Economy of means


Dear Artist,

There’s a question that pops into this inbox practically every day: “How can I speed up my operation? I’m taking too long with my work. I know I need to be more efficient, but I’m somehow blocked.”

Part of the problem for these folks is that they are often non-professional in their approach. Also, they’re not always informed about methodology that has benefited creators since Leonardo. Fact is, artists must constantly take stock of their personal systems and their work habits, and, in an inventor-like way, look for improvements. Those who thrive professionally know this territory well. The bonus, they know, is that economy of means leads to creative freshness. Sit back, look at your work in progress, and, if desired, dig out processes like the following:

Pre-mix frequently used colours and carry them from work to work. Think through a logical order of application and development. Think through the outcomes of your creative moves in anticipation that they may be wrong. At the same time, train yourself to get things more or less right on the first go. Avoid repetitious workings in areas or passages — in other words, get so you can put your strokes down and let them be. Work out effective time-savers like making gradations by glazing, rather than by incremental pigment adjustments. Replace unsatisfactory colours by partly using the colour to be replaced. Use obfuscation techniques, such as scumbling, to give the appearance of “more going on.” Avoid long lapses of “busy work” such as brush cleaning, complex over-drawing, redundant rendering and other time-burners. Beside your standard tools, use alternate ones — rags, combs, sponges, scrapers, wild goose feathers, etc. Simplify where simplicity is appropriate. Catch yourself when you’re up to your old delay tactics and avoidance games.

A few weeks ago I was stricken by a peculiar affliction that interfered with my economy of means. I was pacing back and forth a lot. I had rationalized that it was part of the planning and thinking process mentioned above. But it was really just a non-professional avoidance activity. Then I had a wee breakthrough. It was to “leave that part out.” I closed down the pacing department. Leaving parts out is one of the keys to economy of means. Think ahead and do what you can, when you can — and you’ll keep on doing. Good stuff automatically comes along to fill in the blanks.


Leonardo da Vinci

Best regards,


PS: “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: While there’s a correct way to remove an appendix, there is no correct way to make a work of art. That’s what’s nice about our business. Every one of us has unique — even devious — ways that we make things happen. It’s called “process.” Making improvements to your personal process is a saw-off. Half of it is learning what someone like Leonardo would do. The other half is figuring out what you can do. On both fronts, the success of your quest is a measure of your spirit. “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” (Leonardo da Vinci)


Cut to the chase
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Pastel of Melanie Peter”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

There are many little things you can do to streamline the process. For instance, I like to use paper towels that are folded into quarters. It occurred to me one day that I was constantly interrupting my flow to peel a paper towel off the roll and fold it up, so now I fold up a big stack of paper towels before I start to paint. Another activity I’ve found useful is to spend some time every week working from life. The immediacy of an artistic encounter with the real world builds serious art muscles. When your subject might get up and walk away any minute, you quickly learn to cut to the chase, do what’s essential and let the rest go.



Economical use of time and energy
by Deirdre Fox, Chicago, IL, USA

During a recent two week residency, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen (my studio was near the kitchen) or wandering in the prairie. No one thought I was accomplishing anything (they kept wondering if I was ever going to get to work). At the end of the two weeks, I had 8 finished works — the entire series that I had planned to do at the residency. I spend a lot of time looking and thinking, then I work quickly, then I go back to looking and thinking, and so forth. I know what I want each mark to do when I make it. Of course, that doesn’t mean the mark always cooperates. Still, it ends up being an economical use of my time and energy.


Organized in a steel box
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA

I put a lot of thought into my studio layout and have found that carefully arranging and providing the right tools easily doubles my productivity. This reduces delays, distractions and frustrations. I use two roll-around Kennedy tool boxes with all my supplies in them. It’s amazing how much you can fit in these. One is for my oil paints, the other for acrylics and all other stuff. The top drawer of the oil box has all my currently used paint tubes laid out in order and in the same direction, easy to see, all in one layer, and I can find them without rummaging through all the odd colors I bought for some odd reason. The second drawer has all my extra paint, back up stock, the odd stuff, the extra pound tubes of white and gel, etc. again all in order. Below that are varnish, gesso, turps etc. The top drawer is left open, the others are seldom opened. I have had my Kennedy for almost 30 years in an industrial environment, and it has been banged with forklifts, pushed over, etc., and it is scarred but good for another 30 years, at which time I will be buried in it. I have many other efficiency techniques that I will save for my own book.


No shortcut to quality
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA


“The Fall’s Eye View Of The Chama River”
original painting
by Ron Elstad

I’m a professional artist of over thirty years and a professional painter for the last fifteen. There is no shortcut to quality. I see too many artists today who are just cranking out pictures in the name of fine art. These people are in it mainly for the money and not for the art and this, I believe, is running down the general quality of art in our industry. This hurry up and get it done, down and dirty attitude has got to change. Furthermore, I believe it is the responsibility of artists to constantly push themselves to a high level and never find themselves in a complete state of satisfaction, otherwise they’re really just cranking out the same old junk over and over again. Make great art and the world and the money will beat a path to your door. Not to mention your artwork has a better chance of lasting through the test of time.


Wrong habits lead to creative stagnation
by oliver, Austin, TX, USA


original abstract photograph
by oliver

I worry sometimes about speeding up the process of actual creation. I worry that assembly-line techniques will create too many habits that eventually will lead to creative stagnation. I do constantly try and find new, better and more efficient ways to spend time on the tasks associated with being an artist. Things like cataloging work, marketing work, communication with galleries, dealers and etc., in addition to procuring supplies, cleaning the studio. The list of these tasks seems to overwhelm the time available for the creative part of being an artist and indeed they may inhibit it. To me the trick is to get as many of these things done in a quick, cost-effective manner, freeing me to focus time on the work.


Excited with anticipation
by Dawn Cosmos, Mesquite, NV, USA

I am attaching your letter “Economy of means” to my easel. I want to see what I can get done this week. There’s a lot going on right now. I am my own teacher. I suck up information wherever I can find it. I am trying very hard to absorb and retain as much as I can. Right now I am involved in my first Spring Salon. The reception is tomorrow night. I’m really excited and overwhelmed with anticipation!


Time to play hooky
by Jean Wilson, Des Moines, KY, USA

I think of the time-wasting activities as dessert. If I keep myself disciplined most of the time, I do reap rewards. But, when I allow myself some time to goof off, or spend too much time on an occasional project, I often times make discoveries through the back door. I agree that the bad habits are not good business practice. But, if the business end of things is your sole motivation, you might miss out on something fun. Have you ever heard how many days the designers and artists at Hallmark Cards are allowed to play hooky? The company has recognized that sometimes an artist has to just take a day off and recharge their batteries. Do you ever play hooky?

(RG note) Thanks Jean. There are times I think it’s all playing hooky.


More productive with a schedule
by Scott Martin, San Jose, CA, USA


“Alum Rock Afternoon”
oil painting, 14 x 18 inches
by Scott Martin

I was formerly a studio assistant to a prolific primitive painter in New York. I would have to be at his studio at 8 a.m., 5 days a week, ready to paint. We had the same regiment every day: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I learned from this that it is important to have discipline in my working schedule. I get much more work done if I keep to a schedule. When I first began forcing myself to “be at work” at a certain hour, I would sometimes sit there staring at a canvas or a piece of paper, and nothing would happen… but I wouldn’t let myself leave. Quickly, my “body clock” knew which hours were for work. I felt more creative and became much more productive.


No Noodling
by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA


David Lussier

No noodling should be every artist’s credo. Get at the big shapes with a big brush and step away from your work once in awhile to see how things are coming together. Work all over the canvas at once to avoid getting bogged down with the ‘thought’ of ‘rendering’ everything. It always amazes me how areas in a painting that I plan to come back to, sometimes just need a small adjustment after the whole of the canvas gets covered and sometimes I never go back there at all! The power of suggestion is a tool everyone should learn to use. I think it runs hand in hand with trusting your intuition and your own unique inventiveness and painting with confidence. I think many painters get bogged down with that four letter word… fear. With confidence under our belt, the paintings sometimes practically paint themselves. I live for days like that.


Can’t repeat an accident
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA


“Crossing at Harmon”
watercolor painting
by Jeanne Long

I took up painting to do something extremely difficult in order to study the process and my reaction to it. Ten years later I find that the effort has been amazingly beneficial in revealing how both my psyche and the painting process operate. Like you, I’ve seen that planning a painting is critical. If you don’t have a plan to get you where you’re going, you’ll never arrive where you want to be. Except by accident, and then you won’t be able to repeat it again for a considerable time.

Getting things right on the first go saves enormous time in the execution and also eliminates the wasted time in the after-contemplation when you know something is wrong and spend hours first denying it, and then attempting to remedy it, and eventually having to start over. Proper analysis ahead of time makes getting it right on the first go more feasible.

From Hensche on Painting by John W. Robichaux: “Painting is a means of developing your mental aesthetic life. You don’t ever do paintings for money. If you paint to sell you are no good. Worthwhile achievements are not done for money, they are done for the love of study. You do them for self-development. Selling is a by-product.”


Obfuscation techniques explained
by Debbie DeBaun, Anchorage, AK, USA

What is meant by, “Use obfuscation techniques, such as scumbling, to give the appearance of more going on.”?

(RG note) Thanks, Debbie, and thanks also to everybody who invited me to smarten up and make myself clear on this one. Casual roughing up of surfaces, scraping off, sanding, blotting, or in this case, scumbling (dragging a brush filled with opaque pigment across an already painted area) adds mystery, complexity and expressionistic charm. This “obfuscation,” as I call it, also serves to pull areas together, warm up or cool down, and to partially hide less than satisfactory passages underneath. Also, it makes it more difficult for your cloners to figure out how you did things.


Tried and true practices
by Peter William Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


“Studebaker at the Parthenon”
original collage
by Peter William Brown

I have spent much time observing painters being inefficient. A fellow in one of my adult painting classes was exceptional. He would place a single brushstroke on a painting and then walk to the far corner of the room to see the effect. One day I tied a three-foot string to his belt loop and the other end to his easel. I told him to “Squint.” Painters have to separate painting from “looking.” Work on several paintings at the same time. Store these in your home, in places that you see every day. Make your decisions over the course of your daily life. When you do get studio time, make the alterations, based on what you saw and thought while not actually painting. Make notes about your ideas. While there is “no correct way to make a work of art,” there are efficient means and tried and true practices. One should not be ignorant of these guidelines. Painting is an old craft, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.





Afternoon on the Porch

oil painting
by Jeffrey Hein, Salt Lake City, UT, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Coquitlam, BC, Canada who wrote, “In the spirit of Leo Tolstoy, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ To this I say, Happy artists are all alike; every unhappy artist is unhappy in his own way. From what I have seen, the happy artists are the ones who sell, and the unhappy ones usually say that the artists who sell are all alike.”

And also Sally Brucker of Takoma Park, MD, USA who wrote, “I have just finished The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori. It articulates beautifully what is so difficult to put into words about our processes. As an art therapist and educator, I so welcome this!”

And also Delores Hamilton of Cary, NC, USA who wrote, “I used to paint. Now I make original quilted wall hangings, what we in this arena call ‘art quilts.’ It takes me from 3 months to over a year to make one piece. So, the next time you bemoan how long it takes you to paint a painting, think of me.”

And also Elizabeth Azzolina who wrote, “In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo was asked daily of the progress of the Sistine Chapel, ‘When will it be finished?’ and his reply was, ‘When it is done!’ The artist should focus on finding the joy in discovery during the evolving creative process rather than focus on the artistic process as a means to an end. The journey can be as wonderful as the destination.”

And also Kerim Kahyagil of Istanbul, Turkey who wrote, “Most of my ruined paintings are due to overworked, tired looking shapes and areas — a waste of time and effort. One needs to think twice about every contribution to a painting.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.