Yesterday, a woman I know fairly well phoned and asked if I might do a smiling portrait of her recently deceased husband. She would supply snapshots from when they were on trips. She had the idea that their hollyhock garden would make an ideal setting, with perhaps a cat or two in there. The old garden swing might be included also. I told her I would do it, but after giving it some thought I phoned her back and declined. While the challenge would have been fun, and a tour-de-force if I could pull it off, my main reason for turning it down was that it might interfere with my current flow. For me, the job was a little too dictated by the commissioner.
These sorts of requests can be “flow blockers.” Even in the thinking stage they can cause anxiety. Ideally, the painting process is like a train — one work leads to the next and the next — managed by you — the engineer. Now and then a good derailment shakes things up and can result in a pile of new insights — but you don’t necessarily want that when you’re already thundering down a clear track.
On a clear track you can see your potential. Your direction, simple or complex, is enough in itself. The daily unfolding keeps you glued. The satisfaction of private curiosity prevails. Process invents creation. For example, these days I’m into a process I call “paint by seeing paint.” What I mean by this is I’m not too much into reference or even getting stuff to look right. It’s a simple “one-stroke-leads-to-another” game based on looking at what has gone down before. Right now the stroking of contrivances is my most alluring track.
In the last letter I mentioned the pros and cons of interruption. It brought hundreds of letters from artists who echoed and added to the ideas presented. Thank you to everyone who wrote. This is serious business. Everything from self-esteem through concentration and proficiency to bank balance can depend on how you handle your interruptions. Never forget that the nurturing and preservation of your own muse is job one. Lose it and you may be losing a great deal. Your flow is as tangible and real as any locomotive, and just as powerful.
PS: “Thought allied fearlessly to purpose becomes creative force.” (James Allen)
Esoterica: Regarding commissions, I used to tell artists to “always say yes — never say when.” The rationale was that you could keep the job in reserve until a day when you felt like doing it — or were more geared to do it — money in the bank, so to speak. I’ve changed my mind. Sometimes the best deals are made by simply saying “no.” Incidentally, I passed the portrait on to a friend. She is ready, willing and able because the job is more in keeping with her current flow.
Freedom above obligation
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
Artists by nature choose freedom in life, simply by having chosen an art career. Art is the journey of a free soul. And whatever puts a constraint, kills art. I make my compositions for a good start, but I never feel obliged to follow them completely. There must be room for the muse while the artist is at work. There is always the risk of ending up with something you have not intended–but isn’t that the best part? Planning helps to record the initial interest about the subject, however, it should not control the outcome. Or else, it will be a technically perfect work, nothing more. Surprises are the joy of living. Surprises directly touch the soul. Good surprises energize and bad surprises teach.
Co-op destroyed flow
by Priscilla Westesen, Bozeman, MT, USA
I belonged to a co-op gallery for three years and dropped out a few months ago. We all had to work at the gallery, pay a monthly fee, and deal with people not showing up to work, walls needing paint, faulty air conditioner, one person hogging space, etc. Way too much of my energy went into that co-op and far too little was left to actually paint! I’m a happy painter now and wake up each morning anxious to get to the easel.
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
The method that works best for me is to have several paintings going at once. If a painting isn’t flowing like I think it should, I’ll move on to another one. I have a list of paintings in my head that I want to do. So if I get sidetracked or if the urge gets strong enough to do something else I’ll stop what I’m working on and start that painting. I’ve completed several paintings before completing the one I was first working on. I’ve also found that if I complete my last painting without starting another one first, the flow stops as well.
Paint what you love
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I don’t like commissions and rarely take them on because I cannot see what is in the buyer’s mind and heart. What is precious to them is uninspiring to me. I recently gave in to doing one for a dear friend. It was agony to complete and took me forever because it wasn’t what I wanted to paint. It was a portrait of foxhunters with their dogs. I am a landscape painter. I learned my lesson with the painting. Paint what you love!
Creative weight loss
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA
A friend came to town for a quickie wedding (I live in Las Vegas). I purposely left my camera home so I wouldn’t, once again, be suckered into another freebie, and an artistically dull one at that. Thanks to digital — that miserable medium — I’m now getting emails with all the photos her other friends took, and being asked to “fix” them, including taking 30 pounds off the bride! How do you say “no” to someone’s Big Day? How can I go so far off the center of friendship and community to leave a friend stuck with stinker photos of her wedding? I can’t say no, but I can get even. After taking many hours away from my own work to tweak her photos, after losing the groove it took so long to find, she wrote and asked why I hadn’t taken some flesh off her arms and waist, as she’d asked me to. Grrrr.
Make sure of reference
by Richard Brown, Arbutus Ridge, BC, Canada
To be chosen to do a commission is indeed fine and flattering. To accept it and stew over it is not fine. I have accepted many commissions that were up my alley. I enjoyed them. However, periodically, one or two slip by and for one reason or another they are a mental strain. The reason for some of the grief is a lack of the necessary reference. At present I’m doing such a work–not enough information. I hate to draw and paint an object that I have no idea what it looks like. Thanks to the magic of the Internet I have happily found more visuals related to the job at hand. Whew! Make sure to be well informed before accepting the challenge–check out that you have a source of reference readily available.
(RG note) Thanks, Richard. Recently I needed to put up a tent in a painting — a certain kind of tent. I went to Google — put in “camping tents” clicked on “images” (in the bar above the search heading) pressed “search,” and Wow!
Time for me
by Ruby Coe
One hundred and five years ago I had a sign shop for twenty-six years. It got to the point you could smell it when a person came in and ordered things exactly as they vision them and would be hard to collect from. Now I have interruptions with daily things because I’m slowing down and it takes twice as long to “do whatever.” Even brushing my teeth. The info you passed on about flow blockers made me feel relieved because I always feel guilty when I turn someone down. I am slow with portraits so I really don’t relish being told how to make a person look. I am not going to feel guilty anymore. I need time for me.
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA
I was telling my dear friend Sheila Grabarsky, an amazing abstract artist, who appreciates the wisdom she attains from your letter, about how I printed out the cartoon from a few weeks ago “paint — resist.” I have it on my easel because it has been hard for me to get to the canvas to do a certain wedding portrait. In her words “You are letting so many opportunities to paint what you are inspired to paint go by because of this painting, just finish the darned thing! I am now sad — what was to be a joyous piece of work has become a long drawn out, ‘darned thing.’ I feel it’s to the point where I just want to send it to them and say, “Here, sorry I took so long.” The couple has just celebrated their 4th wedding anniversary.
“Best laid plans” dept.
by Allan O’Marra, Ajax, ON, Canada
Recently I built and stretched a half-dozen canvases and excitedly started painting the first of a planned series of twenty or so paintings on the theme of “Family Reunion.” Out of the blue, I received a call from a gentleman who had found me on an internet search and asked me to do a commission, a painting of an aerial view of the harbour at Oakville, Ontario, that would be reproduced and sold on behalf of a cancer charity. Being intrigued (and finding the commission fee irresistible), I decided to set aside my Family Reunion series, accepted the commission and plunged in. It morphed into 6 weeks of work and became a nightmare of technical, aesthetic and painting difficulties. I will deliver it this weekend and vow to all right here and now: Never again will I allow my flow to be blocked in this manner. (Unless of course the idea is too intriguing or the money is just too good to pass up)
Accept the cycles
by Sarah Cannell, Norwich, Norfolk, UK
I find that my creativity works in cycles. I’m either hurtling down the track not noticing the passing countryside, completely single minded, or standing on the platform having missed the train and not quite sure when the next one is due, if at all. The two extremes seem to smoothly flow into each other and just when I think that trains have become extinct I find myself climbing aboard again. Emotionally exhausting process but I seem to have no choice, and accepting this cycle seems to have helped more than trying to blindly work through it.
Commissions from current stock
by Sandra Noble Goss, Owen Sound, ON, Canada
I am a jeweler and usually don’t do commissions for all the reasons you mention. But occasionally I give in and always regret doing so. I spend far too much time because I suddenly feel so much pressure to make it “perfect.” I met a jeweler from New York City who had a different approach to commissions. When people ask her to make them something, she prefers not to have much input beyond whether they want a pin, ring or necklace, etc. She tells the client that she will make three pins in the next while and they can have first choice. If they don’t like any, they are under no compulsion to buy. It leaves her free to pursue current trends in her thinking and also to build up stock for galleries. She works from the confidence that they have approached her because they like the work they have already seen.
Joint World Artist’s Studio
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
I guess that some artists will write and tell you that they will agree to take commissions that an artist wishes not to develop. This thought to redirect work accordingly to an artist’s specialization creates in me the idea of a Joint World Artist’s Studio. Specialization as an acceleration of flow. Portrait of cats for example should be sent to a “catist,” why not. Picture from original artist from Africa, China or contemporary Babylon, why not if it is safe for customer money keeping with guarantee artist, participating in this art collective.
(RG note) Our links pages support this sharing and provide a similar service. Yaroslaw and his wife Olga Knyaz sell their hand-made tapestries direct from their studio. You can get to their site listing by going here. We’ll give some thought to an index for landscapists, tapestrists, catists, etc. Currently there are over 4000 visitors going to this site daily, and some artists and art service people report making direct sales and other valuable connections.
Simultaneous or separate?
by Ken Campbell
I worked for years doing children’s book illustrations and young adult covers and the occasional portrait commission before turning full time to my passion of painting. The commercial illustration work was invigorating and fun, and by nature prescriptive and art-directed. At the time my muse was happy to click her heels and salute and be a “paladin” to the client. Combine with this my belief that I could do many things simultaneously, including graphic design, illustration, market planning, and paint in my “spare time” and you’ve got the picture. Finally, what I learned was that I could do all of it at the same time but not as well as individually. Finally (3 years ago) I followed Joseph Campbell‘s advice and “followed my muse” to full time painting. Now when a challenge like a portrait or a book cover is placed in front of me and my “commercial illustration” genes start to work and my “I can do this” synapses start to fire off, I politely refer the work to a old colleague and stay on track with my painting. Is this the benefit of experience or the limits of my abilities at work here? Either way, it is essential for me to stay on track and nurture the ideas that keep me focused and flowing.
by Alice Church
I have done quite a few custom portraits, mostly from photos, and several posthumously from photos. Mostly I accepted the work because I love to paint people, but recently have declined several jobs. The most memorable being a very fuzzy photo (old) and as I said to the person, “Usually a fuzzy photo makes a fuzzy painting.” Her answer was, “Well, you could use this picture of his brother, they looked really alike.” Thank you for reassuring me that it’s ok to turn down work when you know it just won’t work for you.
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
Readers might be interested in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s “Flow Theory.” Mihaly’s hobby-horse is “positive psychology” and I think we should all be on that gravy train, since only positive thoughts are productive, and if for example an artist has projected positive energy into a project, i.e. is going with the tide of that idea, then nothing should stop him/her from getting there. There are enough examples in history (start with Plato and go on from there) to prove the validity of flow.
(RG note) Thanks, Faith. I quote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the first chapter of The Painter’s Keys book. His Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience gives insights into successful art processes. Another good one is The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter.
Rejects commissions during show preps
by Kathleen Cavender, Spokane, WA, USA
Every 18 to 24 months, I have a solo exhibit. My greatest joy is expressing one cohesive thought within a “body” of work that can be shown in its entirety. Working and selling one painting at a time helps pay the bills, and commissions can play a major role in that, but once I begin working on a solo exhibit (which takes about 18 months to produce), I don’t like to take on new commissions. Whenever I have, I have deeply regretted it. Just one comment from the client can spin me into another direction and I’ll find it nearly impossible to get back to my original vision. I have been known to become physically ill from the anxiety it produces. It’s simply not worth it. I’d rather sell my sound system to pay the bills and stay on course with my work. Thankfully, I haven’t had to do that… yet.
Paralyzed but willing
by Jeri Riggs, Dobbs Ferry, NY, USA
Your letter on flow blockers made me weep. I’ve been in a paralyzed block for a few months, and it seemed to be getting worse. I really needed to hear today, right now, your words: “Never forget that the nurturing and preservation of your own muse is job one. Lose it and you may be losing a great deal. Your flow is as tangible and real as any locomotive, and just as powerful”. It became really clear how I have allowed my generosity towards others to trample my creative spark, and how these last few months as I’ve bent nearly double to accommodate guests, requests, workshops and commissions, my own train shuddering to a halt. Now, to jumpstart that locomotive will take the one thing I know to work: make something, anything! Just putting those colors together, bit by bit, will do it.
Artists and investing
by Jason Levis
At the beginning of your letter The interrupted life you mentioned you were talking on the phone with a stockbroker. As someone (age 27) who is grappling with the idea of leaving a totally secure cushy office job to pursue photography as a career, I’m thirsty for insights on the idea of artists and investing. Do you have any thoughts you could share?
(RG note) At about age 27 I took what little I was making and cut off a slice — $50 dollars a month — and put it into mutual funds. My dad had talked me into a system to “pay myself first.” With increasing additions and the compounding that takes place over time the amount grew and I’ve built up a considerable portfolio. Today I have my stock investments divided among five brokers. Why five, you might ask? Apart from getting the much-valued second opinion, I have five for probably the worst — and yet the best of reasons — they “invest” in my work. One guy has fifty of my paintings — at home, in his office, at his summer cottage, in his ski chalet, and on his yacht.
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