructive, wise and fun! as always! thank you for sharing all these marvelous ideas and experiences!

From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Jun 01, 2011

Could you please post some of your Portuguese rooftop works on Painter’s Keys? Please, please, please….Southern Portugal holds fond memories for me; the small towns and villages are picturesque and full of kind and generous people. Or they were when my husband and I last visited there ten years ago. I hope it was as charming and full of hospitable folk for you as it was for us.

From: Pippi J — Jun 02, 2011

Your post on painting in Portugal was interesting to me as I was just there painting………but who in my little Northwestern Ontario town is interested in paintings of European city scapes? I have discovered that they want…Birds, Boats and Babes. So what’s important to an artist’s success:colour/technique or style/ an image/ a story/a good painting??? As an artist I want to do the best painting possible..but I also know that in sales it is very important to know your market.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Jun 02, 2011

I want to be in your life!

From: Linda Powers — Jun 02, 2011

Gallery owners are always looking for a “look”, a “brand” they call it. Their objective is sales, of course. As artists, our objective is to grow, explore, and always to be moving forward, and for me, this is an irresistible challenge. I tried “painting myself” once. The results were as flat and bloodless as road-kill. I think that, when it happens, if it happens, it will be when I am very old and just operating on automatic pilot. Till then, I gotta do what I gotta do!

From: Stephanie — Jun 02, 2011

Pippi J: Paint what you love, not for the market. All the technique and style can’t hide lack of passion. Else you will wind up doing “the same old” mediocre work we see too much of.

From: Karen Weihs — Jun 03, 2011

I too am a muti-task professional teaching artist creating multi-genre art for galleries. Here is my take on this to your readers. After making art in many genres, I now embrace that I am a multi-genre and multi-tasker artist. I once was told a professional artist should stay with one genre. I disagree at this point in my career. When a professional gets to the place where the work is solid, multi-genre can be a strong suit in galleries. BUT, you must prove it to the galleries. You have to deliver first. I too painted plein air in Portugal in Cais Cais. The painting there is overwhelmingly stimulating. We once were rewarded with a plate of fresh sardines by a restaurant owner while painting outside his place. We did a still life of it. I showed mine to one of my represented gallery owners and she wanted to show it. I am known as a landscape painter, but love to explore other genres of painting. Good galleries will embrace that if you approach it after you are established with them. You have to pay your dues and stick with what you do and know best first, before going into many genres. Most galleries want to stay with what they can sell of the artists work and keep it consistent. I love what one of my galleries does. They ask their stable of artists to do sometimes theme shows, like all paint birds, water or flowers, and we all explore that together. it is fun and received well, but the fact is that the galleries accept that as a professional tool to explore opportunities of sales. Not all galleries like doing that. But, when they do, it is so stimulating for an artist to participate and deliver. When the artist is confident in their craft, only can that be accepted. If an artist goes to a gallery with multi-genre work, it can backfire. Tread slowly, and respect that the galleries can sell work for you if you stay consistent. I also teach multi-task techniques in my classes and workshop. I often can teach a group of 7 in a 3-day advanced workshop letting each stay in their genre, and I punt with the group teaching tasks. Often, the group learns from the multi-task sharing. One will do landscape, another a still life or abstract and they all can see the beauty of crossing over genres to learn techniques that can be interfaced in each genre. I find that multi-tasking in this manner a great way to learn as a teacher and grow with my professional work. So, before you become a dog portrait painter with your landscape paintings, and then next an absractionist as I often am, know where your galleries want you to be with them, and stay there with them. I once thought of signing my abstracts with a different name, but re-thought that and did not. Now I embrace it, and know my limitations where to tread with the multi-genre work. But I know where my abstracts will sell, and where my dog portraits can be consigned, and where my landscape paintings are welcomed. It is a challenge to be a multi-tasker, but so much fun in the challenge with the variety. Happy Painting!

From: karen Weihs, — Jun 03, 2011

My Boykin Spaniels are with me daily when painting. I have 3, they are Carolina bred dogs from brown English spaniels. There is a rescue for Boykins. I highly recommend them and have portraits of them on my website. they are there when I have workshops cuz students love them. Loyal and gentle and under 40 pounds, they walk with you well and travel well and keep quiet and always love what you paint!

From: Gavin Logan — Jun 03, 2011

For those of us with a limited attention span and the need to be constantly re-entertained, the business of going here and there between paintings and subject matter is very valuable. Other, more steady individuals find that working one thing to completion is the more satisfactory way to go. You really see this at workshops where the two types (and others) sot themselves out with their varied approaches.

From: Janina Cushman — Jun 03, 2011

I believe you are putting a nice spin on “desultory”. I cannot find my old Oxford dictionary to see what it might say. I’ve always thought that it was a negative term, ie., it was a desultory afternoon on the bayou, meaning that it was hot, humid and boring. Or, he wrote a desultory paper, meaning not very good. Anyway, thanks for a different opinion on a word that was never used in a creative way as you did. I loved the idea of looking, then going back and doing a painting, then checking or looking afterward for a fresh spin. I have to try it myself.

From: Kordelia — Jun 06, 2011

i feel joyously validated!! “desultory” was always a negative to me…tho i live my life that way, clean my house that way, paint that way… and amazingly, accomplish an awful lot of stufffff! Pooh, i say, POOH, to those who have criticized me over the years… and i finished g/d’s portrait and it’s probly best i’ve done so far… thank you, Robert, i feel the shackles removed!!

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Rock Rhythms

watercolour painting, 10 x 14 inches by Judi Pedder, ON, 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 Ron Gillmore of Victoria, BC who wrote, “For most, it’s difficult to do. Sure it can be done, but it’s difficult to do well. Skilled art may take a few years of private effort, studentship, technique development and maybe even apprenticeship. Shock and awe art takes imagination and courage.” And also Marvin Humphrey of Napa Valley, CA, USA, who wrote, “That nails it: the unmethodical method of the artist’s obligation to play. The joy of creativity is a product of the freedom you feel from following the dictates of your whimsical Right Brain.”    

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