The Secondary Easel


Dear Artist,

I wanted to mention something which has proven to be one of my all time best creative devices. The concept applies to many fields of creativity, but I’ll describe it as it applies to painting. It’s called the secondary easel. This is a display area in your workspace that is apart and different than the place you normally work — your primary easel. Here, unfinished works sit side by side, often honored with a frame. It includes works in progress and older, more problematic projects. This secondary easel also requires a secondary chair; a comfortable one.

What you need, beside your secondary position, is a secondary attitude, even an altered state, so that you can view the work with another personality in order to give yourself a decent second opinion. I like to think of it this way: At the primary easel I go ahead and energetically produce the work in the full knowledge that I know exactly what I’m doing. In other words, I’m a master. When I move to the secondary position I take on the roll of a critic, a nit-picker. I allow myself to be truly critical and contemplative. I look at work in progress positioned adjacent to other work, and ask myself questions like “What could be?” Anything goes: paint over, change color, remove stuff. I sometimes come to the conclusion that I’m hopeless. But somehow, out of that change of position and altered state the solutions emerge. Often it’s simpler than I had first thought, and back it goes to the primary easel to get what it needs.

I’m not averse to props to give me the attitude. For me, the cigar is one of the best tools in the studio. A glass of Scotch is good for tough cases.

The whole idea is to teach yourself to be effectively your own best critic.


watercolour by Charles Reid

Best regards,


PS: “Let the painting tell you what it needs.” (Charles Reid, in Painting What You Want to See)


Split personality
by Mary Hart, New York, USA

There may be psychological evidence that you are right. Persons with manic-depressive or cyclothymic temperaments live helter skelter lives, but they are representative of the high percentage of creative people in our midst. Moving the work in progress gives the opportunity for the other side of the personality to kick in — rendering the vital and invaluable second point of view.

PS: See Touched with Fire, Manic depressive illness and the artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison, Simon and Schuster, 1994.


New climates
by J. F. Nicolson

The best are nuts. This is a bit of a nutty idea Robert, but if you look at artists and particularly writers, we are forever rushing off to some new climate to produce, finish or edit something. It may be that the restless human mind thinks it may do different or better when exposed to the new environment—no matter how illusory.


Right brain, left brain
by Cecil David, U.K.

Our creative and critical faculties are a combination of the interaction of our hemispheres. The important operative here is that the creative stage (the primary easel) be free to be in its right brain. When the work is switched to the secondary easel more considered and practical faculties are invited to safely come into play.


What a challenge
by Donald Steele, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Thanks for the message in your recent letter regarding the secondary easel as a forum for self-critique. I’ve been wrestling with a portrait for a couple of months, one of those situations where you feel there’s potential in the piece…so I’ve had it sitting on an easel in my bedroom, trying to “get it”. Last week I had the good fortune of having 3 days, by myself, in Paris returning home after 6 hours in the d’Orsay, 5 hours in the Picasso and 5 hours in Place Georges Pompideu Museums.

I decided that the current project as well as everything I’ve done over the past 10 years was a waste of paint, paper, canvas, pencil, charcoal and most importantly time! I have seriously been considering a big bonfire and full re-dedication to my day job (merchant banking). Your letter has helped me regain some perspective by reminding me that self-criticism is the biggest part of the vocation, but what a challenge…we either fall in love with our creations and thus become oblivious to glaring imperfections or we’re so personally critical (and nothing is more critical than self-criticism) that we take no prisoners. I don’t paint to sell, and I don’t paint to show so why do I paint? (no answer required, probably none exists)


Already know it
by Yves Boucher, Lyons, France (translation)

The most valuable creative methods are often the simplest. I’ve been using this dual location system for years and it’s vital to my productivity and quality control. I think it comes out of the old group criticism system we had in the academies. Another part of it is simply getting the work stopped and avoiding overworking. I also relish the cerebral part of creating. I’m not being funny Robert, but I already know most of the things you say. When you put it in writing it just confirms what I already know.


My garden
by MiaCara Rose, New York, USA

My pieces have never been juried. I just love to create and spread my creations, like seeds in my stories. I continue to create… stories, ideas, art… seeds and more seeds. Wherever they may fall, I know someone will be there to see their beauty and choose them for their own garden in life.



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