Habitual tendencies

Dear Artist, I’m talking about those automatic mannerisms that interfere with our creativity while at the same time contributing to our uniqueness and style. Either way, they’re worth knowing about. With a bit of scraping around in your history, you can often trace an habitual tendency back to a very early time. In my case, drawing an edge around things that didn’t need an edge goes back to an altercation with a teacher in grade three. To this day, when tired, distracted, or perhaps in a state of self-sabotage, I still do it. Graham Norwell, a friend now painting in the big studio in the sky, went through a period of bending the tiniest tops of all his trees. “I grew up in a light wind,” he used to say. >Cruising new and old work in a systematic, relaxed and objective way, we need to ask, “What’s different here?” Perhaps surprisingly, many habitual tendencies arise around the easel, palette and tools. A classic example of an easel-based mannerism is the work of El Greco. Striking for the elongated and particularly “holy” look of his bishops and cardinals, the effect was no doubt due to El Greco’s habit of placing his canvas high on his easel. When viewed from a lower angle, as he would have done when he painted, El Greco’s faces are closer to normal. El Greco knew full well of his habitual tendency and made spiritual hay out of it: “The language of art is celestial in origin,” he said, “and can only be understood by the chosen.” Your personal style is perhaps the single most valuable part of your work. Knowledge of stylistic tendencies also uncovers those habits that you might want to modify or purge. Because we get so used to looking at them, really entrenched habits, particularly in mature artists, can be tough to notice. This is the job of the artist’s “third eye” — the independently-educated one that has no ego. Go ahead, if you have habitual tendencies, tell us about them. Your close examination of your work–and your report–will help you better understand your art. Best regards, Robert PS: “You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to the sword those who would try to steal it.” (El Greco 1541-1614) Esoterica: In some cases it may be the knowledgeable collector who is most aware of your habitual tendencies. “You made that mistake on another one of yours I have,” said a buyer at a recent show. Peculiarly, even “mistakes” may be treasured, because they give pleasures of superiority and talking points to the discriminating connoisseur. It’s nice, too, when collectors point out your good habits and what you’re doing right, even when they appear in the work of someone who stole them. Where’s my sword?   El Greco

“St. John the Evangelist”
oil painting 1604


“St. Dominic praying”
oil painting 1588


“St. Jerome as Cardinal”
oil painting 1595


“St. John the Baptist”
oil painting 1600


“The Disrobing of Christ”
oil painting 1577-1579


“St. John the Evangelist and St. Francis”
oil painting 1608

                Giant with a pinhead by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA  

“You Don’t Understand”
oil painting 48 x 72 inches
by Skip Rohde

One of my many bad habits is with drawing and painting the figure. I almost always start with the head and work downward. As I do, the scale of my figures gradually increases. Everything looks fine until I step back and realize there’s a giant with a pinhead on my paper or canvas. It might work if I was drawing comic book figures, but not for my desired effect. Sigh. Scrub out, start over. BTW, I am no longer in Afghanistan (yay!). I’m back home in the Asheville, NC, area. No more deployments for this guy. There are 11 comments for Giant with a pinhead by Skip Rohde
From: Anonymous — Sep 19, 2013

Wonder what would happen if you started at the feet. (Welcome home. Delores in Cary, NC)

From: Wes Giesbrecht — Sep 19, 2013

Love your painting!

From: Sherry Purvis — Sep 20, 2013

Glad you made it back safely and thank you for your service. Try, very vaguely starting at the width of the shoulders, and then see what lines up from there. Everything you draw or paint is a shape that connects to another one. Good luck with it and remember each time you sit and draw, you see one more thing you didn’t realize.

From: Ron Ruble — Sep 20, 2013

Thanks for your service my friend. Now have fun with the talent that you have. Welcome home!

From: Sally Chupick — Sep 20, 2013

what a beautiful poignant painting, which speaks to the heart.

From: Mikki — Sep 20, 2013

As a retired Army soldier’s wife, I understand what you were saying in your excellent painting. My husband had 3 tours in Viet Nam and some wives had a very hard time when they came home…it’s not easy to understand what you folks have gone through. Maybe something needs to be done to help the spouses acclimate and help their warriors.

From: Betty Henderson — Sep 20, 2013

Thank you most sincerely for your service and welcome back to the great state of North Carolina!

From: Ib — Sep 20, 2013

If the above work is an example of your bad habits, I would say, keep at it and don’t change.

This is your style! Thank you for your service!
From: Steph N — Sep 21, 2013

Very powerful imagery. Understood!!! By a soldier’s mom. Well done

From: caroline@brucenygard.com — Sep 22, 2013

beautiful work!

From: Anonymous — Oct 07, 2013

Thank you very much for your service. Your painting is beautifully done and is very moving.

  Subconscious tendencies by Angela Courtney, USA  

“Path to Christmas”
digital art
by Angela Courtney

It seems as soon as I identify one habit, another one crops up. First it was subject. I seemed to be saying the same thing over and over, illustrating the same scenario. I’ve move away from this tendency, but now I seem to draw all faces too long, human, cat, dog — I have to keep correcting myself. I think it’s all about “self,” such as I have a long-ish face, so I’m drawing what I know. It does make me wonder what else I’m doing subconsciously.     There is 1 comment for Subconscious tendencies by Angela Courtney
From: C.Berry — Sep 24, 2013

I really like your picture, it tells me a story and only 3 months away…

  Student of life and art by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA  

acrylic painting, 46 x 46 inches
by Alan Soffer

I am always overwhelmed at your ability to step back from yourself and observe. Presently, I’m reading Eckhart Tolle‘s book A New Earth. He speaks to understanding and observing the ego as a way of finding truth and peace in one’s life. So congratulations to you for being one who is well along on that journey. And that journey is far more important than getting everything perfect. You are truly a student of life and art. We value that very much.   There are 2 comments for Student of life and art by Alan Soffer
From: Mishcka — Sep 19, 2013

I love your work!!

From: Karen R. Phinney — Sep 20, 2013

Well said, Alan! I agree….and the painting is lovely, too! Mystical!

  Perfectionist tendencies
by Bobbi, Burlingame, CA, USA

“Red Poppy VI” original painting
by Georgia O’Keeffe

What can you make out of starting a loose poppy painting which painting people liken to Georgia O’Keeffe, and then I keep painting over and over this same painting to improve when unnecessary? I want to stay “loose”, but end up over doing! Do you have any suggestions on breaking this perfectionist tendency? Help, please! (RG note) Thanks, Bobbi. There are several theories about this. I’ve noticed that women have a greater tendency to do it than men. This makes me think that it has something to do with the female need to “give more.” This may be a cultural thing, and it may have something to do with the way women are wired. In any case, the idea of “It can’t be that easy” hits both men and women, and we do go on, gradually killing that first spontaneous burst of creative energy that is often enough to carry the day. The writer E.M Forster noted the situation many years ago and coined the phrase, “Only connect.” Another theory is the “persistence of perfectionism” of my own invention. It’s something all humans have in varying degrees, and I can assure you that it is impossible to achieve. There are 2 comments for Perfectionist tendencies by Bobbi
From: Carol Edan — Sep 19, 2013

I have the same tendency… great spontaneous beginnings that I succeed in ruining. Been doing quick oil sketches on cardboard to help…. and stopping at the under painting stage.

From: Sherry Purvis — Sep 20, 2013

I spent years trying to change how I saw things and how I painted them. Now, I have embraced the gift given me and however I paint, I make sure it is the best of what I can do.

  When collaboration kills creativity by Betsy Schulthess, Exeter, NH, USA  

“Next in line”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Betsy Schulthess

I have been reading the New York Times Bestseller, Quiet by Susan Cain, and your comment about others picking up unanimity from others and being all over it like kids on a broken gumball machine, made me reflect further on some of what I had read in Chapter 3 titled, “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” and how peer pressure unknowingly affects us.   There is 1 comment for When collaboration kills creativity by Betsy Schulthess
From: Nancy Cantelon, Port McNeill, B.C. — Sep 19, 2013

Betsy Schulthess, ‘Next in Line’ is *gorgeous*! The light on the bales, diagonal lines of the rolling hills, the dark trees and rich colours combine to draw the eye IN. Luscious work!

We were created to be unique individuals. I need solitude (and music) to draw and paint without distractions. The music seems to ADD to my focus, not detract.
  Style tendencies by Ellie Siskind, Indianapolis, IN, USA  

“Lipstick Series – Sonja”
acrylic painting, 17 x 19 inches
by Ellie Siskind

When I was in grade school I spent many hours looking at the people who came into Dad’s mobile home business — from all walks of life: gypsies, vacation travelers, soldiers back from the war. I used up a lot of letterhead stationary — with two-B pencils, drawing these folks and wondering about their lives, what made them look that way. I didn’t draw from Photos and didn’t draw “movie stars” but regular people. Now I am modestly “famous” in the Indiana region and in four museums — I have applied the idea of the way our lives mark our faces, like masks. There are 2 comments for Style tendencies by Ellie Siskind
From: Jackie Knott — Sep 20, 2013

You have captured personality in your subject’s expression and gesture. Well done! Life indeed marks our faces and makeup cannot change life experience.

From: Terrie — Sep 20, 2013

Love your painting! Regular people are so interesting!

  Curiosity overcomes preconception by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Sea of Galilee II”
oil painting, 51 x 63.8 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

I am pleased to be invited to teach at the School of Curiosity. Malcolm McClean is bringing together a team of innovators and entrepreneurs to explore how we can live our lives more creatively and express more fully our hopes and dreams. Oscar Wilde said, “I put my talent into my work. I put my genius into my life.” It is not enough to simply paint. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to make a life which supports, or allows for, full time painting. In this respect, paintings are more of a witness to creative thinking than the source of it. Painting is a way of seeing. We see with our mind. Our eyes are merely lenses. Over the years our minds develop countless preconceptions about how things appear so it can quickly interpret the world around us. In my class we will do simple exercises that force us to really see familiar objects as if for the first time. To short-circuit our preconceptions. This same process applies to all problem solving. Our minds tend to go to old familiar solutions, to follow well used patterns of thought rather than see things with fresh eyes and come up with an innovative idea.   Organization of palette by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Yachts in a Storm”
acrylic painting, 90 x 120 cm
by Mike Barr

Habitual things are hard to see until we step back and your letter has made many of us do just that. I think my most noticeable habit is the organization of my palette. Actually, it is never organized. I have noticed over the years how many artists have all their colors in a particular order and in many cases such insignificant little dobs of paint. The colors I put on my palette are never in the same order and I only ever use about six at a time — not the whole rainbow as many artists do. This haphazard palette gives every palette a feeling and personality of its own and I believe adds to the overall adventure of the next painting. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! There are 2 comments for Organization of palette by Mike Barr  
From: Nan Fiegl — Sep 20, 2013

Hah! I agree with your palette! Why do we need a whole rainbow set out to paint from? I am stingy, I guess; have been experimenting with limited palettes, setting out fewer and fewer colors, to challenge myself. Fun — and the paintings “hang together” better than many I’ve done with an overloaded palette!

From: Kay Christopher — Oct 07, 2013

Love your painting. You really captured the feeling of the place, as well as the beauty.

  Unique tendencies by Chris Christen, Florence, Italy  

oil painting, 1472
by Leonardo da Vinci

Habitual tendencies are what define our uniqueness, particularly evident in handwriting, drawing and painting. Our hands reveal our deepest emotions, inextricably woven in our minds. On sabbatical, I’m discovering my love for Florence, the galleries and museums — habitually rendering my experience in a little pocket-book, which I carry with me always, taking the advice of Leonardo da Vinci. We all have tendencies — some appreciated, some not — but how often have dislikes turned out to be someone else’s likes? Ever had one of your ‘poor’ paintings become somebody’s ‘must have’? This happens in reverse, too. The one painting you think is your best, nobody wants. The collector is unique, also, with unique tendencies, even habitual tendencies, in forming a unique collection. When one person’s tendencies appeal to another, success is found for both. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” (William James) There is 1 comment for Unique tendencies by Chris Christen
From: Karen — Sep 20, 2013

You are so right about the paintings we don’t like, being someone else’s ‘must have’…. several times a painting I almost didn’t put in a show, was the one that sold. And each painting is personal. That’s why having original art is much more gratifying than buying a copy of something from who knows where?

  Everything is possible by Warren Browne, UK   All the new age gurus such as, ETF, Psych K, NLP, Clinical Hypnosis claim it is easy to make changes in our lives to eliminate old destructive patterns and create new positive ones. Some say it takes 21 days and others about a month is needed to affect positive change. Doesn’t it boil down to “All thought is energy,” “Your thoughts create your reality” or “Energy flows where the attention goes”? We have the power to change — it only depends how much effort we are willing to put in to making changes. “Start by doing what is necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” (St. Francis of Assisi) “In the arts, as in life, everything is possible provided it is based on love.” (Marc Chagall) There are 2 comments for Everything is possible by Warren Browne
From: Karen — Sep 20, 2013

I can attest to the value of EFT…Emotional Freedom Technique… it is very useful for changing both mental and physical issues. I use it to perk up my painting, asking to be creative, loving, free, loose and successful. It does make a difference. And thought IS energy, and energy moves, baby….

From: daph — Sep 23, 2013

This is absolutely so! In recent months my own work, and indeed other aspects of my life, made some significant shifts to the better as a result of a paradigm shift to just this perspective. Now, I am so fired up as I contemplate the possibilities-there is more than enough creativity for all of us…


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Habitual tendencies

From: Bill Leseburg — Sep 17, 2013

The live comments particularly in the last two clickbacks have been amazing! All the way from adulation to pure venom. It just shows that art, like the stock market, exists because of a difference of opinion.

From: Julia — Sep 17, 2013

….celestial in origin eh? Habitual tendencies – this comes from somwhere else! I need to close the lines and paint in blazing primary colours – i have to! No, there are no “voices” just my own style from day one i took the brush. Sure i learn new tricks, paint different styles, take some workshops to be for a while in someone’s else world or mind. …and i retun back to the vivacious, colourful organic blobs that i was painting years ago. Sort of “have to”. In the past i didn’t know now i know what is a “no no” but i need to paint me, flat colourful, often outlined and in crazy movement, speed. Maybe after all that is why i paint. Maybe we all should paint for expression of this part of us that can only be voiced through the painting?

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Sep 17, 2013

My habitual tendencies have been to not finish the bottom of the painting and to leave some of my drawing marks visible. My college teachers told me to break the habit of doing this but now I have come to realize that it is a hallmark of my style of painting and encourage the paint to drip and fade away as the I work toward the bottom of the image

From: Anonymous — Sep 18, 2013

Michael J Fox wisely says, “I strive for excellence, I leave perfection to God.”

From: Nadya Persel — Sep 18, 2013

Interesting all!I try to learn this stuff you sent me.

My English is not so perfect yet, but I understand most of that. I am learning Flemish style now and Verdaccio..and all steps for that..Found some, but still do not understand yet when to use turpentine….when varnish and …
From: Nancy Priest — Sep 18, 2013

I, also, think that bit of El Greco’s about taking a sword to those who challenge your style, is what prevents a person from getting the most they can from a provoking teacher.

From: Jeannie White — Sep 18, 2013

I appreciate your letter.

My deepest fear is that I truly do not have a style of my own. I have not created anything that is mine. Not that I like. I had a memory from a second grade teacher who told me I should never color outside the line. Funny, I find myself still fighting that remark. I try to go out of the form on a defiant mission, needed or not. So interesting I still have that remark stuck in my brain. Thanks for the reference of habitual tendencies. I guess everyone has had some form of early memory that tends to become a part of the brain.
From: Eddith Buis — Sep 18, 2013

I was an art history major in college–because not GOOD enough as a late-comer to art, and one of my profs offered that El Greco has an astigmatism in his eyes…?

From: Mohamed Hirji — Sep 18, 2013

When painting outdoors, does one paint the colours that we see e.g. The green grasses and green trees with all their monotony or does one invent colours to make a painting exciting? If we invent colours than what is the object of painting plein air except perhaps being close to nature and due to rapidly changing light.

From: Nancy Schempp — Sep 18, 2013

It is so true about all of life and the “personality” we so treasure, even though we might be much better off with purging some aspects of it. Those automatic mannerisms are sometimes very difficult to eradicate, even when we see the need to do so.

From: Susan Holland — Sep 18, 2013

Playing with paint is so wonderful, but here I am again doing my habitual thing with paintings…I’m a “headlong and headstrong” personality according to relatives. It shows in my approach to oil painting.

Here’s the thing: I get so enthralled with the big brushes that I lose touch with the gentle grace strokes, and sort of burn out before the painting is finished, being too satisfied with my furious beginnings to want to diddle around with hairs and whiskers. This might also be catagorized under “not finishing what I have started.” I spent a whole year once working only on unfinished abandonees. So there it is. Should I “fix” them?
From: Rick Rotante — Sep 18, 2013

The one habitual tendency I have is starting too high on my canvas. This happens when painting figures or heads. Invariably the head or figure will “expand” as I work and eventually finish higher than I wanted. I can’t seem to break myself of this habit one hundred percent of the time.

My solution is now to leave extra canvas wrapped around the stretcher bars when I stretch canvas, so IF, I follow my habit, when finished, I can remove the canvas from the stretcher bars and lower it so the head is positioned where it should have been in the first place. Of course, this isn’t a problem with landscapes.
From: Gavin Logan — Sep 18, 2013

My worst is overworking and here’s how I deal with it: I purposely stop when I’m three quarters through and leave the room or go to bed. The next time I look at it it will look not half bad and generally only a few things will be needed to be done. As I want to get on with the next, I often finish with just a few strokes.

From: W. K. Preston — Sep 18, 2013

When I was single I was painting everything brown and ochre, etc, but when I got married last year to Joan my colours brightened up. Do you think this will last?

From: Ed Baxendale — Sep 18, 2013

My most persistent habitual tendency is not starting. I have a feeling of defeat before I begin, so I don’t. Only times when I decide to fool myself do I sometimes begin and sometimes not even then. Aloha!

From: Juan Fernandez — Sep 18, 2013

A friend who buys my art told me I did not use my greens properly and so I spent some time studying the various mixtures, etc. I actually studied Sargent and Sisley and my greens got more subdued and sensitive. This is an example where someone else was able to spot a bad tendency before I was.

From: Jackie Knott — Sep 19, 2013

I have three wide jars with large, medium and small brushes crammed into them. But I tend to use the same favorite 8-10 brushes for everything – this one for sky/clouds, these for blocking in large areas of pigment, those three for foliage, these for lines and detail, that one for blending, etc. I know my technique suffers because of it and have made a conscious effort to use the rest of my arsenal. It is bewildering how uncomfortable that is. Even more strange is a preference between identical brushes, especially when the tip of that brush is frayed. And no, that doesn’t make it better; the protruding hairs are annoying. Go figure ….

From: Georgi Pollock — Sep 19, 2013

If we accept that habits run the world, both good habits and bad habits, even habitually bad politicians give in to their bad habits with emotional and misguided gut reactions, then creative people who in another way lead the world, can at least be advised to lean on their better judgement as a guide to moving forward, this in a world where even failed presidents decide to take up art and paint nude portraits of themselves. I mean, freedom is great but judgement is also of value.

From: Sharon Wadsworth-Smith — Sep 20, 2013

Some old habits are worth keeping. I recently painted an old mill while sitting down. I was a bit tired that day and the weather was lovely and a good painting buddy of mine and I spent more than a couple of hours working on the river that day. The results were tight and somewhat boring I thought, although accurate, I was left with a feeling of yawn. I had to figure out why it was so out of my norm and then I realized, hey, I was sitting down. Most of my plein air painting is done while standing! I seem to have fresher results when I work quickly and stand to give me some distance from my work. I also usually force myself to use brushes that are much larger and that day I used smaller brushes. For me, it does not pay to get too comfortable!

From: Sheila Minifie — Sep 20, 2013

I’m not sure why you’ve chosen El Greco’s painting style for ‘habitual tendencies’ – I find that very odd. Unless he actually declared it a habit, I would certainly not have defined it as one.

And no, he wasn’t astigmatic.
  Featured Workshop: Mike Sibley 092013_mike-sibley Mike Sibley Workshops Held in Hickory, NC, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Stadium Site Study 4

mixed media photo collage, 20 x 27 inches by Iskra Johnson, Seattle, WA, USA

  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 Douglas Smith of New York, NY, USA, who sent us this quote: “In painting, as in everything else, there is a fatal tendency to become accustomed to one’s faults.” (John Collier) And also Nan Zimdars of Madison, WI, USA, who wrote, “My painting coach asked me, ‘Why are your darks and shadows always cool?’ My paintings have improved after this habit was pointed out to me and derailed. I consciously think about it now.” And also Richard Solinger of the USA, who wrote, “Don’t worry. Be happy. ‘There is a tendency for things to right themselves.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)  

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