A fresh start

Dear Artist, In a recent letter I wrote, “I’ve often toyed with the idea of working with an open-minded person who has never picked up a brush and turning her into a great painter in short order.” Several hundred answered this call. “If you ever take leave of your senses,” wrote Susie Cipolla of Whistler, B.C., Canada, “and would like to turn me into a great painter in short order, please sign me up.” In an earlier version of that letter I mentioned that applicants must have had a recent lobotomy. Our editors rejected this condition as too harsh. “Further,” they said, “where are you going to find someone who has never picked up a brush?” I’ve always noted a big difference between what students think they need to do and what they need to do. The production of art is a curious combination of childlike intuition and practical, often hard won, know-how. It’s this practical know-how where a person like myself might be useful. Without too much rigidity in getting started with these unsullied artists, here are a few basics — in the full knowledge that they might be dropped later: For opaque media — oil or acrylic — start with a toned ground. Don’t fight white. A medium grey is good, but other, brighter colours are useful as well. In planning your painting, rather than drawing outlines, use patches of colour whenever possible. No spidery lines crawling around the painting. Spidery lines feel good when you make them, but they run interference later. When you’re into the actual painting, keep your strokes direct and fresh. Try to leave your strokes alone. Don’t sweep back and forth like a sleepy umpire dusting off the home plate. When you’re getting to the end, stop early. Don’t be afraid to produce cursory, unfinished work. Let the viewer put in the last strokes. Overworking is a pitfall that many artists fall into and are never able to crawl out of. It’s dark down there. Most important of all I would ask students to try to actually see what it is they are looking at. Like aliens on their first Earth encounter, these unsullied folks need to be visually astounded and curious about how things work. The older we become, the more difficult becomes this ability. “Be Martians,” I would say, “if only for this short landing.” Best regards, Robert PS: “If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye.” (Honore de Balzac) Esoterica: I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure why people do poor work. The road to quality has many potholes. Bad habits learned somewhere else, mental laziness, creative laxity, chronic poor taste or too much theoretical education can take their toll. Other common potholes include literary concerns applied to visual happenings, the early adoption of second hand style, and compulsive, masochistic foot-shooting. I still like the idea of a lobotomy — I try to give myself one every day. It smarts, but it’s worthwhile.   Noodling by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA  

“Salt springs Run”
original painting
by Linda Blondheim

I often find that beginners continue to make strokes when they don’t really know what to do next. I advise them to never make a stroke without a plan or deliberation. Just noodling on the canvas with no action in mind is not a good idea. I tell them to walk away for a bit and think about what they want to do before applying the paint.     There are 3 comments for Noodling by Linda Blondheim
From: Anonymous — Jun 11, 2010

Nice to see you here. Beautiful painting.

From: Beth Dean — Jun 11, 2010

Lovely painting!

From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jun 12, 2010

Great advice, Linda, and a great painting.

  Learning to see by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA  

ink painting, 15 x 15 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

When I used to teach painting, one thing I found myself repeating and repeating: “Paint what you see, not what you know.” When I asked a guy who had turned out to be just an amazing student what the biggest take-away he’d had from my classes, he said, “I learned how to see for the first time in my life.” He was 54. I think the very hardest part of painting for me is the slowing down of my day so I can just really, really look, and see what is actually there. Not blue water, but silvers and dark greens and dashes of vermillion reflected from the grassy canal banks.   Knowing when to shut up by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA  

original painting
by Gail Caduff-Nash

“People” are creatures of habit, it’s often said, and being an artist is breaking free from all those habits to try and find your own response to things. But the habits creep back; the indoctrinations, the pop culture, the way your dad mocked modern art, modern art mocked your dad, and all the bazillion ways that the world intruded to tell you how to think. Paint landscapes! Paint florals! Paint pretty horsies! Well, I taught my grandson, aged 12 at the time, to paint a pear. He did a fantastic job of it, worthy of a frame. It was a nice piece of impressionism for his very first painting. And I found that it wasn’t just showing him how to use things. It is also about knowing when to shut up and give him some time to try it out and ‘feel’ the art of pears for himself. I gave him my best stuff to work with. I showed him the difference between base color and reflected color. I discussed 3-dimensionality and shading. But the painting he did was good because he was really paying attention — to the pear. There are 3 comments for Knowing when to shut up by Gail Caduff-Nash
From: Jan Ross — Jun 11, 2010

Your grandson is fortunate to have such a wise grandmother sharing her interest in painting. The time you shared together will be remembered, longer and perhaps more fondly than the painting he created…both are definitely beautiful!

From: tikiwheats — Jun 11, 2010

Give the knowledge – then shut up – let the creativity flow. Very wise teaching, and I love that pear!

From: Skip Van Lenten — Jun 11, 2010

What that they say about “teach a man to fish…?” I hope your grandson enjoys the process until he’s old enough to pass it on to his own grandkids.

  A valuable tool by Maxine Price, Wimberley, TX, USA  

“Fall reflections”
oil painting, 48 x 48 inches
by Maxine Price

I find most beginners and intermediate artists are way too thrilled with what they do and have difficulty telling something they do that is pretty good from something they do that is really bad. I have found that same trait in some professional artists and every now and then I will look at an older work of my own and wonder “what was I thinking?” even though I know I am harsher in my critiques of my own work than anyone else. I think the hardest skill to learn is to be your own worst critic but it is a very valuable tool.     There are 2 comments for A valuable tool by Maxine Price
From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Jun 10, 2010

What a beautiful painting… Agree with your comments.

From: Reggie Sabiston — Jun 11, 2010

Beautiful painting…love the colors, the reflection, the shadows and the lines.

  Passion and practice by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada  

Metro sketch

All suggestions, great teachers, courses and workshops will serve little if one does not have the PASSION for art and does so daily. Coming back from painting three small watercolors downtown yesterday I returned by subway remembering that I had not done my usual daily black and white sketch while on site just for practice. So, sitting in the Metro car, tired and hungry at 9 pm I took out my sketch book and did a drawing of the passengers. Although I have been at art since the 1970’s I still felt I “needed the practice.” That is passion! Maybe I need to have my head examined, but that is what is missing in many students who want a quick way to become painters – passion and daily practice.   Changes in the brain by Kathi Peters, Morrill, ME, USA  

“Ice Pony”
mixed media painting
by Kathi Peters

I have had a “recent lobotomy”! Well, not literally, but of sorts. I suffered an Ischemic stroke that left me with a triangular hole out of my left side of my brain and leaving me with language skills deficient’s and right sided weakness [I am right handed!] But through it all I could still paint. I find that from a past where I saw things mostly linear and black and white; I now see the world around me more in color, more childlike and I am not so into detail. Funny how the brain works…or doesn’t! And I now work mostly with colored tone grounds, where I didn’t before! I paint mostly in casein but have taken to painting on copper panels in oil paints and am loving it. I am approaching this new support and medium with childlike intuition and wonderment.   There are 4 comments for Changes in the brain by Kathi Peters
From: Janice — Jun 11, 2010

What a beautiful painting, thank you for sharing.

From: Anonymous — Jun 11, 2010

beautiful interesting and sophisticated

From: Jan St. Cyr — Jun 11, 2010

Stunning! Don’t you just wonder what he has seen, what he is looking at now? Can’t you just feel the wind? Can’t you just feel how wild he is and this place is? Fabulous!

From: Anonymous — Jun 21, 2010

Thank you all for your comments….it really means a lot to me…. Taking one day at a time here!! But for sure I will be painting!

  Imagine a bell curve by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“Between the Dunes”
acrylic painting
by Angela Lynch

I think the ability to recognize when something isn’t working earlier rather than later is key. Imagine a bell curve: on the upswing is when everything is clicking in the studio. The muse is there, spirits are high, the pigments are marrying nicely; the painting is painting itself it seems. Nothing can go wrong! And then it starts to be a little more fragmented. You know what I’m talking about; we tighten up, the strokes are less spontaneous, we think, hesitate, doubt. There’s stuff that starts happening we don’t like so we “fix” it; a lot. At this point we’re on the beginning of the downside of the curve, however, it isn’t until we’re about half way down that slide before we realize the muse has left, we’re working the painting to death and leave well enough alone. Put the painting away and address it sometime in the future. It’s at this time when we feed our minds and soul with fresh sights, we sketch more/less, we mull, we try different mediums, we’re curious, we explore, and we rest. At the bottom of the curve is when ideas are rejuvenated and we begin to know that those paintings from our past need addressing again or they’re fine just the way they are. There is 1 comment for Imagine a bell curve by Angela Lynch
From: Jan — Jun 11, 2010

Excellent points, Angela! Sometimes knowing when to quit for the day is harder than getting started!

  Anyone can paint by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA  

–a day for colour

I do believe that anyone can paint, provided they have the desire, tenacity and love of the process. For those starting out I would make these recommendations. Leave your self-doubts outside the studio door. Paint as if you are on a voyage of exploration, and pay attention to everything you find. Use a basic palette of yellow, red, blue and start off right away learning to mix your colors. Be sure to use this basic palette every time you paint. Load the brush, light touch, no rubbing the paint. Put out plenty of paint, wipe your brush frequently and get more paint on the brush, Make two or three strokes and dip your brush in the paint again. Don’t worry the paint on the surface like it is poison ivy itch; you will just remove the paint with too much rubbing in the same spot. Use a good brush, one good brush is better than 10 cheap brushes. The most important thing is to not constantly judge your work or abilities with thoughts or comments like, “I can’t do this.” or “This is no good.” Critique is not the same as self-doubt, and is also a process is that is learned and developed. There are 2 comments for Anyone can paint by Fleta Monaghan
From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jun 12, 2010

Fleta, I used to believe anyone could learn to paint until I had a student who could not grasp the concept. Her problem was the inability to observe and analyze a subject for light and shadow, etc. The desire was there but not the ability to learn the process. I have often wondered if she continued in her struggle or took up some other artistic endeavor. To be an artist, first a person has to learn how to SEE, and then train the hand to follow through.

From: Fleta — Jun 18, 2010

I have encountered that once or twice, and once a student who was afraid to pick up a paint brush!! That last situation was unsolvable!

  More suggestions by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Here is what I would suggest to fresh starters: Find a way to get consumed in your work with no talking and asking questions. If any questions still linger by the end of the day, write them down and save for a “questions day.” If you are patient, you will answer your questions yourself. Your work is beautiful as long as you are keeping yourself open to learning, fearlessly experimenting and practicing. The real meaning of this beauty is only known to you. Any comment from other people will fall short of what you feel, so it’s better not to ask. Be creative in everything that you do, find a new way to look at the world. Force yourself to do things differently, just to find out how that feels. Use many different materials and tools, especially those that are not obvious. Handle them, make marks, and modify them in many ways. Make art in various moods and observe how happiness, sadness, anger… influence making of art. Take ownership of your new art life and reserve a special space, time, money and energy for it. Let your ego do its thing thinking about the future and comparing yourself with other artists. Do this for 15 minutes, then pack it up in a mental drawer and start drawing your foot (yet again). There is 1 comment for More suggestions by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: georgianne fastaia — Jun 12, 2010

When I started to paint, a decade ago, I was 35. I rented a studio because it was “a room of my own” a place I could get away to because my roommate and I were at odds. It was only by being around painters that I got excited about what I could do within these inexpensive “4 walls”. Having no experience I asked a man who had studied under some masters… I took detailed notes. Once I understood some basics about paint, I was quickly confronted with sophomore efforts…work that was okay but lackluster. I was stuck. Then an article caught my eye about an artist, somewhat well known in the Bay area, who had had a stroke. She was heartbroken, unable to paint with her right hand anymore. Slowly she learned to paint with her left hand, a clumsy, untrained limb. To her amazement, she produced amazing fresh and vibrant works. So I followed this example, tying my right hand behind my back, painting with thick wide brushes when I was used to fine, painting with the canvas upside down, with one eye covered (like a pirate!) The side of my brain that had been lying fallow offered up surprising sophisticated yet fresh perspectives. In my paintings now, I try to keep the trained and the untrained eye, in good conversation, a sure way to keep things fresh. georgianne fastaia http://badfishstudiosartblog.blogspot.com http://ballerinagirlart.com badfishstudios@yahoo.com

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After the storm

acrylic gouache on panel by Marilynn Brandenburger

  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 Scott Kahn of Old Lyme, CT, USA, who wrote, “Perhaps a glass of wine would be an effective and far less drastic remedy than a lobotomy.” And also Pat Bidwell of BC, Canada, who wrote, “I think you would be interested in a new book I recently purchased, called Drawing Autism by Jill Mullin.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for A fresh start

From: Faith — Jun 08, 2010

Talking about workshops and other claims to geniality, what about Esoterica’s “bad habits”. What is “bad”? Who is going to guarantee that “bad” is absolutely bad FOR ME and not just absolutely a matter of opinion? In the light of past experience I’d want to ask a few pertinent questions about the motives of anyone telling me that what they do or don’t is ultimately better (for me) than what I do or don’t. The answer, as I once quoted a famous adviser on the old BBC radio perennial “Gardeners Question Time” as having said: “lies in the soil”. A stroll round the National Portrait Gallery in London (or any imposing art collection anywhere) will render speechless anyone who thinks the great and good (being those who made it to the hallowed walls) have all discovered the selfsame rules and regulations for being hung (in the humane sense). In the end, it’s the survival of the fittest.

From: Darla — Jun 08, 2010

Faith, that’s an interesting idea — artistic survival of the fittest. I like to look at the paintings in the National Gallery (in DC) or the National Portrait Gallery because of their wonderful diversity and the skill and imagination that went into them. I even like to look at the not-so-good parts of them that remind me that these painters were, after all human and not perfect. Bad habits are the ones that keep you from doing your best work, that’s all. If it works for you, use it. Artistic rules are not laws, but tools. You use the ones that are best for the job you’re doing, and leave the rest of them in the toolbox. Some you will use all the time, some of them, not at all.

From: Rene — Jun 08, 2010

It seems to me that if I were to start from scratch I would want to know how to look for and paint shapes. Looking for just shapes of shadows, negative shape, positive shapes, inter-locking shapes, puzzle shapes, big shapes and small. Within those shapes are values of light, medium and dark. Then have fun with your compostion with patches of color to bring your shapes and values to life. Will these ideas make you a professional painter? Probably not. But they will get you off to a good start to being a successful painter. With that said, there is not a whole lot of difference between a professional and an amateur. Professionals earn a living at art. There are many amateurs that are as good as, if not better than, professionals. At the end of the day, the difference is not only experience and practice: the real answer is confidence.

From: Dwight Williams — Jun 08, 2010

How about some principles (not rules) for the new student painting water media? First, do let the white paper work for you. It’s beautiful and ought to be part of the painting. Spend your money on good paper. It’s your best friend. Good paint is next. Fancy brushes are not necessary. I’ve make my living with a “junk pill” of brushes for forty years. Second, generally work this way: Light to darker, wet to dry, fast to slower, big shapes to smaller, big brushes to smaller, and finally, Robert is right, don’t scrub aback and forth (direct and fresh stokes are best) and know when to quit. Slightly undone is better than overdone, like most cooking.

From: Linda C. Dumas — Jun 08, 2010

Sometimes, knowing the “rules” can inhibit creativity. I did some very interesting things with clay when I first began. I think I was more tentative after I learned the rules. Right now I am playing with different media on Yupo synthetic “paper” and making a real effort not to learn the rules just yet. I’m always entranced by the magic of WHAT IF?

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 08, 2010

Advising artists to work with a toned canvas instead of white is a fine hint, but equally, that should be accompanied by using the same toned palette. Mixing paint on a blinding white palette and trying to adjust the eyes to a toned ground is confusing. I began using a gray toned canvas and discovered heavy duty aluminum is almost identical in value but an easy and cheap clean up; wad it up and toss. By the way, if you have trouble posting it’s because someone else is currently posting on the website. Compose your comment on a document, copy, refresh and paste, submit quickly.

From: Cherie M. Redlinger — Jun 08, 2010

You should take a painting class from me and you will get a new fresh look with originality. No two paintings will look alike even with the same instruction.

From: Michael Fuerst — Jun 08, 2010

I have two rules concerning “When you’re getting to the end, stop early.” (1) The painting or drawing is done when 1/3 of any new marks are less than satisfying. (2) Before “correcting” something in a drawing or painting ask yourself if anyone else will notice.

From: Johan Sandstrom — Jun 08, 2010

Robert incredibly spiritual, entertaining and as always a delight to try to understand [sometimes and often I actually do]and when I do I am satisfied and like life as it is. Thanks you for so much fun and thoughtful insight, wisdom and humour.

From: Paul Corby — Jun 08, 2010

I was once stuck with a weekend situation: a good friend that I always enjoy playing music with, and a his friend, a non-musician. We gave him a one-note synthesizer and a quantity of lubricants, and spun the globe announcing the randomly selected country, and then inventing the music we imagined that country sounding like. Inspired by our boldness and harmonic contiguity, the rookie became an accompanist and, eventually a soloist of remarkable taste and assurance in the course of a few hours. The correct induction processes can short-circuit years of instruction and prep.

From: Christine — Jun 08, 2010

I love you and thank-you for a happier and more productive day today and most.

From: Carole Munshi — Jun 08, 2010

A Robert Genn remark, “I still like the idea of a lobotomy — I try to give myself one every day. It smarts, but it’s worthwhile.” I love your wit. I shall seriously consider following your habit. might improve my art.

From: Ginny Stiles — Jun 08, 2010

You are going to enjoy all the comments you are going to get on getting a daily lobotomy. But we all do know what you mean. What you mean is that in order to make art with honesty and freshness, you need to be a child again. You need to look at the world like a 4 or 5 year old does. I taught kindergarten for 32 years! What a joy. It was liking getting a lobotomy every single work day! Every leaf, every grasshopper, every butterfly, every snowflake was a new world to them. There are many ministers than I have heard speak about coming to faith or religion “as a child” as well. So rather than a painful operation, I suggest you find a 4 or 5 year old and take a walk with them once a week. You will both benefit.

From: Paul deMarrais — Jun 08, 2010

It would be interesting to take some unschooled folks and make painters out of them. I find that a certain amount of intellect is needed to grasp some of the basic concepts. If I had to make some simple “getting started” statements for the novice I would say the following: Learn to see the structure underneath your composition, before you dwell on detail….put up the 2 x 4’s before you hang the wallpaper! Squint to see the essentials. Learn to see color as value. Is it light, middle or dark? How does it relate to colors around it? Use shape rather than line,at least until you get more experience with drawing. Ask yourself what is the point of your painting. This will lead you to the all important focal point. Remember that you are the conductor, leading the viewer’s eye throughout your painting. If you are confused, they are sure to be confused! Quit early, rather than overwork. Follow your energy level. A tired artist is likely to do tired work. Recognize your strengths and play to them. Don’t worry about the finished product, be more focused on the learning process. Have fun and avoid comparing yourself to other artists.

From: Sandy Meyer — Jun 08, 2010

Just a little note! I teach cancer survivors to paint (watercolor). Believe me I find lots of people who have never held a brush, not even to paint a wall! It is amazing to watch them paint and grow in their work and their lives. Some are so talented and didn’t know it. Some have no talent but work very hard. It is rewarding for me and for them. We produce a calendar each year for our hospital. They send out over 5000 copies. It is awesome!

From: Deb Sims — Jun 08, 2010

Yes, yes, yes, sign me up for the “Become a Great Painter” workshop! The lobotomy, well, some days I think I’ve already had it, so I don’t think that would be a problem! And I love the idea of looking at things as though we were aliens! It is hard to keep that new, fresh child-like approach after years of slogging away! Keep up the good work. Keep rattling our cages.

From: Pauline L. Lazzarini — Jun 08, 2010

I just read your letter about taking someone who has never painted and teaching them… well this year I invited my mother to come to my studio and take a painting lesson. She was very shy because at almost 92 (this month) she has never considered herself artistic. I set up a small still life and I painted along on my own piece of wood beside her. She has now painted four paintings and keeps improving. She has her own style.

From: Linda Saccoccio — Jun 08, 2010

You sound like a very good teacher Bob! Got the important bases covered with tangible analogies and all. Good luck finding your non-thinking students. :) Maintain your innocence!

From: Richard Smith — Jun 08, 2010

I’ve heard that Sonny Rollins the great saxophone player once said, “In order to play great jazz you’ve got to learn everything about music, and then forget it.” Probably true as far as the visual arts go, as well. Learn your craft, get it down tight and then cut loose and go crazy.

From: Steen — Jun 10, 2010

doesn’t “paint what you see” or “actually see what you are looking at” mean to paint or see what the teacher sees?

From: Joan C. Thompson — Jun 10, 2010

I like to read what others experience while painting. Today was not good for me. Whatever I tried to do to save the painting seemed to make it worse. I was not satisfied. I will look again tomorrow and not be afraid to admit failure if I can’t make it work. There’s another model tomorrow, a new opportunity.

From: colleen kindt — Jun 10, 2010
From: Darla — Jun 11, 2010

To the dismay of some established artists, we’re finding that “artistic talent” is not as rare as we once thought! I’ve discovered that people who haven’t done any drawing or painting since grade school start out at the same level that they left — but when they start really looking and painting, they progress rapidly! The difference is that the ones who’ve gone on with their art are the ones who value and enjoy what they’re doing enough to work at it. Anyone who is not too dyslexic to print can learn to draw, but it’s not taught much in school these days. People who are artists often teach themselves for the most part (just as writers do), and supplement that with formal classes when they can.

From: Deb Sims — Jun 11, 2010

I found a bumper sticker years ago that says “Creative minds are rarely tidy!” I find that thought extremely comforting when I look at the creative clutter in, on and around my work space. Every now and then I have a fit of energy and throw out, straighten up and organize. The other sign that comforts me is “I put things away but they come back out.” For me the clutter is just part of the process and I am extremely suspicious of anyone with a neat and tidy studio!

From: Fay Lee — Jun 11, 2010

Concerning when a painting is finished, an instructor once told me that I didn’t have to paint something exactly as it was, that it just had to be believable. This has saved me a lot of time over the years.

From: Tidy — Jun 11, 2010

Messy, tidy, doesn’t matter to me. I happen to be quite tidy but I am not extremely suspicious of people who are messy. I have noticed many times messy buggers eying me with (not so) mixed feelings and I find that sad. If I am tidy, am I not human?

From: Amanda Teller — Jun 11, 2010

I believe that anyone can be taught to paint, and consider myself to be proof of that. In my hierarchy, however, making art is another step up. I doubt that can be taught. It’s just too intuitive to be something that can be literally communicated, though a combination of proclivity and environment might nurture it.

From: M Burton — Jun 16, 2010

In #2 avoid the outline when possible. What if your work and process is based on line. What then? I am in the process of trying some new ways of working but hope to retain some basis in line.


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