Yesterday afternoon, Franca Temujin wrote and asked, “Have you ever noticed that when you learn a new discipline — printmaking, sculpture, painting, etc., if you’re in the right frame of mind, you bring with you such freshness? How can we maintain that? That openness to new material — innocence — can it last forever?”
Thanks for that, Franca. Seasoned artists know this as not just a problem — it’s the main problem. As the pessimist said, “Everything palls, everything perishes, everything passes.” Remember well your first kiss, first sip of wine, first work in a new medium.
Some ideas on innocence and freshness can be found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. He talks about Right Practice, Right Attitude, Right Understanding, and other Buddhist basics. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” he says. This resonates with many artists. And so does its opposite. “In the beginner’s mind it’s all pretty simple, in the expert’s mind there are too many ways.” I’ve been marooned on both. A long time ago I set myself the task of finding a specific mindbender to deal with the problem.
Suspecting the value of wonder, I wondered if I could put myself fairly permanently in a state of wonder. Can I do this? How will it turn out? What miracle is this? This point of view, I thought, might be insurance for ongoing creation. With a little twist of an already twisted mind, the daily paint became itself a wonder — from the mystery of pigment to the wonder of canvas-carried forms. I realized that my daily work, even the day itself, had to be always reinvented. Dumb curiosity was the key.
Where curiosity stops, boredom begins. For me, boredom was deadly. Strokes, I found, could be all the same — or they could be all different. It was a matter of attitude. Mixtures could be deadly and predictable, or they could be laden with surprises. All subtle differences, all subtleties, had to march in the direction of chang — often minor, seemingly inconsequential change. It’s a bit like watching the growth and development of a child. In order to alert your creative soul to wonder, you need to be simple and keep your eyes wide open. As in a first kiss. It’s all a first kiss.
PS: “An artist must actively caress wonder: for fascination, like the desire to play, can be eradicated by the rigors of living.” (Eric Maisel)
Esoterica: “Wonder is the effect of novelty on ignorance,” said Samuel Johnson. Maintaining a sense of novelty is key to the creative process. Today, as you read this, I’m starting a two day workshop with what looks like 30 terrific painters. In my demos and crits I must remember not to reach always for my time-worn bag of tricks, but rather to feel in my deep soul that the best of art is experiment and invention. Life is experiment and invention. May the Goddess Muse give us all innocence. “I never get tired of the blue sky.” ( Vincent Van Gogh)
Don’t nail down the lid
by David Blanchard, Sunnyvale, CA, USA
We lose our fresh minds because experience teaches that most of those “infinite” possibilities we think we see at first are dead ends for our minds and talents at that time. The secret is to understand that our minds and talents change over time. When they do, some of those dead ends can breath again. Commit to seal the lid on the casket with non-permanent glue.
by Connie Powers, Silver City, NM, USA
Sophistication scares the wonder out of us. Cynicism downright annihilates it. Wonder leaves no room for meanness, for where wonder is, kindness is also. Wonder isn’t harsh, but as gentle as rain. Wonder isn’t critical and it has no sarcastic barbs with which to wound. Instead, it wounds us with beauty and leaves us with cherished wonder-scars upon our souls that we trace time and again with the fingertips of memory.
Look to infinity
by William Smith, Duluth, GA, USA
I once had a friend make a curious statement that “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Upon delving deeper he explained that “What we know about any thing, thought, discipline, condition or process is finite. What we don’t know is infinite.” There is simply no way to know everything about anything, much less everything. By looking into the infinity surrounding what we do, perhaps we’ll be faced with the surprise and wonder of new things found, fresh and fun.
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA
Just now working on a series of “my blue sky” paintings, I was struck by Vincent Van Gogh‘s statement, “I never get tired of the blue sky.” Our blue sky holds so much wonder and wondrous possibilities, pleasure and hope and freedom. It is open and large, all encompassing. It is Magic. Magnificence. Like living in God’s eyeball. We can’t help but look up at a blue sky. I remember my first kiss. Melting in wonder and disbelief and getting lost in an incredible blue sky!
Ways to freshness
by Dan McGrath, Lexington, KY, USA
As a perfectionist, I’m particularly struck by wanting every painting to be fresh like my best paintings of the past. I have found a few things which really turn me on: plein aire painting alone in an remote park, farm or stream is number one; painting with a small, fun group of painters outside or inside is another. Fortunately, these have not paled over time. My other tack is to remove obstacles to staleness, like following a process that works. Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff is a great book on this. For me it’s preliminary thumbnail drawings or monochrome value studies, then the real painting.
Newness from other artists
by Kathie Boissiere, Foster City, CA, USA
I’d like to say that sometimes another artist’s work can give you a new way of seeing or a new way of painting. I was feeling bored with my detailed watercolours after 30 years as a professional, when I discovered Skip Lawrence’s work in the quarterly magazine at Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff that Skip and Christopher Schink put together. Their vivid paintings and the magazine gave me a shot in the arm and I starting exploring a new way of painting with excitement! I suddenly had a new style and permission to choose simple subjects I love, and just to enjoy the medium in a new way.
Keep working on relationship
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I fall in love with a subject every time I work with people and a camera. I fall in love with my subject every time I find a new idea to paint and every time I work on a painting… It’s all a sensuous first kiss. The trick is to keep one’s self from becoming jaded, dull or insensitive. One has to keep working on the relationship, bring new ideas to the relationship, be open minded, experiment, allow the others to show you new things, do it in a different position. You’d think I was talking about my lover — well, I am. I love painting.
Kissed more than once
by Margot Comstock, Santa Rosa, CA, USA
In the summer of 1968, as an enthusiastic 20-something live-in acting student, I and a handful of students and instructors lingered over coffee at a big oak table at Hedgerow Theater School in Pennsylvania. We were talking over the day and listening to the contributions of Jasper Deeter, our premier teacher, founder of the school and of the first true repertory company in the U.S.
Jasper was then near 80, one side or the other, and in his last year of life, as it turned out. Over the years, he had directed scores of productions, and one of his favorites was Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. He had directed it several times, and one of those times, he had spent two years perfecting it.
Now, at this dinner table, he began to tell about a scene from The Seagull performed in class that day by a 16-year-old student. He was so excited, rapturous, about what she had done: she had found an approach, an aspect he had never thought of, and had performed it well. As this old man spoke, we heard and saw an artist in his prime, full of freshness, innocence, admiration, and joy.
Though I only knew Jasper Deeter for that one summer, he remains an inspiration. I believe he spent his life enjoying his first kiss over and over and over again.
by Karen Vande Vyvere, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I love life, and learning. I tend not to remember the first kiss, the first sip of wine etc. What I remember (at least when I am functioning at my best) is the last kiss. As I age, it becomes clearer how short the time here is, how much I want to see, feel, learn. I know well how things can change in an instant. So, when I want to maintain my wonder and gratitude, I remember that this last kiss, or brushstroke, or whatever, could be the final one I experience. Sounds gloomy — but it works for me. This awareness leaves me wanting to truly be awake to whatever experience is happening. What wonderful and precious moments I am having! It may be my last, so I must be present. Like the last line in your letter — “It’s all a first kiss” … especially the last one…
Value of eclecticism
by John Lincoln, Peterborough, UK
How do I achieve that feeling of first kiss freshness you referred to? Well that’s where being an eclectic comes in useful. I, like most artists, will have a number of projects ‘on the go’ at the same time. Each will be approached by my response to the subject and its relationship to the medium and technique employed. To do this requires thinking and feeling about the subject and the technique anew each time. It means I have to switch radically from one to the other and this invariably results in a new way of thinking, feeling and working. The challenge can be quite formidable and I fail often, but each failure is a learning process.
Challenge to rediscover
by Deborah Droog, Evington, VA, USA
Painting has become a job, a task, no longer the wonder of creation to me. Paint this eye, paint this lip… and so on. The magic of wonder is gone. As I think about this I now see that this is why I have gravitated to the computer. The sense of discovery and wonder is still in Photoshop. There are countless ways to achieve the same effect with innumerable surprises on the way.
The task of painting has overshadowed the mystery and wonder for me. I have a dead commission on the easel and I will take your advice and put myself in a state of wonder. This I can do. I found the way to escape into a creative mind state in graduate school when I had to do countless renderings in watercolor on a daily basis — not because I wanted to. I would escape into different types of blaring music to match the theme of the assignment. I also kept an open can of turpentine on the drawing table to stimulate yet another sense. I had no option at the time and of course now I do. I will take on the challenge to rediscover the painter in me.
by Jeanne Rhea, Raleigh, NC, USA
After re-reading what your correspondent wrote, I’m sure you can see why you are so good at what you do. She asked for advice, but you just gave her your experience. She can take what you offered and apply it to her life or continue with the same struggle. So many times we need to choose our approach to life and art and no one can do it for us. It is much easier when we step back and look at it from someone else’s eyes. I suspect that as soon as she read what you wrote, she chose to pick up her pens and pencils and her drawing has never been so free. I know it made a difference in my day and I can hardly wait to get started.
Process produces wonder
by Margaret Stone, Panama City Beach, FL, USA
To be in a constant state of wonder? A state of wonder is a state of mind and the very process can put one in this place because no two strokes are every time the same. Perhaps it is the follow through on a what-if state of being and the freshness of the result. I push the envelope on wonder by the process I use — bowls of acrylic color, some thin some thick, are poured onto a surface. I tilt the surface up and down and side to side as colors merge and sometimes fall over the edges. When dry I repeat that process and sometimes splash, sometimes drip, sometimes brush. The paint manipulates me, in some sense, because I follow the images that begin to immerge in the process. My sense of wonder is always evoked by the marriage of process with my inner mythology. Each piece created whether good, better, less than, or best, is at that moment in time a “first,” a new adventure.
by James Kay, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
The satisfaction of seeing a project completed can, of itself, bring freshness to your attitude and your work. Case in point; the piece TWO was started 11/01/03 and completed 01/20/04. I have the original pencil sketch of the piece that is over 30 years old. Family and job responsibilities, and two false starts, delayed the idea for years. (Several smaller bronzes demanded time also.) After the piece was completed, I saw an article in Sculptural Pursuit magazine by Cindy Rold. She said, “A goal without a deadline, is a wish.” How true! Self-imposed deadlines will provide the momentum to push you on regardless of how you “feel about the day.” Completion of a piece brings with it a certain satisfaction, no matter how long it takes. It frees your mind to move on to other works you have envisioned. It is interesting how some pieces will not leave your mind until you respond to them. In a previous letter you used a quote by Jean Rousseau, “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” Trust your vision!
Gates, umbrellas and crackers
by Jan Woodford, Florence, OR, USA
Thank you for telling us about the Crackers of Chris and Jane. What lucky children Henry and Eli are, to have parents who come up with innovative family projects like this. I don’t know if it is art, but it is certainly fun, and done with great humor, and I applaud their efforts.
I have been following the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude since their Umbrella Project in Southern California. I was attending art classes at California State University at Northridge, and one evening our teacher took the whole class to hear Christo speak at another college. I was exposed to new ideas that evening, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the proposed project. However, once the Umbrellas were up, my husband and I and another couple drove out to Gorman one Sunday. My husband and John’s wife were “non-artists,” but tried to be tolerant of their spouses’ whims. I don’t think either of them thought they would like the Umbrellas, and I wasn’t sure, myself. I just had to satisfy my curiosity.
When we arrived and got out of the car, John’s wife looked around, took a deep breath, and said, “This ~ is great!” I couldn’t have said it better. In a little pond of collected rainwater, yellow umbrellas sprouted right out of the water. There were yellow umbrellas growing on all the hills, as far as the eye could see. They seemed to be planted haphazardly, after the manner of wildflowers. I know from his lecture, that Christo chose the location of each umbrella himself. Everywhere you looked, yellow umbrellas grew. All four of us had a wonderful afternoon, walking among the Umbrellas, and I feel fortunate that I had a chance to experience this art form. It had to be experienced to be appreciated. I envy those who live near enough to see their new project, The Gates.
by Meg Lauder, Vancouver, BC, Canada
On the matter of gurus — life seems to present an endless stream of them. One needs to just pay attention. Early one winter morning, waiting for a bus, a shabby fellow came up to me and bummed a cigarette. I even lit it for him. He sat down and told me a story that I needed to hear. He said, “What a great day.” Ya sure, I thought, it’s snowing, I’m cold, and on the way to work. Then he pointed to the sky over the little park across the street, “Wow, look at that sky, and can you hear the birds waking up and singing? They seem so happy to see the sun.” I blew on my hands and was non-committal. Then he told me, “I have two dollars.” Here it comes I thought. He told me that he knew a place he could get breakfast — coffee, toast, 2 eggs and 2 slices of ham this thick. Then he shuffled off. On the bus I realized what a great day it was, things came more into perspective and made me wonder how much I’ve missed by being tied up in my own little world, when the world had so much to offer.
(RG note) I also followed such a street person who was talking to herself. I recorded what she had to say and turned it into a small book, The Dreamway (available for free download).
oil on linen painting
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, 2005.
That includes Richard S. Smith who wrote, “An old time shooter I used to work with used to tell me, “When you become successful, it becomes a job.” And also Linda Moran, Tucson, Arizona who wrote, “We were having a bad time marbleing and we found it was just a bad batch of synthrapol which we use to pretreat all our fabric.”