Fast and slow

Dear Artist, The world is divided into two main kinds of people — those who divide the world into two main kinds of people, and those who do not. Among those who do, some divide the world into the skeptical and the gullible. Apparently the skeptical are happier than the gullible because their outcomes are often better than expected. Some people divide the world into optimists and pessimists. Pessimists, it’s been noted, are optimists with better information. Then we have the slow thinkers and the fast thinkers. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a new book that takes a look at human decision-making. A catalogue of psychological experiments showing the pitfalls of fast decision making, it also shows the problems that arise when we belabour our decisions. It turns out people are pretty confused. Every human, he says, has two systems. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and makes a lot of mistakes. System 2 is slow, deliberate, and less prone to error. Kahneman applies his observations to the follies of personal money management, economics, and other fields. I couldn’t help applying his findings to how we make art. As everyone knows, some of us are slow painters and some among us are fast. Just out of interest, it’s always been curious to me that the work of slow painters can look like it was done quickly, while the work of fast painters can look like it was done mighty slow. Being aware of the pitfalls of fast and slow, how do we extract the best quality work from our flawed psyches? The answer lies in balance. There’s a time for speed and there’s a time to go slow, and the evolved artist knows when. “Jump right in and get on with it,” as I’ve often recommended for an early morning pump-primer, may not be suitable when you come to a difficult passage after your second coffee. For example, I can find no way to paint hands and faces quickly, though I often go to a lot of trouble to make it look like I can. Artists need to understand the potential weaknesses of quick decisions and at the same time realize that spontaneity and even impatience are assets. In the end, the great work is done by long-term focus. As in finance, the hottest deals may be the ones that take longest to come to boil. Best regards, Robert PS: “One of the major biases in risky decision making is optimism. Optimism is a source of high-risk thinking.” (Daniel Kahneman) Esoterica: The popular idea of taking risks is countered by the proliferation of poor outcomes. This is evident every day in investment, relationships, art. No dentist would jump right into a root canal without first taking the root-canal course. No mechanic would take the head off a Jaguar without a fair degree of Jaguar experience. No investor would buy a stock without checking to see if it’s run by bums. If you wish to produce quality art, find out how it’s made, keep a close watch on your optimism, and balance your speed.   Big and small decisions by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“A View off Dorman”
original painting
by Michael Epp

Kahneman is one of the big favourites of my favourite thinker, Nassim Taleb The Black Swan. I haven’t read him directly but I think I will dig into him a bit now that he has appeared in your illustrious letter. What your writing really made me think of, though, was Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, where he ended up concluding that big decisions — who to marry, say — can, it seems, be made in the blink of an eye (the phenomenon of love at first sight), but small decisions, like which car to buy, often seem to benefit from slow, diligent, patient, laborious processes. I wonder if something like this is applicable in painting — the ‘blink’ moment is the big picture — when we see a composition across a room and immediately recognize a wonderful work — whereas when we get close, we see the small, individual brushstrokes, each one obviously carefully considered and laboured over. There are 4 comments for Big and small decisions by Michael Epp
From: Anon — Nov 13, 2011

I love your painting.

From: Arlene Laskey — Nov 13, 2011

A View off Dorman is beautifully composed and painted. It sings a magical song.

From: Arlene — Nov 13, 2011

Your comments are aptly illustrated by the image you posted.

From: a yankee — Nov 15, 2011

I too,like your painting…

  The potter’s tale by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Apples in the Morning Sun”
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Diane Overmyer

A pottery teacher divided his advanced pottery class in half. He was allowing them to work independently for the semester. He gave instructions to the first half of the class to make the best piece of pottery on the wheel that they possibly could and to turn in the top piece for their final grade. He gave the second half of the class instructions to make the most pottery that they possibly could and the entire body work would be considered for a final grade. At the end of the semester the students who were instructed to produce the most and not worry about coming up with “the one best piece” ended up also producing the highest quality work. That little story has stuck with me and always helped me to continue to work in volume and it is amazing that the more time spent in front of my easel simply adds up to better paintings. There are 3 comments for The potter’s tale by Diane Overmyer
From: Anonymous — Nov 11, 2011

Love your Apples in the Morning Sun; colours and depth wonderful.

From: Sarah — Nov 12, 2011

What a beautiful work, and I loved your story.

From: S. Indiana — Nov 15, 2011

Like all your work…

  Support body, not mind by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA  

collage artwork
by Haim Mizrahi

Fast and slow has nothing to do with speed. So what is the point you were trying to make? If you start something, then finish it. Let me share with you something about speed and quantity without guilt. One needs to establish all preparations prior to entering the studio, one needs to respect time, one needs to create an attitude that will serve as a technique in itself, i.e. the hard part is not to paint but to keep a straight face through the process. Conviction is not a holy sacred ground; it is an open field for everyone to share. So how much one is willing to risk will determine the quality regardless of quantity. And that is to say, finding out who you are through all the uncontrollable scenarios that cross our paths, psychologically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, create an attitude in place that will support what your body wants to do, not your mind. There is 1 comment for Support body, not mind by Haim Mizrahi
From: Anonymous — Nov 15, 2011

I wonder,on a sunny morning,did Monet consider all of that,before painting??

  Slow is the way to go by Beth Winfield, Sacramento, CA, USA  

“Under Tuscon Trees”
original painting
by Beth Winfield

Lately I’ve found being hesitant and following my gut instincts are paying off. My first initial instinct is to go for it and be a risk taker. But, I usually stop and really analyze the situation. I do get frustrated and somewhat confused. There is always something that doesn’t feel just right that stops me from jumping into the situation. That’s when I slow down and really think about it. When it comes to painting, this can be frustrating. I just want to go and “get her done.” But taking the time to get the stroke right or color notes right is worth the wait. It can also mean something is wrong with the composition or structure and I just draw it out and start over. I’ve always considered myself an optimist but maybe I’m more of a pessimist than I think. My outcomes have been better than expected lately. And, maybe if I go even slower I can get looser with my strokes. Slow is the way to go for a happy artistic life. This article frees you up from feeling you need to get paintings done faster and produce.   Think first, then act by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA  

“Laguna Beach Break”
oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Carol Mayne

I’m one of those ‘dividers of the world’ — those who either eat one piece of popcorn at a time, or those who shovel it in by the handful, and a subcategory of people who have children and people who don’t… but back to the art… Someone said it best: ”Fail to plan, or plan to fail.’ Seems to cover the bases in artistic endeavors; rarely (but not, never) do we find lasting evidence of quality that doesn’t have a deep level work, intention, and vision behind it. Thinking deeply first, seems to allow you to act quickly in most things! There is 1 comment for Think first, then act by Carol Mayne
From: Sarah — Nov 14, 2011

I love your painting! I can almost feel the ocean breeze, the noisy seagulls,and hear the flutter of the flag blowing in the wind. You have added just enough detail and color. Did I say I love it???

  Your own creative speed by Melinda Bula, El Dorado Hills, CA, USA  

“Monterey at dusk”
quilt by Melinda Bula

I have been teaching my art around the world from Sacramento to Ireland and I find one comment that comes up at the beginning of every class. “I just need to let you know that I am really slow,” with the look of shame in their eyes. So before every class I talk about “Your Own Creative Speed.” Your post about Fast and Slow was great and timely. Who said fast was good? Go at your own pace. That’s when we are the most open to push out our creativity. Thank you for the words today. I guess I am on the right track. There is 1 comment for Your own creative speed by Melinda Bula
From: Suzette Fram — Nov 11, 2011

Melinda, your quilt is beautiful. I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into that.

  Fast takes a long time by Daisy de Puthod, Hudson Valley, NY, USA  

“Pedro blue”
original painting
by Daisy de Puthod

To become a good fast painter, it takes a very long time, years of practice. There is still a lot of thinking and measuring and accuracy; your hand may move quickly but the high level of concentration almost slows time as in a slow moving film. John Singer Sargent kept starting paintings and wiping them down, starting again until he got it right. But I’m sure he did this very quickly, with a quick hand. I’m a quick painter — when people watch me and ask how long it took to do, I don’t answer 20 minutes but I answer 35 years. Sometimes slow painters take forever on one area of a painting only to notice later that this area is not working with the “whole” painting. There is 1 comment for Fast takes a long time by Daisy de Puthod
From: Sarah — Nov 12, 2011

I think you nailed it.

  The wisdom of optimism by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA  

original painting
by Gwen Fox

Fast/Slow…. Optimist/Pessimist… in art it also comes down to “painting from control to chaos or from chaos to control.” In either situation the artist must think. Sometimes we find this odd as there is a concept floating around that if you are a true artist the painting flows from you as if you were Houdini. In reality the artist must “think” and think a lot. If a painting is to be successful there are many decisions that must be made for this to happen. I personally paint from control (thumbnail sketch) to chaos and back to control. It is during the thumbnail stage and control stage that big decisions are made. It is actually a fabulous process as it allows the brain to be satisfied with each side being tested. As to being an optimist or pessimist while painting, I think we all start out an optimist but if decisions are not made up front about design and color palette the pessimist sneaks in and controls the brain. Give me an optimist artist any day as they are open to learn from their mistakes, plus they have a lot more fun. There are 4 comments for The wisdom of optimism by Gwen Fox
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Nov 10, 2011

I LOVE this painting! Love th colors, the combination of them, the flow – mm-mmm-MMM!

From: Casey Craig — Nov 11, 2011

NICE painting Gwen!!

From: Suzette Fram — Nov 11, 2011

Lovely, vibrant, energetic painting!!

From: Anon — Nov 13, 2011

I like your colors, and your thoughts on control and chaos too.

  Spread the masters to the people by Kristin Ellstrom, Spain  

mixed media painting
by Kristin Ellstrom

I grew up in family with no resources for culture, and work took all their time. As a child I was left alone, locked in the house with little to do other than look at the walls. To my great luck my dad had bought “a real oil painting” for nearly nothing from an artist (at a price of the canvas and paints itself). It was an exercise, a copy of a Swedish quite well known romantic painting with horses in a landscape. It made my day. In fact it made more… it made my life in some sense. After my granddad died I was surprised to inherit the oil painting. He had insisted I should get it. Apparently I was mesmerized by it when little. I must have been very little… our relation went sour when I was a toddler, and we hardly had contact from my 6th to my 18 birthday, and since I lived in other countries I wasn’t seeing him in his place. This one is a copy of a painting from the Norwegian National Gallery by two famous painters who collaborated in landscape and folklore painting. It’s a wedding party on a boat on a fjord. It’s beautiful for a child – one of the rocks looks a bit like a dog (that’s not so in the original) and at first glance I would say it honors the painters of the original. I say spread the masters to the people.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Fast and slow

From: Susan Holland — Nov 07, 2011

Fast and slow art making: I think it’s important to pursue both, and with a vigor! Vigorously sketch! Do 30 second sketches while watching tv. Do 1 minute sketches while sitting at a park bench. Force yourself to choose moving targets. These exercises will force your eye to see the primary shape of things, and to see also what it is that brought you to the subject. You will learn about your own perceptions, and you will train your hand to be an extension of your eye this way. Slow down intentionally and force yourself to render a detailed drawing of your “other” hand now and then. Don’t put it aside before it is really poppingly realistic. Choose a really difficult perspective to stretch your right brain! When you come to your main event, you will have put some stretch and spring into your way of seeing things and you will see the difference. Really! It does work.

From: Rene — Nov 08, 2011

Everyone has a predetermined rhythm, tempo and timing. You can’t change it. You were born that way so live with it and move on.

From: Carole Mayne — Nov 08, 2011

Yes, I’m one of those ‘dividers of the world’ –those who either eat one piece of popcorn at a time, or those who shovel it in by the handful, and a subcategory of people who have children and people who don’t.. but back to the art..Someone said it best: ”Fail to plan, or plan to fail”. Seems to cover the bases in artistic endeavors; rarely (but not, never) do we find lasting evidence of quality that doesn’t have a deep level work, intention, and vision behind it. Thinking deeply first, seems to allow you to act quickly in most things!

From: Melinda Bula — Nov 08, 2011

I have been teaching my art around the country from Sacramento to Ireland and I find one comment that comes up at the beginning of every class. “I just need to let you know that I am really slow,” with the look of shame in their eyes. So before every class I talk about Your Own Creative Speed. Your post about Fast and Slow was great and timely. Who said fast was good? Go at your own pace. That’s when we are the most open to push out our creativity. Thank you for the words today. I guess I am on the right track.

From: Deborah Strong — Nov 08, 2011

This letter made me reflect on the question I am often asked at art fairs and exhibitions: “How long did this painting/drawing take to make?” I never know how to answer. Do I count the umpteen years I’ve spent mastering my craft, the months I spent stewing over the particular concept/composition, the days spent fine-tuning the idea, or the hours taken to actually execute it? It may have been one of those paintings that flowed magically off the brush in what felt like moments, or a drawing that was laboured over for seeming eternity. But why does it even matter to the observer? Why are people hung up on time anyway? It should be the outcome that counts. In my experience, good art is always a combination of laboured intention and fleeting impulse.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Nov 08, 2011

Thinking fast and maintaining focus is easier if you bypass your emotions. Many physicists, mathematicians and economists have figured that out, i.e. the young Einstein and others.

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Nov 08, 2011

As in all aspects of life, balance is the key. A good piece of music has fast and slow, forte and pianissimo passages. Flamboyancy needs a solid foundation.

From: Bev Bunker — Nov 08, 2011

A very timely article for me Robert! I just finished doing a painting which took me two weeks partly because there was a child (hands, arm, head) and a horse (head in particular) in the image. The background didn’t take more than a few hours, but the rest took a week and a half! I wanted to get the forms down as carefully as I could but having it look like I didn’t labor over it, since the piece is a donation for an Equestrian Center having a fund-raiser. Its likely that people going there know something about the main focus, probably more than I do. I spent a lot of time this past year doing fast and furious smaller pieces. This was good since I felt I needed something to make me make decisions quicker in laying down shapes, values, and color. Plein air worked for me to help accomplish this process, but back in the studio I do slow down and think through my processes. You are right, it is finding the right balance. Inspiration is the first part for me, then getting that down on canvas the way I envision it is the process. Fast or slow, its completed when its done….I just know when that is.

From: Kathy Howard — Nov 08, 2011

This article is especially timely for me. I have been agonizing about a plein air piece I submitted along with another painting, for a juried show. I started to worry that they would be able to see right through the fact that I did no thumbnail, no value study, just dragging my stuff onto the beach to paint some beautiful weeds, which took about 2 hours. I’ll be darned if they did not pick the plein air piece! After reading some posts, now I realize that I had been studying those weeds every day for about a week before I painted them. I love Carol’s thoughts on this, “Thinking deeply first, seems to allow you to act quickly in most things!”, these word seem to wrap up the subject nicely!

From: Melissa B. Tubbs — Nov 09, 2011

There is a reason why hard work and perseverance are the mainstays of being an artist. While we would all like things to go a little faster, that is when many mistakes are made. I think the tendency to, at times, go too fast is exacerbated by our current culture of instant gratification.

From: Tim Yeung — Nov 09, 2011

Slow painters have trouble when it comes to establishing dealer relations, sales, etc. Volume and productivity are vital to creating a market.

From: Edgar Washington — Nov 09, 2011
From: Bobbo Goldberg — Nov 09, 2011
From: Patricia Morrison — Nov 09, 2011
From: Doreen St John — Nov 09, 2011
From: Judith Sloan — Nov 09, 2011

I am not a painter..I am a hand weaver. Thank you so much for these exceptional newsletters. I rarely read one that does not contain something that I try and apply to my work process. They always manage to validate something that I am struggling with.

From: Bryan H. Massam — Nov 09, 2011
From: Penelope Phillips — Nov 09, 2011

As a watercolorist who delights in subjects in action, I have to act quickly when I spot a promising subject–so I usually take a few snapshots, as well as an occasional video. From there, the challenge is to simulate the gesture, which I do with rapid sketches. Once the composition is determined, I complete the background, and often the foreground, as simply as possible, within the parameters of drying time for successive washes. From there on in, though, the devil is in the details.

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 09, 2011

Everyone has their own pace. This pace isn’t an issue when it comes to creating artwork except, of course, if you are an Illustrator under a dealine with your editor. There aren’t too many of those anymore. Nowadays deadlines come part and parcel with industry artists; those still working for the studios in animation. Whether fast or slow, the results are what ultimately matter. I personally like the “dashed off” look even thought I know from experience that this “look” can take weeks, even months to achieve. A good work should look effortless no matter the time it took to paint it. I never want to see the labor behind a good work.

From: Frank Francis — Nov 09, 2011

One has to compare the slow methodical way of putting things down, looking at the with rag in hand, wiping off and then repeating the operation, generally in one limited spot until the right stroke is formed, with the energetic, here, there, all over the place energy that sees a work materialize holistically.

From: Jackie Knott — Nov 10, 2011

Those rare paintings I was able to complete quickly were prefaced with weeks of contemplation about them – the subject, the composition, how I wanted to handle the light, what to edit, alter, etc. Those I agonized over for too long I did not give the same consideration and study to, thinking they were one of those “ready mades” and I could just paint what is in front of me. No. Then I found myself correcting decisions mid-painting that should have been resolved before I ever started it. The final product was mediocre. I am in the midst of such a situation right now and I should know better after painting this long. I think I’m annoyed at my limited output and wanted to rush that which can’t be rushed. Slow down, work out the problems with a good plan, then paint it.

From: Kathryn Townsend — Nov 10, 2011

Why does it have to be fast or slow? When my daughter was learning the violin, her teacher told her to practice a piece faster than it should be played and slower. That has always stuck with me with respect to painting and it makes sense, because different mental/physical processes are called up. When I am in the painting doldrums, I set the timer for 15 or 30 minutes and do 6 paintings in two or three hours. That gets the blood moving, shows me what I know without thought, unshackles me from perfection, and its really fun. When I want to focus on some aspect of painting, I go slow and allow myself to go past the point where I might quit in frustration–to really figure it out, to do it thoughtfully–to bring to bear what I know and set it in my mind. I say do both.

From: Robin Shillcock — Nov 12, 2011

We can also divide scientists into two main kinds, those that waste time and money on silly research and those that don’t. I don’t believe human psyche can be divided into two “systems”. I’m no scientist so my opinion is probably worth absolutely zilch. Who cares about systems? Are we so afraid of just letting ourselves run a course that feels natural that we need science to help focus? There are pitfalls everywhere, no matter what system we believe we’re in. Art is full of pitfalls, sometimes necessitating quick decisions, sometimes slow. If that’s “confused” I’m OK with that. I’ve read in Time magazine that another sociologist’s research showed that people wanting to buy a house took better decisions if they had less information than those that belaboured their decision by going through reams and reams of information. It means that gut decisions may be what is good at the time, and so I prefer to go with the gut when painting. I can, however, go along with Kahneman’s theory that “Optimism is a source of high-risk thinking”, proven by the grand cock-ups in the US banking system as well as just about every war the US has undertaken since World War II. But that is a different story and more than a step away from the making of art.

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Cotton Fields at Dusk

oil painting 9 x 12 inches Brenda Behr, NC, USA

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