Heuristic (pronounced hyu-RIS-tik) comes from the Greek heuriskein meaning “to discover.” The heuristic process means achieving some desired result by intelligent guesswork rather than by systematic formula. Generally used in the fields of invention, computer science, psychology and law, examples of its use would be “seat of the pants,” and “trial and error.” Heuristic thinking generally results in reasonably close solutions. The benefits are speed and expediency.
The daily act of creating art is full of it. Here’s an example: To choose the colour and tone value of the light part of the sky, the colour chosen can be seen as correct only when the rest of the colours around it are applied. Thus, when applying a sky early on, an artist must make a heuristic decision to commit to an approximate sky colour. The artist then has the choice of leaving it and remaining true to the first guess, or modifying it, perhaps many times. Heuristics can apply when artists are looking for both realistic and imaginary truth.
Some media, such as oil or watercolour, require a deadly eye and knowledgeable commitment. “Forgiving” media such as acrylic and pastel are modified more readily. Here are a few ideas for squeezing value from heuristics in any media:
Accept “nearly right” in order to get going.
Forgo early accuracy and precision.
Let early strokes determine later ones.
Assume a solution and try working backwards.
Of two solutions, choose the simplest.
Move forward on incomplete information.
Think smart rather than laborious.
Use intuition to go directly to the outcome.
Trust your instincts.
One needs a sense of discovery and a willingness to go with the educated guess, without falling too much into tried-and-true habit. In other fields the conventional wisdom is sometimes referred to as “bias.” Heuristic painters rethink their systems to free up natural flow and avoid bias. Artists who find themselves stuck, bogged down or habitually obsessive might consider giving some of these ideas a spin. It’s not that perfection is left behind, but rather a new kind of perfection is found.
PS: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity.” (Isaac Newton)
Esoterica: Most of us who apply ourselves at an easel or other workstation automatically become curious about the nature of the daily mystery before us. It seems the blank canvas transforms as a result of both laws and whims. To become unique and fulfilled, we need to work with our whims. Heuristic theory invites a more relaxed “to the point” work habit that is courageous and potentially richer. I’ve noticed a positive change in students’ work when they commit to experimentation. When life and art are understood as a beautiful exercise, great things happen.
This letter was originally published as “Heuristic painting” on May 9, 2008.
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“More of me comes out when I improvise.” (Edward Hopper)
October 17 – 23, 2022
San Miguel de Allende
Painting Mentor – Amit Janco: Artist, Author, Labyrinth Designer, Founder of Heartshops and Retreat on Your Feet (Creativity and Walking Retreats)
Join this 7-day journey through self-expression to unleash your bottled-up creativity, with a brush in hand – and openness in your heart. Calling non-artists too! Each day, you’ll stand up to paint; yes, you’ll be painting on your feet, and moving about – thereby activating the brain, the body and ALL senses. No need to come with a plan; watch the colors and brushstrokes come alive; and see the magic and mysteries unfold, as you greet your square of paper anew, every day. Our accommodations and studio are in an enchanting former bordello, just a stone’s throw away from San Miguel’s historic center, with its gardens, cobblestoned alleys and marvelous colonial architecture. Inspiration abounds!
Christine Hanlon, whose work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper, creates ‘urban landscapes which quietly exude atmosphere.’