Flat spots


Dear Artist,

It seems that some artists never have flat spots — others are telling us they are more in them than out of them. If you have abundant ideas that stretch to the horizon and all the energy and enthusiasm in the world to keep going on them until you drop — I recommend you don’’t waste your time reading this particular letter.

For those who are still reading — I’ve a few suggestions: You may have noticed that the art-mind is a totality — it’s not just a muscle that paints or sculpts or writes — it has to be managed. Our emotions, our biorhythms, our moods and our habits all come into play. Here’s a bundle of perhaps trivial but specific ideas — variations of which continue to work for many artists. You’ll get the idea:

Grab a color you haven’t used for a while. Crank up the Wagner. Turn on the studio fan. Take hold of the tools of your trade. Do the opposite of what you did before. Have a tumbler of 1989 Cru. Run outside quickly. Run inside quickly. Make a mess. Tidy up. Do several things at once. Take a bike ride, walk, shower, bath or a swim. Quote the great ones. Journal. Strategize, then work your plan. Trigger memories from when things weren’t so flat. Make juice. Zoom in. Visit your teen-aged sketchbook. Make a colored mind-map. Hobnob with winners. Collage valuables. Tell telephone interlopers your easel is on fire. Laugh out loud. Live in the paint. Share yourself around. Make love with life.

Did you notice that none of the above contained the word “don’t?” Don’t is a word that kills art. When you don’t hear don’t there are fewer flat spots.


“Houses at L’Estaque” 1908
by Georges Braque

Best regards,


PS: “Work like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
And dance like no one is watching.”
(Came in an email for the twentieth time while I’m writing this letter. Someone is telling me I have to use it right here.)

PPS: “Work to perfect the mind. There is no certitude but in what the mind conceives.” (Georges Braque)

Esoterica: Need a book? Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko. Broken Crayons, by Robert Alan Black. 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques, by James Higgins. Experiences in Visual Thinking, by Robert McKim.

Last July 25 we asked artists to send the names of books they were finding valuable. You can see the results at http://www.painterskeys.com/books/

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for sharing.


Love problems
by Tim Weiser, Tel Aviv, Israel

Of course you realize there are deeper, more serious psychological barriers that cause flat spots. Little gestures like running outside won’t fix them. One of the commonest of these is the presence or lack thereof of love in an artist’s life. If there is lots of love the artist grows complacent and lazy. When there is little or no love the artist sublimates his or her frustration into art and becomes highly motivated and creative.


Change the plan
by Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA

“You gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In Between” — do you remember that song? When one starts to feel like the painting one has been working on for quite some time is going nowhere or isn’t looking just right, it is time to put it aside for a bit and start a new painting or do something different for a while. Later (maybe not even the same day) come back to the painting and it will look fine and you can go ahead and finish it. This has worked for me many times. In other words, when the negative thoughts start coming, stop them and change the plan.


“The Courage to Create”
by Jeanne Norman Chase, Florida, USA

I was drawn to my favorite inspirational book: The Courage To Create by Rollo May. I have not picked up this book for months but your last letter seemed to lead me there.

“Often when one works at a hard question, nothing good is accomplished at the first attack. Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. During the first half-hour, as before, nothing is found, and then suddenly the decisive idea presents itself to the mind. It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness.” Or, as later he said, “It is probably something everyone has learned: professors will lecture with more inspiration if they occasionally alternate the classroom with the beach: authors will write better when, as Macaulay used to do, they write for two hours, then pitch quoits, and then go back to their writing. But certainly more than the mere mechanical alternation is involved.”

I always recommended this book to my art students.


by A Gregor Towes, Dublin, Eire

Because artists must always find it within themselves to be “up” and somewhat optimistic in the face of rejection and the ongoing private struggle — they open themselves to the darker side of depression. Many deal with this by introspection and personal devices to stay on top. Furthermore, dependency comes into play: When an artist becomes dependent on his work for his self fulfillment — it can lead to a degree of personal satisfaction, success, and even glory. It’s valuable to keep in mind that habitual self-delusion has a down side.


Positive affirmations
by Gelee Goldberg, Markham, Ontario, Canada

It’s not just “don’t” but all of the other negative words that slip into our vocabularies and weigh us down. When negativity comes from the mouths of those around us — parents, siblings, teachers, it’s bad enough. But when we ourselves catch the “negativity disease” we are really in trouble. It’s a useful exercise to inventory what comes from our mouths and runs through our heads — and flip as much as we can into positive affirmations.


Hobnobbing with winners
by M C Norman

Often we artists have such fragile egos that we neglect to associate ourselves with those others of the same profession who are truly great, but who may intimidate us. It’s often through connections with role models and even offending persons that we are able to put our priorities together. These spheres of influence make for speed and can save a lot of trouble. Why always reinvent the wheel? Great people know great people.

Further, it’s not a matter of trying to figure out what a certain person can do for you — advance your career, etc. It’s a matter of offering that person something that you can genuinely give of yourself. Sometimes it takes a little thought. And when you are able to do it successfully a couple of times it becomes easier and more natural. Even if a person does not like other people very much, one need not fear decency and human outreach.


Do your own thing
by Nik Semenoff, Artist-in-residence, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Here it is 6:00 a.m. as I have been awake for a couple of hours and have started to think about things. That is a sure way to lose sleep. Surprisingly it was not about art directly, but with my research into waterless lithography. Garo Andreasian gave me some advice that I have been stupid not to follow. He told me not to worry about other people’s problems when it comes to printmaking and just do my own thing. But I get questions from printers who are using my processes and I feel obliged to give them some direction. I find that it is an inspiration as well as a burden. Like all teaching, it pushes one’s search into areas ones own work would never take us. It is encouraging to get feedback when I learn that printers are actually using my processes.


Everything works some of the time
by Alice Smith, Kent Island, eastern shore of Maryland, USA

The way I handle my ‘flat’ times is to prepare for them in advance. They can be counted on to arrive like the rhythms of night and day. But they need not get me down. This is my way:

I may tidy the garden, feed the birds, buy a new houseplant if it’s winter, put some flowers in the studio, play music that I don’t normally listen to, then… Before I do any thing else I stretch a batch of canvases in lots of different shapes and sizes. I look at catalogs and order art supplies. Next I clean the studio. Now I’m ready to reflect. When I am flying high on creativity the ideas just blossom and flow like a storm. Energy and productivity and inspiration breeds much more of the same. And when it does I can’t keep up with all of the ideas that flow. So I capture some of them and put them away for a ‘rainy day.’ I keep a book of ‘ideas’ going. This book is not my journal. It is simply a book of things I hope to do when there is time. In it I write down the things that inspired me when I was too active to do them all. In it I insert clippings of articles, pictures etc. I write down the titles of the books that I wish I had time to really look at or read (since at the moment that they inspired me) I’m too busy. Often I will work in a different medium from the one that I am currently working in. If I am still not ready to go again then, I go to museums. The museums are full of paintings by ‘great’ artists that you know in your heart you could have painted better and many more that are truly inspirational. I also like to visit galleries to see what others are doing currently. I go out to lunch with friends or cook up some ‘ethnic’ food that I have been wanting to try. Spicy Indian food is great for getting me out of a rut. Or I teach a new group of students ways to become creative. The truth for me is that no one thing is sure to work so perhaps we should all have in our inspiration books lists of all the things to try. Nothing works all the time, everything works some of the time.


Use up materials
by Kim Wyatt, El Cajon, California, USA

I have found that sometimes when I want to work but don’t feel like it anything I make looks like scribbles. I used to view this as a waste of materials, but now I just let it happen, crumple it up and throw it away. If I really want to get something done but can’t get into my art, I focus on research or the business side of art. This helps keep me busy with my art but I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to create. Which would only serve to make my artist block worse. I’ve also found there are days when I want to make something but can’t decide what to use. I set out enough supplies to make several versions. I will sometimes combine media. For example, I found by accident you can get fantastic results with water mixable oil pastels, transparent watercolor paints and metallic markers!


Work like no one is watching
by Gerald Soworka, Sydney, Australia

Years ago I injured my back and had to give up a much loved and lucrative career. In the quiet time that followed I became a struggling artist, financially and physically dependent on my spouse and coming to terms with the pain and disability whilst developing my practice. For me, your quotation reads like this:

“Love like you don’t need the money,
Dance like you’ve never been hurt, and
Work like no one is watching.”


You may be interested to know that artists from 71 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Pattie from near Milwaukee where it’s minus 29 so running outside quickly will be followed by in again really quickly.

And Chrystos B Minot of Boulder, Colorado, who adds, “Make love like it’s the last time in your life.”

And Jan Verhulst, of Beveren, Belgium, who sends a quote from American watercolorist Edgar Whitney: “You have chosen to spend your time and money on esthetics. Others can cheat you, a craft cannot. It’s the only area in life where you get back what you’ve put in.”

And Elle Fagan of Connecticut, who says, “Thanks for the roses.”


Reader’s question: How do you keep coming up with more to write about twice a week?

(RG) A lot of it has to do with what’s going on at my easel; in my workstations. Often it’s problems or joys I’m dealing with. Travel and location obviously play a part too. Most important are email responses which stimulate the old cortex. I generally write my next letter on the morning a letter comes out and as the early responses are coming in. I think about the letter over the next day or so, then try to fix the bad patches just before it goes to you. If I run out of valuable subjects or start going really off I have a feeling you’ll let me know.



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