The making of every work of art is a series of fated moves. Sometimes, bad moves are so frequent that work goes into self-destruct. Professionals and amateurs alike are prone to the problem. An occasional mess comes with the territory.
A way to minimize the tyranny is to see your art in a state of adjustment and creative development, rather than trying to fulfill some preconceived vision. I call it “dynamic painting” and it’s quite magic. It could be called “dynamic writing” or even “dynamic living.”
The dynamic artist improvises as she goes along. She thinks on her feet. Her eyes and her mind are constantly weighing opportunities and making judgments and adjustments. Somewhat dependent on intuition, she also has knowledge of the variety of ways each passage might be handled.
Perhaps the most valuable dynamic ploy is to constantly ask the question, “What could be?” With this question, the work of art evolves and comes out of itself. One need go no further than to watch a six year old (not a sixteen year old) paint. She paints the general idea and soon decides this or that would be nice to add or subtract. She throws in a new colour because she likes it. In more sophisticated terms, she “thinks it might work.” This is dynamic painting, and professionals appropriate this magic.
There are further ploys to unlock the magic of dynamism. It’s valuable to squint a lot, stand back, go here and there on the work, take breaks and vary your tools. While not relaxing the possible intervention of your cerebral cortex, you try to get into a state of natural flow — in the “zone,” as they say.
The act of art is not so much a business of making things look like something, it’s more a business of enhancing things that are already on the canvas. “What could be?” becomes, “What could that be?” Making art is 90% seeing and 10% stroking. When watching professional demo-doers, the seeing part often comes in the blink of an eye. Observers might conclude that pros are really talented folks. It’s really just dynamic painting.
PS: “We paint best when we lean on our nervous system.” (Francis Bacon)
Esoterica: So many of our painting problems are really problems of sight. The great writer, lecturer and professor of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell advised, “Look, look long, and the world comes in.” This applies to the making of art. The art historian Ernst Gombrich made the idea into a poem:
Seeing depends on your knowledge
And knowledge, of course, on your college,
But when you are erudite and wise
What matters is to use your eyes.
Dynamic right down to press time
by Bob Maurer, Canton, OH, USA
In Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, he points out that Proust took the concept of dynamics in the arts to an extreme, constantly amending and editing his writings right up to press time, and even beyond; even stopping the presses. The book is an interesting read for artists. Lehrer uses several well known figures in arts and letters to show that art is a process and that truth is better arrived at through the arts rather than through the reductionism of science. (But he also gives credit to some aspects of science in our lives.) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was another constantly changing work that the book discusses.
by Pamela Ellis, Mission, BC, Canada
A few times I have tried to produce a pre-planned painting from a photograph but found the process to be less than fulfilling. It was too planned, too rigid, too boring, too exacting and really… no fun whatsoever. It was frustrating to say the least. I also found that when I was engaged in this type of painting my “inner critic” would instantly raise its ugly head and begin to kick the heck out of my ego, ceaselessly screaming at me to the point where my self-confidence crumbled, i.e… throwing my brushes in the garbage and telling myself that I am not an artist, never have been, never will be. I guess it was just a series of those ill fated bad moves that you mentioned early in your letter.
I’m happy to say that after each episode of the pre-planned painting disasters I would eventually regain my sanity. Then I would haul the brushes from the garbage dust them off and once again begin to paint “my way.” Aaaah… what a feeling! Dynamic energy! Now that’s creation! That’s painting! That’s what I love!
by Sandra M. Germann
I am an artist devoted to my first true love, a lifetime of dynamic magic. My daughter likes to tease me, and often berates me for being so good at what she calls “wingin’ it.” She has the “college knowledge,” and lives with feet firmly planted. I live, and work, dream and build on the intuitive, dynamic magic. Sometimes, I wish I could “fly” forever in that “zone.” However, the hard realities of life tend to ground quite a bit of that flight, especially in these times.
I divorced after 23 years and started over, a new beginning. I started my own business painting murals and faux finishes, with a few canvases here and there during the years of getting off the ground. With the cold dead drop-off in business due to the economic times, I have been painting more canvas in shop to keep my spirits up in the “fly zone.” It has helped my spirit, however, I am struggling to survive. The hard and cold reality of bills and making a living are about to crash my “fly zone” harder than the stock market has crashed the whole world. I am writing to thank you for all your valuable time, knowledge, humor, and wonderful insight you share for free. You are a wonderful character, and I have enjoyed your company. You are a likeminded friend to me.
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by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Today we know that the brain has two sides, the linear and intuitive, and that both are important for any successful creative act. During the act of painting the eye and the intuitive mind should dominate, and the linear should be on the far back-burner. Painting is a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ act which is guided by an educated eye.
I don’t know about others, but when I’m painting I do not think about “what could be,” or anything else for that matter. I find that any linear-type thinking is best left for another time, and visual thinking should be the driving force. In other words, have the eye ‘tell’ you what to do. Thinking on any other level, or about what or why, simply gets in the way.
Certainly we need to know things and words to express it, but what an artist needs above anything else is visual intelligence, and knowing names and facts about things has nothing to do with the visual. The visual world is wordless and silent. The only way to acquire visual knowledge is through looking at the appearance of things.
The balance and harmony that naturally exists in the visual world is what every artist hopes to attain in their work. The only way to seeing this is through what Joseph Campbell suggests, “Look, look long, and the world will come in.” But this also means that we have to see beyond our knowledge and thoughts and ideas. It is difficult to see things for what they actually are for various reasons. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “We never see anything completely… [for example]we never see a tree, we see the tree through the image that we have of it, the concept of that tree; but the concept, the knowledge, the experience, is entirely different from the actual tree.”
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Landscapes of the mind
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I have been attempting landscapes of the mind lately, which is to say that I am painting from memory and in my studio — landscapes that are of no particular place and are more mood and expression. For those who know me I have been disappointed at many of the landscapes I see lately due to this lack of imagination. Plein air painters seem to go out on location and attempt to copy the majesty before them and fall short, in my opinion, because they try and copy nature. For me, this is setting yourself up for failure, for nature is infinitely more spellbinding than any painting can achieve. Not all landscapes are this way. Many are painted from the artist’s point of view. That is to say from the heart and not trying to copy nature. Some interpret the scene and make a statement about it rather than slavishly trying to copy it. These are the pictures that show the artist as well as the scene. These are the paintings I believe that move the viewer.
More to Robert’s point, this method of having no physical reference has been a stimulating journey to say the least. The only starting point I use is vague design concept as to horizon line or time of day. From there using a very wide brush I scumble in, abstractedly, a random wash suggesting trees, and landscape, still keeping everything vague and undefined. Then moving to the sky I shape trees and bushes by cutting into the landscape, and suggest water and a path into the landscape. The point here is to let my imagination run free and explore as you go.
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Dynamics of abstraction
by Joe McAleer, Bonita Springs, FL, USA
My paintings are the visual record of the artistic experience, validating my journey of the heart and mind. They are the end of a creative crossing. The “road” an abstract painter travels is vastly different from that of a realistic painter. In representational work, the artist takes his inspiration from what exists in nature. He knows from the inception what he wants the final piece to look like. He follows a clearly defined “map” (difficult as this may be). The hours spent “driving” are exciting, but the road lies clearly ahead. What was in the beginning is at the end. The abstractionist’s journey of the imagination is more like an odyssey. There is no simple explanation of the creative process in abstraction. My paintings never travel a straight route. They rarely end up reflecting my initial thoughts and first sketches. The “road taken” is not a straight highway, nothing is clearly marked and it is filled with constant detours.
With no map to guide me, abstraction is a challenging and almost mystical process. I encounter discoveries at every turn (a new color, a new shape). A “road” taken here or there may put me in a dead end filling me with despair for days or weeks, or it may open up a grand vista. The uncertainty of it all challenges, frustrates and ultimately excites. The hours spent “on the road” stimulate, motivate and exhaust the imagination. I’m hopeful you can sense and share in this experience.
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Fighting a preconceived idea
by Elaine Baer, Kelseyville, CA, USA
This letter was very helpful to me. Sometimes we get a preconceived idea of how a painting should look and get stuck when it does not appear to be that. I have painted more than a few paintings and because they fail my expectations I have discarded the canvas. Once I learned to improvise from my original thought the painting turned out very well and surprised me because it was better than the original idea I began with.
A changing, living journey
by Trish Harding, Bellingham, WA, USA
It seems that the ability to paint a successful painting with dynamics and surprises lies primarily on the notion that one must open him/herself up to the idea that an occasional “dud” along the way is very legitimate. If it weren’t then the whole notion of “what it could be” would have to been tossed out the window and we would eternally be left with “what it is.” That certainly would defeat my whole reason to paint. When arriving at my destination, the only option is to stay there, go back home, or keep traveling on. Consciously thinking about my work as a changing, living journey stretches its potential and most often it becomes something better.
Plein air painting drives this idea by its very nature; changing light, changing weather, changing shapes, changing temperature, changing values, etc… I paint outdoors all year long to learn to see potential. I try also to paint with verbs, not nouns to show the viewer what my subjects are doing rather than what they look like. That is dynamic for me.
by Kate McCavitt, Oceanside, CA, USA
When teaching, the single most requested thing has been, “Teach me to be playful again…!” After 14 years of doing Asian Brush type painting in my early years as an artist, I have an attitude hard-wired in that mistakes are part of the art and that the imperfections are happy accidents that usually need little or nothing. Doing a single intentional stroke in Chinese ink means WYSIWYG (Remember that from beginner computer class…”What you see is what you get”?) and you never ever ever go back over it to try to correct anything. Well, now I do big bold colorful, textured abstracts in fluid acrylics on canvas, with much of my ingrained Sumie disciplines eventually wrapped in somewhere. My base paintings are always just layers of color as underpaintings. By keeping in mind the gift of accidental things, I almost always let the spontaneous and random things wet watermedia will do be the basis for every composition. It doesn’t mean I am not being purposeful in my choices of color or generally where they are on the canvas. It means I respect intuition and synchronicity as necessary ingredients for art; not being attached to the results so early on that I end up trying to “push a string.” I admit that I do get into problem-solving on some pieces, but that usually happens when I have not put the piece aside on a regular basis to let it speak to me and tell me what needs to happen next. I like working on three or more pieces at one time to keep me out of my mind… well more out of my mind than is usual for me. I am reminded of the microsaccades letter… and realize these time-outs bring me the gifts of both attention and inattention. Nice creative balance.
by Sue Rochford, Melbourne, Australia
As usual your letters are a highlight of my week but I have one small complaint, one which you may be blissfully unaware of. Every time you mention “the artist” you immediately consign the sex as female. Now this touches me (as a female) with a tinge of annoyance at what you may construe as a careful and thoughtful paternalism but which actually comes out as patronizing. Check with that highly talented daughter of yours! Artists are both men and women. Neither is better than the other and by consigning us this way you fire an unnecessary debate. The occasional He/She in your writing could reset the balance. Recently I was invited to join an all-women art society – I turned this down vehemently as women no longer need to champion themselves as women in society unless we see ourselves as inferior and set ourselves apart. All artists struggle. Let’s join hands as artists he/she said.
Why always feminine?
by Brian Reifer, UK
I am faintly amused and puzzled why you always write about artists in the feminine gender. Is yours a female-dominated household or if you write in the impersonal, non gender you fear outcries of the Suffragette variety from your readers? Has Canada not moved beyond that as yet?
(RG note) Thanks, Brian, and everybody else who wrote on this subject. I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m just trying to make my info more compact by avoiding the awkward literary form, “he or she,” and “his or her.” On another note, I used to have a friend who always noticed gender issues in my writing and remarked about it. He thought I was overly catering to women, and he became quite angry at times. Then he had the operation and after that it didn’t seem to bother her anymore.
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Thankful for subtle writing
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
What a difference an ‘s’ makes, as in your forward-thinking ‘she’ reference to artists in every other article rather than the traditional constant of the outdated primarily ‘he.’ It is this sort of conscientious writing that has gained and retained readers on your website. It is very respectful of you or anyone to recognize the empowerment it offers artists of the female gender just to be acknowledged by the addition of that simple letter, S. It’s small gestures like this that, try as we will to not be affected, both the obvious and seemingly trivial have an effect on our psyches… and therefore our progress as humans… and as artists. Since we are largely a consciously interwoven global society now, it is important these days to make these kinds of subtle contributions in writing. On behalf of the female gender I thank you. Did you ever imagine that you’d touch on so many soft-spots, side-topics and panic buttons when you initially began writing The Painter’s Keys chiefly about painting?
(RG note) Thanks, Nikki. I had no clue.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Dynamic painting…
The 401 III
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 Nancy Chargualaf Martin who wrote, “I usually read this in the morning and often times just want to stay home and paint. Thank you.”
And also Richard Maxfield of Toledo, OH, USA, who wrote, “I’ll believe it when I see it. (negative) or I’ll see it when I believe it (positive).”
And also Angelika Jaeger who wrote, “As I find myself, I see my surrounding college friends struggling with the problem you mention. Is it just too easy to beat ourselves down, when all we should be doing is actually get lighter and step away and find the fun, or for that matter joy in the struggle?”
And also Susan Holland who wrote, “I hope I can dump the un-dynamic “finished products” from my archives and stay on the edge of engagement. Nothing is more DEAD than pedantic, technical, boring pictures made by ‘coasting’ artists.”