Extreme painting


Dear Artist,

It’s a matter of getting an olive into your martini from across the bar. According to the handbook for “extreme bartending,” this sort of performance excites clients, alleviates boredom, speeds consumption, and sells liquor. Recently, while witnessing an example of extreme teriyaki, I was reaching for the wasabi when a flaming cleaver landed dangerously close to my hand. In any case, the next morning I had to have my suit dry-cleaned.


“Juarez” 1958
oil on masonite, 35 3/4 x 47 7/8 inches
Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)

While I was waiting for this to happen I was realizing the value of extreme painting. Pollock, de Kooning, the Expressionists. Secretly, you can do it yourself. Like extreme naked rumba, it’s also okay to do it alone.

Try squeezing out four times your regular amount of colour. Dig out that giant brush you’ve never used. What’s wrong with dribbling anyway? Who said you couldn’t flick a ball of paint across the studio? What else is there around here? A good elbow, a whole sweater, the dog’s tail?


“Untitled” 1958
oil on paper, mounted on Masonite,
mounted on wood, 23 x 29 1/8 inches
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Anyway, we’re talking “warm up” here. And seriously, it’s valuable. It’s valuable because pushing yourself to extremes blows out the cobwebs of trusted habit. It shakes up what you know to be reliably safe and substitutes the miracle of insecurity. Going pantless over the ski-jump does something for the blood. Speed alone gets the red stuff coursing. Here’s an exercise: Make a big painting — complete right down to the signature — in the morning before your coffee gets cold. A great big whatever. Do this every morning for a week. What you’ll find is that it’ll have a positive effect on your regular work. You’ll do better and you’ll do more. You’ll start to process ideas faster, work more efficiently, and you’ll be more generally inventive. The blast of excitement will invigorate, and you’ll be less tired at the end of the day. You don’t have to show this stuff — they may even turn out to be sorry sights — but you never know. Life’s an exercise where we have the choice to test extremes as well as to work the tried and true. Both have value. But if we never test the extremes — well, we’ll never know.



“C’mere Dorothy.”

Best regards,


PS: “It’s better to be sorry for what you did, than for what you didn’t do.” (Anonymous)

Esoterica: It’s useful to make a list of potential tools. Take a few minutes in your contemplation-chair, casting your eyes around your creative space. Your list may turn out to be longer than you first thought: Spritzer, roller, scraper, stick, comb, brayer, sieve, spatula, feather, gravity, that sort of thing. An open-minded, non-food trip to the kitchen will reveal a bunch more. Down in the basement that old box of “bought-but-never-used” art materials may be a treasure. “Puff paint — how totally extreme.”

This letter was originally published as “Extreme painting” on November 23, 2004.


“Portrait and a Dream” 1953
oil on canvas, 148.5 x 342.2cm
by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

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“Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you’re the only expert.” (Frank Gehry)



  1. November 23, 1004! Wow. Robert was prescient. But seriously … right up until “in the morning before your coffee gets cold” I thought this one was from Sara. LOL.

    But Robert and Anonymous were right: “It’s better to be sorry for what you did, than for what you didn’t do.”

    • What a stimulating idea. I know intuitively I will embark on this voyage of discovery soon. Refreshing and freedom giving exercise of discovery .
      Thank you, Robert, for sharing the youthful aspect of your intellect. It will live on within all who accept your gift and invitation.
      How generous.

  2. a great reminder about taking risks , stepping outside the box , if you have one . i think that a failure can be more important then a bunch of successes , at least you know what doesn’t work . with no mistakes ,how can know when you have success . it takes dark to see light . i almost look forward to the odd boo boo . i know i am learning ,and not just what works ,but what doesn’t . i never worry about the mess i make in my space . so throw some paint , make a mess ,and you never know what beauty may come from it . keep your brushes busy

  3. Go where fear thrives and pour, splatter, move the canvas. The past five months have liberated me from stereotypes, overcome tremendous fears and uplifted creative spirits. This post confirms what I am attempting, and the process continues!

  4. I have a big smile on my face…still tuned in to your dad…this synchronicity used to happen often…I woke up thinking I should make a series called Going to Extremes to push myself! Thanks to you both for backing me up!

    We are all related here, and the hereafter! (-:

  5. Great letter, and not just the message, it is written so well! And it’s all so true. There is nothing in the studio as emotionally (and physically) draining, than finding the same thing on easel day after day, week after week.

  6. Haha. Again, I laugh when I read your dad’s humourous proddings. I could see the twinkle in his eye as I read this one, imagining going pantless over the ski jump. What’s more, I’m heading to the kitchen to see what I can find. Great gobs of paint lie waiting on my palette. Thanks, Sara.

  7. Precisely my sentiments on the subject. Leaving behind representational art and exploring the bold, brash and spontaneous nature of extreme expressionistic painting has given painting strength with greater conviction. Working on large 48×60 canvas, pouring paint from the bottle or smearing globs of paint with rubber gloves has broken free the rigours and tedium of the known. Developing the work beyond it’s initial smathering allows the intellectual mind and critical eye to develop purer aesthetics. It’s been free-forming and creatively enriching. Along the way discovering a love of abstracts, the purity and freedom of expression with a surge of vitalized energy. Caution: not for the tender hearted. Be bold, be strong.

  8. Elaine de Kooning was my mentor in my senior year in college. She was most encouraging at a time when I needed it. She was an advocate for large sized paintings. The biggest I ever did was 6 ft. x 4ft. There is something challenging and liberating about big canvases. But more important is the process of doing it. Abstract expressionism may be an “old school” now, but for those of us still in that mode, we find every moment a surprise, an opportunity and an inspiration separate from analytical intellectualization and representational images.

  9. so serendipitous for me at the moment. I’ve been feeling a little stuck for the past couple of months and I have been wanting to break the rules and break out more. I don’t believe I am working to my full potential and this letter reminds me of what I love in art. The energy, the deliberateness, the action. My art school’s digital media professor when teaching us Photoshop 3 back in ’95: “Pull the slider all the way to the left and then all the way to the right to see the extremes. Now you can make your final decision on what to set the filter to”. Although my work doesn’t show it, I love the abstract expressionists. Back to the studio…

  10. Jamuna Snitkin on

    So enjoy this whole conversation we are having with Robert and Sara. It keep us fresh and hopeful and connected to something we love to do. Someday I will get to painting everyday, but until then these ideas will keep the candle burning.

  11. Liz Bertoldi on

    A breath of fresh air in this morning’s posting! Thanks Robert and Sara! Gotta kill one of those canvases that are lurking about half done, half thought, half painted. I think I’ll haul them out and go for it! Thanks! Liz

  12. Susan Warner on

    I enjoy everything you have described! Experimentation often results in a wonderful breakthrough, and as
    you said, sometimes a mess. I save the pieces of ‘mistakes’ if on paper and cut or tear them up for a later Collage,.
    One writer said he never worries about making a mess in his “space”. My space is unfortunately my Dining Room. I cover everything with plastic drop cloths and sheets, dependent on how crazy I intend on being with the paint, or work at the Kitchen sink.
    I had a commission of two canvases, each 6′ X 6′ and managed them after moving the furniture.
    The Artist always finds a way to bring new life to the work.
    I will share your great letter with an individual who is timid about trying new things.

  13. Bonita Taylor on

    POWERFUL STUFF! I’m looking at a canvas that has been tucked in behind the bookcase here in my studio for YEARS! We have a coffee date for early tomorrow morning!

  14. Thanks so much for today’s letter, Sara. It reminded me of the time I reluctantly agreed to paint two 8′ x 8′ flats of a landscape for a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” by the community theater in our tiny town. I had never painted a flat and don’t do landscapes. My paint was buckets of acrylic housepaint donated by a local paint store and large house painting brushes. I requested the flat be painted a medium grey, made a few lines to indicate the horizon and began to paint. It was an exhilarating experience! I’m 5’2 and had to stretch to reach the top and bend and kneel to paint the bottom. I found I used my entire body to do the work. And, I couldn’t see what I was doing except by walking back to the middle of the theater so there was lots of making a few strokes, running to look at it, running back to the canvas, etc. The paintings were wonderful … loose and free yet representational. The are long gone … painted over several times for other plays. I have not done anymore set paintings. But, I often remember how I FELT when I painted them and the joy of using my whole body. Your letter today gives me ideas of how I can perhaps repeat this experience in a smaller scale in my studio, basement, porch, yard …
    Thank you for a creative boost today!

  15. An artist friend shared this post with me, knowing I’d completely get it. As an abstract painter, (many of the master Abex painters are my heroes), I totally connect with this post. I offer private “coaching” in my Studio and my priority is taking students out of their comfort zone. Most know what they are in for, and although I often see trepidation on their faces when I suggest something foreign to them, ie: a giant brush or squirting out a whole tube of paint, in the end they are excited, inspired and recharged. In the creative process, the predictable and business as usual, is safe…but not thrilling. Taking risks, going for it, and trusting the process are all key to evolving as an artist. I have an Eleanor Roosevelt quote on my Studio door: “Do one thing everyday that scares you”. Every artist should practice this mantra in their own work.

  16. Victor Anonsen on

    My daughter and I are building a website for creative writing using a similar concept. Called ‘tencil’, you make up or use a prompt of our creation then a timer begins…you have 10 minutes to write whatever you feel.
    The first few time we ‘played’ this we read our stories aloud to each other – very invigorating.
    Now we write them at the IOS app, post them to the site – or not if you don’t care to share. When posted readers can browse multiple tencils on the same starter sentence.
    At first I wasn’t sure I could write anything of value in just 10 minutes(plus an edit of + or – 20 characters) but now I look forward to the challenge. I am always surprised with where my mind takes me under the time constraint. A great way to start my creative day!

  17. I have an Airedale called Frankie. Several times she got into my paints—using my good rugs as her canvas. After reading this post I think I’ll try tying a brush to her tail and see what happens.

  18. I NEEDED THIS! I often think about the freedom with which I painted at age 15 and I want to toss everything I know out and just GO FOR IT! PUFF PAINT! I love this idea! Hahaha

  19. There is something so powerful about possibilities…… And seductive. I just had a 8×6 ‘ canvas delivered to my home….. It raises so many questions and challenges…. Size of tools and amount of paint and mediums. How to transport it. Wow! It is just so exciting thinking of the possibilities, my inner child (artist) demanded the opportunity or challenge… To go where no man has ever gone before, who can resist the call? Thank you Sarah and Robert for continuing the conversation, it has been an awesome gift.

  20. Extreme painting happens!

    I got so happy – profoundly happy – to finally be emotionally able to help the groups whose progress saved my children, after their Dad’s sudden and untimely death from the issue – with donated art from me, that one of the several california poppy paintings for the CA based group took me over and I splashed and daubed the COLORS on the claybord, in pure victory and rejoicing – and then worked out the composition! YES!!! Fortunately, you can DO that with claybord and its even art!

    Personally…everyone should do at last one extreme painting every spring! If art is life is art etc….. every spring , one extreme painting helps to say it!

    your fan, Elle

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I’m a contemporary painter who loves to travel the world over finding pictures to paint, and capture on photo…check out my website and travel with me on my blog “The Traveling Artist Blog.”  http://www.meljosieart.com