Kindling the flame

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Nancy Holloway of Lexington, Kentucky wrote, “The art instructor in Noah Gordon’s novel, Shaman, says about his student, ‘He was too literal. He lacked the vital imagination, the misty vision. He had the heat but lacked the flame.’ For those of us who may lack the ‘vital imagination, the misty vision, the flame,’ is there any way to cultivate this, or is it a matter of some have it and some don’t?” Thanks, Nancy. I used to think folks were either born with it or not born with it. Some are, of course, and that’s handy, but I now know the flame can also be self-lit. For the lukewarm and the not-so-hots who would like to feel more fire in their bellies, there are ploys: Increase levels of observation and appreciation: This is a general habit based on an agnostic approach to the world. Be not satisfied with pat answers and simplistic solutions. The world is remarkably diverse, complex, fascinating and chronically in need of questioning. Questions, while never fully answered, turn observations into opportunities. The fire we desire burns brighter with the fuel of opportunity. Opportunity also requires that we dig down deeper for knowledge, technique and craft. Be again a child: To fan the imagination and vision we need to see the world “baby eyes new.” With this perspective, childlike appreciation arises and so does our natural compulsion to collect our winners. Spirits that burn bright love to collect what they do. Try to improve work habits: We’re all different, but we all need to fine-tune our work methods. This requires self-understanding, trial and error, and habit control. To become efficient in our work is ambition enough. Immutable laws govern productivity and growth: Boldness and audacity stamp out weakness and disgruntlement. To be enthusiastic we need to act enthusiastically. We are engines of unknown capacity that need to be regularly test-revved. The fire that propels our stars will be found in the meat and potatoes of our work. It is work that builds the imagination. Ideas breed. Creativity grows. Fire burns.

“The Lichen Boulder”
acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Robert Genn

Best regards, Robert PS: “Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) Esoterica: I found a two-ton rock high on a mountain pass — one among many thousands tumbled from ice-age glaciers. The rock bore three distinct lichens — a crustose black one, a foliose grey-green one, and a circular, floriated orange one. The orange one, Xanthoria elegans, is used in lichenometry to determine the ages of things. Curiously, this lichen begins its long life when a bird has perched and left its nutrient. Perhaps, in this case, it was an extinct relative of the golden eagles that soared above. I decided to make this rock my own — to possess it. Were my eyes the only human ones to settle on this weathered granite? What a miracle to take it home in a small wooden box.   The fine art of making mistakes by Lee Fritch, Signal Mountain, Tennessee, USA  

“Cairo WV Bank”
oil painting
by Lee Fritch

Courage plays a large part. People hate to fail. Starting to be a painter is not for the faint at heart. I have had students with high level, demanding occupations who physically trembled and hesitated to touch a fresh piece of expensive paper with the brush. It is guaranteed that when you are learning to paint there will be plenty of mistakes. Fear of that is an absolute barrier to learning and staying the course. The Flame goes out. Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman’s mentor told him… “Bob, if you want to be an artist, you have to make 3,000 mistakes. Get out and start making them!”       Getting rocks off the mountains by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA  

acrylic on 12 8 x 8 inch canvases
by B.J. Adams

Taking home your two ton rock with the colorful lichens in a small box, must have either been a completed painting of the rock or, the small box is your memory and it grabs images so completely you can repeat the images at home. Or, the small box was your camera? Would love to have your explanation of not using a crane and truck to pick up and transport the boulder? (RG note) Thanks, B.J. Sorry about that. Several subscribers didn’t pick up on the allusion. I painted the rock on the spot and brought it home in a box in the way a fisherman might bring a fish home in a creel. There are 2 comments for Getting rocks off the mountains by B.J. Adams
From: Nancy — Jul 17, 2012

I liked using my imagination about what you said instead of the explanation – I think that explains exactly what you were talking about!

From: Suzette Fram — Jul 17, 2012


  What about the money? by Ewald Spitz, Dresden, Germany   Van Gogh, while one of the most idealistic of men, would have loved to see some sort of financial reward for all the effort he put in. He died with the knowledge that his work was not of sufficient quality for anyone (beside his brother) to want to purchase. Monetary reward is a kind of validation that many artists deny, and can be, as much as anything, a fanner of the flame. There is 1 comment for What about the money? by Ewald Spitz
From: Mike Barr — Jul 16, 2012

I totally agree Ewald. Many artists remain in the starving category because they do not see the value in being rewarded in a monetary sense. For me works that are completed only to be shelved or have limited appeal have missed the mark. For many of us, selling a work is part of the whole process of painting. There is a fulfilment, not only in a monetary sense, when a work finds a home and is cherished by someone and perhaps enjoyed for generations to come.

  Daring to jump by Paul Corby, Toronto, Ontario, Canada   Artists should be sure to have a little Evel Knievel handy. Strength of will, trust in the original idea, heartbreak and a familiarity with struggle. As you know, “To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not — there is no weakness in that. (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband) There is 1 comment for Daring to jump by Paul Corby
From: Rose — Jul 17, 2012

I will remember that…thank you.

  The power of Nature by Mark Brennan, Whitehill, Nova Scotia, Canada  

“Outflow, Dayspring Lake, NS”
oil painting, 6 x 8 inches
by Mark Brennan

Robert, that was your best twice-weekly letter yet! The question is how to keep this ‘wonder.’ Many of us wander through life zombie-like, letting our perception run skin deep. Awareness is in the ‘now’ — it’s why I love to spend time in nature. There is beauty in the simplest things, the droplet of water, the sound of wind through a Pine bough, the smell of the forest after rain. If we want to see like a child, we must strip ourselves of grown up ideas and ideals, understanding that conformity to how we are ‘supposed’ to live is the destroyer of souls. We can find motivation for this in the knowledge and gift in knowing deep down that our time here, as a conscious being, alive, is finite, and embrace it with all the energy, passion and joy we can muster. (RG note) Thanks, Mark. Every time a letter goes out someone writes and says that one was the best one yet, and someone else writes and says that was the worst piece of hokum, baloney, nonsense, etc. Curious. Incidentally I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on Nature.   Small bold habits by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Time to come in – Goolwa”
acrylic painting
by Mike Barr

I firmly believe that a bit of boldness can ignite the flame. Firstly, it is easy to regard every canvas we put our brush to as being sacred and as a consequence it becomes the master. Painting a lot of small canvases with the attitude that we are the boss and this canvas just may well turn out to be a practice piece will loosen us up. Draw with the brush not a pencil and hold the brush at its end. It is amazing how this works and helps release us from pencil lines that can stunt the painting process. Use bigger brushes or try just using one big brush to do the whole painting will help from becoming to finicky. Leave in the bold brush marks, they will have an energy of 1000 little dabs! Use a limited palette too; it will bind together the whole work. Put a time limit on the small works — say 20 minutes; it’s surprising what can be achieved in that time. We may not paint in this free way all the time, but to do so regularly as practice is a joy that cannot be felt in the most contrived works and will most likely kindle or rekindle the flame of artistic passion.   Young minds rekindle the joy by Lillian E Walsh, New York, USA   Earlier this summer, a few artists from my local Colonie Art Society (Albany County, NY) determined to spread the world of art a bit further. We had solicited about 20 children ages 8-12 years to assemble for morning one week in June. They did not have to have any talent (who knew) or experience, except for the smattering of art classes offered in their schools. Each day when the ‘new artists’ arrived, different materials were presented. Drawing, colored pencil, watercolors, water-based oils/acrylics, and collage were the subjects. Each day had a different artist explaining and getting the artists there to experiment. A short demo of the ideas was presented, and pictures to use as ‘subjects’ as well as ‘from your own experiences’ were available to work on. It was amazing what each new artist found within themselves to express on the paper supplied. Some new artists showed aptitude in more than one area, but by the end of the week, we had a wonderful art gallery hung around the old barn we used as the ‘studio’. What budding artists we had helped to venture forth. It was a good feeling received, when for a bit of time offered and the choices of the children to come to these days of making art, so much has been garnered in our area. Perhaps we have budded a future that will bring such beauty to our world. I am a bit overwhelmed each time I relive those days. It makes me a better artist when I go to my studio and start to play and create. Those young minds rekindled my joy in my art. Life goes on and I hope that whatever we were able to give them, was a mustard seed for life and art beginnings!   Inspired by great ideas by Lynne Schulte LaValley  

Lynne’s mobile panel holder

To Robert Genn and Carol Marine: Since you both inspire me, I thought you would be interested in knowing how I modified Carol’s panel holder with Robert’s idea to be a steering wheel easel.

Robert’s steering wheel easel

I bought both small and larger panel holders. I drilled holes in the panel holders and got 2 machine screws, 4 washers, and 2 wing nuts for each. Threaded it through and bingo! A removable effective steering wheel holder for panels. I put a drawing board over the center console to hold the palette and had a cardboard box on the passenger’s seat with extra tubes and brushes. On my recent trip to Maine, I had no excuses and did three paintings the first day in the rain and cold wind in comfort. I had to draw the line at heavy rain. Couldn’t see out the window! There is 1 comment for Inspired by great ideas by Lynne Schulte LaValley
From: Liz Reday — Jul 18, 2012

This kind of idea really appeals to me! I love painting from my car, though usually I open up the hatch back, drape a blanket or towel over the top for shade and have my pochade box, turps and paint set up right in the back of the car. This is especially handy for quick change of location. I did once get reprimanded by a policeman because I was parked backward on the street so that I could take advantage of the shade. I look forward to trying the steering wheel easel.

  On the value of the responses by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany  

oil painting
by Faith Puleston

I laughed so much about the ionic spray this morning! I believe most of your readers do not cotton on that you are often tongue in cheek about what you write. You’ll probably get a flood of letters and comments about how to cleanse one’s studio. I can’t wait…. Without wanting to be offensive, I have to say that the reactions — certainly the instant comments — are way off track for the most part, if not plain balls. I’m trying to figure out the reason for this. Is it that some have profile neuroses? Want to be noticed at all costs? Want to plug their own wares? Haven’t understood the content of your letter? I can’t believe that none of those hyper-virtuous ‘artists’ portraying themselves in the previous clickback on copying do not refer to other people’s work for advice and inspiration. Are they really all such paragons (of virtue)? Or do they have selective amnesia? A recent example of the hysteria: Nobody is going to believe that a “Magritte” hanging in a suburban parlour is genuine, so what’s the problem? Why not support an ‘artist’ by commissioning him to produce a copy rather than buy a poster? It will only be a copy and not a forgery, unless the artist is skilled enough to work to perfection AND signs it as the original artist AND says it’s his own, genuine, unadulterated, original work? But then he’d be somewhere else, wouldn’t he? We will never know how many artworks were signed by painters who didn’t actually paint them. The really skillful forger can fool even the best experts — it’s done all the time. Now and again the ‘experts’ discover a fake. The rest slip through the net. And even now there are schools of painting where super successful artists employ assistants to do the practical work while they deal with the marketing (of themselves). The hysteria about copying also makes me wonder how naive the law-makers actually are. Someone with the avowed intention of making money on a fake (in music, art, literature, furnishings….) is also skillful in the art of camouflage. Of course, wholesale copying of DVDs etc. is a criminal offence. Of course it’s a crime to steal someone else’s work and make pots of money on it. In Germany there has been quite a lot of fuss and bother about faked PhD theses, usually works containing huge chunks of other people’s research. These fake Doctors (and there are plenty about all over the world, who only bought the title from an enterprising organization and didn’t work for it, or were even awarded one as a prize for certain — even non-related achievements) — the most famous case here being a government minister with an aristocratic background — had to resign and lost their title after the facts came to light. When you realize that those theses have ostensibly been mentored, read and judged by academics it’s even more incredible how the perpetrators got away with it. And most of them do get away with it, as the minister tried to on the basis of being aristocratic and therefore automatically above reproach, but didn’t. I believe he’s now lecturing in the USA. Some people really fall on their feet. Finally, my daughter-in-law has a quarter-sized Cézanne hanging in her kitchen, painted by me from a photo in the catalogue in memory of the exhibition she curated during an internship at a museum in Essen, Germany. I didn’t ask her which one I should have a go at, but when I gave it her she wanted to know how I knew that it was her favourite of all the paintings she had helped to hang. Now I wish I’d painted it bigger, but anyone looking at it would not be fooled into thinking it was a Cézanne… Oh, and my daughter has a chunk of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on her wall. (RG note) Thanks, Faith. We’re interested in what you and other readers say about the live and featured comments. As many of our readers may suspect, we sometimes add letters from this inbox to the live comments. Frequently we have hundreds of letters that all say about the same thing, which may or may not be a good thing, but we try to insert just enough to convey the general direction. We love to include material that adds additional information and insight and those writers who send us this sort of thing of their own accord are blessed. Readers also seem to get a kick out of humour, insult, ignorance and lack of understanding.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Kindling the flame

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jul 12, 2012

Again, so many great lines in your letter. It always amazes me when a spark of something I’ve started takes on a life of its own, and suggests steps to take in its own formation.

From: Mystery Guest — Jul 13, 2012
From: Merrill Schmidt — Jul 13, 2012

It is interesting to see people cobble together responses to questions to which they have no actual answers. In our society it seems not to be okay to not know. I think the other side of that coin is that so many are incurious. (This is all part of the strange notion that all opinions are created equal.) The result is that people grow to adulthood having dropped a sense of wonder off on the front end of grade school.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jul 13, 2012

“What a miracle to take it home” That summarizes everything about making art for me.

From: Robert Toth — Jul 13, 2012

I like your thinking. You are an inspiration. Thank you for your intelligence.

From: Ted Lederer — Jul 13, 2012
From: Theresa Bayer — Jul 13, 2012

People are always asking me where I get my ideas. I observe a lot, read a lot, and doodle a lot. By doodle I mean just relax and let whatever comes forth from the pen, to come forth. Imagination is a skill, and the more you practice it, the better your imagination will be.

From: Barbara Youtz — Jul 13, 2012

In the spirit of having the flame, I say hang out with hot people or hot people’s work. There is nothing that in inspires me like going to a gallery or museum to see just what other artists have created or by talking about art with a friend. If this doesn’t work I just start painting with the idea that I don’t have to paint a masterpiece. Maybe I will experiment with something new I have thought about. I just put down some colors and see what happens. After awhile without the pressure, I go to my creative place and it takes me on. That doesn’t mean that I turn out a masterpiece but maybe I will learn what to do, or not to do in a future painting.

From: Richard H. Gagnon — Jul 13, 2012

Good response however it was to a comment from an imaginary art instructor and written by a writer not an artist or even a critic. People should not look to the imagination of the uninvolved for their answers. Talking to you about art on the other hand is a worthwhile exercise. The questions do however have to be well framed (pun intended).

From: Pat Fadden — Jul 13, 2012

I have been 69 years old for thirty minutes now,….I’m staying up late on my birthday eve. I have found the flame to be barely sputtering at times. At other times it is roaring and controlling me! I hope this year to get that fire going really strong…I have some new ideas and once I overcome the inertia it overtakes me! So heading off to year number 70 I think this may be my best year yet!

From: Blake Ward — Jul 14, 2012

I commend your response to those artists seeking encouragement, art replenishes our souls and deserves to be nurtured. Thank you for continually offering hope and inspiration to us; your readers.

From: Jackie Knott — Jul 15, 2012

Be sure to recognize a flame when it begins to smolder and smoke. A fire takes fanning to become flame. Normally my ideas (more literary than painterly) first manifest as a small flicker and the simplest of notions. Entertain the idea, reflect upon it, add fuel to that tiniest of flames, and it will become a wonderfully robust fire. But you must begin by recognizing that fleeting thought is indeed a spark that holds potential to develop into a flame. I suspect many artists have such ideas and immediately dismiss them with, “Nah, that won’t work.” How do you know? Rarely does one have a moment that hits us as a complete idea. The greatest of forest fires normally begin from a careless match.

From: Greg Gregoriou — Jul 15, 2012

Some people are just naturally more enthusiastic than others.

From: Ivan Lemus — Jul 15, 2012

Thank you so much for your letters. My painting routine starts by reading your letter, a cup of latte (home made), and Bach in the background. I am currently living in Montreal, but before that I was in Toronto, and before that in my native El Salvador…you were with me everywhere!

From: Lori Worbi — Jul 15, 2012

Being an agnostic/atheist I agree 100% that we need to keep questioning for our world to continue down the better path. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and want to be able to incorporate this message into my paintings. Ideas come in and out of my head but I just haven’t been able to “paint” it!! Your letter has inspired me and I hope it will help me to kindle that fire. If you have any other wise words to share on this I would love to hear them.

From: Pat Morgan — Jul 15, 2012

I have been painting in watercolors for over 12 years and teaching for about six. Here is my current dilemma and would so love your advice. I am very comfortable with teaching my classes but now am being asked to do demonstrations for my various art associations. Could you let me know the difference between a one hour demo for teaching and a one hour ‘demo’ for groups? Not sure how to handle the teaching/just demo part. Thank you so much for any ideas. Beach Haven NJ

From: Clarinel — Jul 15, 2012

One man’s prized lichen is another man’s bird excrement. This leads me to today’s letter, “Kindling the flame”. The act of criticizing is so subjective. The critic is coming from his experience and expertise as is the artist. A forest fire could be someone else’s BBQ-or maybe not; however, if the experts approached art this way it would be wishy-washy. Your writing gives us something to think about.

From: Mpulepr — Jul 15, 2012

We born that way.Olso we dont.The way of selfigniting is working when yuo dont want to , because your feelings will privail over your self control. Mixed feeling are greate for lack of control.

From: Pierre St. Germaine — Jul 15, 2012

I have no time for worrying about kindling the flame. I just start every day and by hook or by crook things happen. Not always great things, but progressive, joyful things. The result is personal gratification and success.

From: Norm Brown — Jul 15, 2012

Lichens exist in extreme climates and high elevations and are widespread around the world. They are probably the longest living things. They are also vulnerable to environmental disturbance, and may be useful to scientists in assessing the effects of air pollution, ozone depletion, and various forms of contamination. Lichens are easily overlooked.

From: Mohammed Faris — Jul 15, 2012
From: Red Pagoda Man — Jul 15, 2012

Anything can be “cultivated” if there is enough desire.

From: Nancy Holloway — Jul 15, 2012

Thanks so much to all for the wonderful responses to my question. I guess the degree to which we employ all your suggestions is the degree to which we will get lit.

From: Brady Sparks — Jul 17, 2012
From: zidonja Ganert July 17,chilliwack.BC — Jul 17, 2012

I wanted to Paint portrait in oil,my first try ,I watched a DVD for 21 hours at 3 hour at a time ,it is called the Carter method of painting portraids, I learned ,and then I went at it and I Painted MY great grand Daughter,turned out realy good surprised my self.Titled Her first Birthday.It is on my web. I love your letters and the comments they inspire. ( Zidonja Ganert

     Featured Workshop: Gibsons School of the Arts
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The Ancient Ones

acrylic painting, 18.5 x 22 inches by Teyjah McAren, Canada

  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, 2013. That includes Frankie Picasso of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who wrote, “I loved what I read and had to join the community. I especially loved the part where you tell us to be childlike in our creativity but also adult in our discipline and approach.” And also Nigel Konstam of Casole d’Elsa, Sienna, Tuscany, Italy, who wrote, “Rembrandt fed his imagination by acting out scenes with live models in theatrical costume and drawing from these tableaux.”    

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