Heuristic painting


Dear Artist,

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:

Start anywhere.
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.

Best regards,


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.


The freedom to go back
by Rohana Laing, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada


acrylic painting
by Rohana Laing

Thanks for this new word, “heuristic.” I could really relate to your comments about the use of “intelligent guesswork.” I am known more for my batik paintings but am now loving the directness of acrylic painting. In the batiks, once the dye is set it makes a mess to try to change it. So in your words I “assume a solution and work backwards.” In my painting, however, I bravely plunge in and express what inspires me about the subject. At a certain point it takes on a life of its own. In the attached painting, the colours I applied at the beginning stage dictated what came next but I loved the freedom to go back and make changes and adjustments.


Heuristic language
by Jim Larwill, Lac Bussiere, QC, Canada


photo of Jim
by johnwmacdonald.com

Poets and painters are an interesting reflection of each other. You are a rich painter with an interest in words. I am a poor poet with an interest in image. Heuristic painting is perhaps a reflection of hieratic writing which is a rapid mode of writing hieroglyphics, the sacred form of writing, as compared to demotic writing — which is that of the people. Cave paintings can still be seen and always seem fixed in time, but I also believe their original incantations are still alive and are moving from one epoch to the next whispering to us all through human language, our greatest collective work of art.



Leaving the comfort zone
by Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA


“Lighthouse Vignette”
watercolour painting
by Lyn Cherry

Heuristic painting sounds so exotic for what I’m trying to do. I belong to our local arts organization, Fine Arts Blount. We have a small bricks-and-mortar presence and change our exhibits once a month; for June we are to submit a 3-D or mixed media work. This is moving me completely out of my comfort zone. I’m working in acrylic for only the third time ever, and for the first time ever, am adding a three-dimensional object (a small key) to the work. I’m having a fun time figuring out the background and how to choose the right colors and how to mix them, etc. How freeing it is, and it is certainly heuristic! Leaving a familiar medium (watercolor) and using an unfamiliar one gives me the freedom to fail and not let it disturb me!



Heuristic pots?
by Zara Gamage-Cody, Canada

I don’t know if how I make pottery is heuriskein. The method I use is having an idea as I roll out my clay, choose a mold or combine found objects to make a mold. Then I start laying on different slabs of colored clay onto the mold and adjust and go with the piece whether it is as I first imagined it or not. My saying is, “It turns out the way it is supposed to be.” I am sure someone else has used that same phrase. It’s not a cop out or a compromise, it is that each piece has a life of its own and is one of a kind.


Judgmental heuristics
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada


original painting
by Loraine Wellman

Maybe we need “heuristic jurying” too. It seems to me that juries sometimes get hung up on formula-judging. Focal point not in a sweet spot? – out with it! There are ways to make a painting composition work without it being dead-on formula. Also, with what seems to be a current trend in super-realism, we seem to be going backwards to the time when the Salons ruled and Impressionists were a bunch of young upstarts with no respect for tradition. We need to remember that there are many approaches and no “one right way” … and yes, we need to keep on learning, experimenting and trying new things. That is what art is all about. And we need galleries, juries and the public to see that too.


No prior perfection possible
by Marcia Goodwin, Westbank, BC, Canada

I have always had an aptitude for colour. This letter makes it clearer to me what is going on in making an ‘educated guess’ when choosing colours. Your example of the sky was especially appropriate. You need to get it nearly right simply because you need to get going. I have always found it difficult to have it perfect and any amount of testing on the palette won’t work before brush meets canvas or paper. This business has always held me up!


Heuristic wine tasting
by Joel Langborne, UK

Heuristics have a subtle way of getting to the truth. For example, in a “seat of the pants” experiment, a group of non-experts were asked to compare and evaluate two similar wines — the only thing the contestants knew about the wines was that one had a higher price than the other. They generally preferred the one with the higher price — even when the price-tags were reversed! Surprise, surprise, similar results happened when they had “experts” take the test. Makes you wonder about preferences in art galleries when prices range so dramatically.


Recreating memories
by Corrine Bongiovanni, Windham, ME, USA


“City Sky”
acrylic painting
by Corrine Bongiovanni

I love painting in this mode. It used to be how I painted all the time until I learned more. Now, I have to work at it to paint from this head set. One of my more recent acrylics was done completely from a heuristic stance. I had done a deep blue first layer on a canvas (acrylic) and then left it. The next day I returned and just felt compelled to slap in, and I mean slap in an intense orangey sky. I had no content plan, just an urge to quickly lay in certain colors. Somehow, I didn’t feel worried about turning it into something plausible. I had some degree of trust I could eventually work it into a finished piece. Anyway, after the orange clouds, I felt I wanted to put in some deep purples, blues, golds and so I did that on the horizon line. Again, I didn’t have a preconceived idea but when my 1″ brush made more of a square shape, I realized I could continue that and make it a city horizon with the impression of buildings. By then, the colors lent themselves to a late afternoon/early evening scene. It also reminded me at this point of when I lived in Cape Breton Island. I was running a group home for men coming out of prison. At the end of each day, we’d sit with our tea and process the day and I’d be going nuts over these fabulous orange sky sunsets. I was too ignorant to realize that the skies were produced by pollution from the local coal mines, not Mother Nature. The men in the house never told me about the pollution until it was time for me to return to the States. I think they feared it would spoil it for me. So by the time I had laid in the city horizon line, I remembered this and then completed the painting by putting in the ocean bay and cloud reflections. It had now become a painting in honor of that time in my life.


To Discover
by Paula Timpson

see the
tree is lavender tonight,
casting deep shadow of red seashore…
feel gentle rhythm of light belonging to
that is
to give, and
leave behind
something of meaning,
with value
is to cherish the bounty that is
life-everlasting, amen.


Only original art
by Beth Erlund


“I Thought I Saw an Alligator”
book written and illustrated
by Beth Erland

The statement “originals only” in most 2-D art shows means “no reproductions.” I think most of the big shows that are putting that originals requirement in are assuming that the artists will only show creations of their own design. I know that Coconut Grove, Kansas City Plaza, St Louis, Cherry Creek and Sausalito Art Festivals are restricted to “original art — no reproductions” as are many others. Unfortunately, in my opinion it is unfair to the professional 2-D artists who need to have some lower end items to sell but it has been discussed to death in the trade and probably will not change. By the way, under those rules, photographers who only have reproductions, glass blowers with multiple paper weights, ceramicists with multiple duplicate mugs, jewelers with multiple duplicate earrings, and wood workers with the same spoon or chopping block are not so restricted… only painters!


Thoughts on Orphan Art
by Larry Malone, Los Angeles, CA, USA

It looks to me like some of your conclusions are incorrect. The proposed registries are only one of several types of resources that someone trying to identify the owner of a work can use to find you. Presumably, since your car company located you, you are not hard to find, and anyone attempting to say they came up empty making a “diligent effort” to find Robert Genn would have a very hard sell indeed. If you found your work being used by the car company without your permission, you would have a right to go after them for damages as you do now. This law does limit the amount you can get after the fact to what you could have gotten before, but only if the company could demonstrate they’d made a “diligent effort” to find you. In no case are you denied right to just compensation. Similarly you’re limited in seeking an injunction against any usage of your work that is “in progress,” but also with the same burden of proof placed on the infringer.

It all hinges on what’s taken to be “diligent effort,” which is described as “actions taken during the search that are reasonable and appropriate.” Sounds like there will be a good living for a lot of lawyers. In the worst case these registries could basically become an excuse for diligence, basically allowing an infringer to say, ‘I looked, nothing there.’ At best the bill would not materially change the existing system, while allowing museums, libraries and archives to function without of fear of lawsuits. The wording now is sufficiently fuzzy that infringers with money and lawyers will try their utmost to lower the bar for diligence. It would certainly never pay for an infringer to do anything more than the legal bare minimum, whatever that turns out to be, since the worst outcome would be that he’d have to pay the same amount as what he would’ve had he indeed been diligent (and probably less, since there is no permission hanging in the balance). I do think that is a flaw (Michael Schermer has a great discussion in the last Scientific American about the “doping calculus” given an athlete deciding whether to cheat or not to cheat, and why so many logically choose to cheat).

It’s not in its final form, but I don’t think this bill is quite as nefarious as folks are making out, and addresses a problem felt keenly by many people. To some extent it’s a reaction to the recent increases in the term of copyright (in part orchestrated by none other than the Walt Disney Company seeking to extend protection for ol’ Mickey). It does create a loophole were there was none before, but whether it becomes a major breach in copyright protection will depend on how it influences tests of copyright in the courts.

Is the bar for what constitutes diligent effort set high enough? I don’t know — the phrase “reasonable and appropriate” is deliberately fuzzy to allow judgment, common sense and changing standards, and usually works as long as the goals of the law are clear. But when do you say you’ve searched enough? Since the only definitive stopping point is when you’ve found what you’re looking for, it seems to me that “diligent effort” is open to wide interpretation, and given that there is strong disincentive for the searcher to continue, the standard for diligent effort should probably be made more explicit. Now it will be up to the Copyright Office to set “best practices.”

Libraries and their ilk want a clear determination that’s simple, quick and free. I looked at a random sampling of a couple dozen of the hundreds of initial comments on the proposal posted by the Copyright Office. Maybe I was particularly unlucky, but every single one was in favor of the proposal. They are sitting on tons of material (mostly written and photographs) they dare not publish in catalogs or online because ownership is not ascertainable and the cost of guessing wrong is too high. They argue that the public is harmed by such sequestering. The abandonment of registration requirements (consistent with the Berne Convention) has made a fuzzy situation even more difficult, as there is no longer any starting point from which to start looking, and makes fraudulent claims of ownership easier.

Yet registration now costs $40 a pop, so this is no small potatoes for someone to protect what is legally his in the first place, and places all the burden on the creators. (I am guessing painters, and working professionals in general, don’t have that much to worry about; photographers, whose work is more “anonymous” and often unaccredited, are probably the most vulnerable to abuse of this bill.) A number of proposals for how to unambiguously identify an orphaned work were submitted… who knows what might ultimately be adopted.

Ultimately even perfect clarity in the law couldn’t prevent the grabfest being inflicted on holders of music copyright of late… it’s just too easy to rip off artists in the Internet age. It is possible this bill will make things worse, but I don’t think it is inevitable. Artists need to offer constructive criticism and proposals, with the recognition that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and not don the Chicken Little suit.

(RG note) Thanks, Larry. We continue to receive letters and live comments in response to my letter on the Orphan Art Bills. The long one we’ve included here by Larry Malone was well thought out and brings up some further points. I felt myself ready to refute some of his arguments while agreeing with others. The overwhelming opinion among independent artists is to stomp on the bills.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Heuristic painting



From: Rick Rotante — May 09, 2008

One of my only two painting teachers once told me if you are in a rut, or if you want to just push yourself, start with an obviously wrong color and work your self out of it. Being primarily a figure painter, this can be very scary while being exhilarating all at the same time and produces extraordinary results. Of course I don’t recommend this approach to the new painter or the faint of heart.

From: Rick Rotante — May 09, 2008

One more thing — I work in oil paint. I notice artists slavishly drawing on their canvas – eyes, eyeball, eyebrows, every finger; the ear, in all their details – all this before they paint. This suggests to me an unwillingness to explore and trust your ability.

I suggest an outline with thinned paint and brush to make sure my figure fits the canvas, then immediately move to shape and value, adding darks, not being too particular about color, than add big shapes, refine these shapes down to little shapes until the image is almost complete, then and only at the end do I add the details mentioned above. This method leaves me free to explore, move or change the image until I feel it’s right, without destroying a fine drawing that most don’t want to mess with. Oil painting is called such because it’s not called drawing. Just a suggestion.

From: Dennis Marshall — May 09, 2008

I have found that working this way is a great approach to painting. You learn to trust your instincts and draw upon all of one’s accumulated painting experiences to date. I find that although I will begin a landscape painting with an idea of what I want to express it is better to let instinct take over. If stick to a pre-conceived plan too closely the resulting painting can become very rigid. When I am painting an abstract I have found it best to begin w/o a pre-conceived idea and let it go from there. A fellow artist said to me to just paint w/o thinking about it. Perhaps too much planning gets in the way of being creative. Each artist has to find out what works best for themselves. I have noticed though that listening to music either classical or jazz helps me to get into the flow.

From: Nicole Hyde — May 11, 2008

“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.”

I think the above quote is key — at least for my own work and process. The more I approach the canvas with a willingness to experiment, the more I am rewarded with the unexpected (sometimes with wonderful results and sometimes not viable ones — but usually interesting, at the very least).

That said, there is much to be celebrated about balance. Painting intuitively and openly combined with sound knowledge and experience has often led me into intense creative-growth periods and discoveries. For me, discovery is one of the great joys of painting and I find that best when I’m using both intuition and intellect.

From: Faith Puleston — May 13, 2008

I’m reading a splendid book called “Free Play” – I don’t remember how I found it – maybe here. The author is a jazz musician and the book is really about improvisation and intuition, both of which are of course invaluable, no matter what craft one practises. Sometimes it helps if one is distracted by music (I don’t mean one’s favourite music – try Hard Rock or Bartok) or maybe the TV droning on. The tussle ensuing as the brain tries to get organized can help initiate the physical effort of painting etc. (and imagination) and the artwork “takes off”.

Does that sound bonkers?

No matter. It works for me :-)

From: Liz Reday — May 13, 2008

In the spirit of experimentation, dig out the old dogs, turn ’em upside down, and start painting something else that requires a bit of concentration in the general structure – something with strong lines and general massed areas. But before filling in those areas, note how the background colors in the first painting interact with the new one in ways that you couldn’t predict or contrive. It knocks you right out of the old comfort zone. I suddenly realized that I don’t have to paint something the color that it actually is! What a revelation. Also, playing around with all the color knobs, bells and whistles in photoshop or picasa with a boring photo can create a dazzling fauvist extravaganza. Then paint that, or try to.

I agree that experimentation is the key to “lively up” the art. (Bob Marley)

From: Rick Rotante — May 14, 2008

If Mr Malon – though well spoken – would want to contribute some “small potatoes”- to me I would greatly appreciate it. We can start with registering the first two hundred painting at $40 dollars….let see would Mr Malon please send me $8,000.00. Any small potaoes would be appreciated. Thank you. Why Do I get the sense that Mr Malons response feels so lobbyist in tone, Humm?

From: Richard Hawk — May 14, 2008

The importance of your letter about heuristic process can’t be underestimated. For the legions of artists (of which I have been one) stymied by over-analysis, simply ‘to do’ is in itself a breakthrough. Pick up the brush, smash the graphite to the paper, throw the ink!

Goethe’s quote about ‘beginning’ is enough to cause goose bumps: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Never were truer words spoken in regards to the process of art.

From: Omar — May 14, 2008

It’s quite amazing that you touched upon the word “heuristic” at this particular time. I’m working on a new stone piece and it’s totally in a style that I have only touched upon in the past. I’ve been trying to reach outside, of the style that I have been carving for quite some time. It has been a struggle trying to see in a different way. Over the past couple of weeks, I have managed to create a piece via “heuristic” method. I must say that I’m very excited about the piece.

From: Pat Gebbie — May 15, 2008

When I first started to paint 10 years ago, I only worked on one painting at a time, and would become terribly frustrated. Often ending up throwing my painting on the floor and stomping on it and then burning it in our fireplace. When I read a book about an artist who set up three or four paintings around his room and painted on all four because of the changing light, I thought this might help me. Yes it really did work for me, but of course there will always be paintings that don’t make it.

From: Delilah — Jun 21, 2008

thank god!!! I am so sick of all the rules, I just want to paint and lay it down fast to get my idea down on canvas. All that concentration ruins my day.

From: Dan Mosheim — Jul 29, 2008






Tug of War

oil painting
by Paul Van Ginkel, Calgary, AB, Canada


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 Linda Ewart of Canada who wrote, “Strange and wonderful how your letter manages to weave its way into daily life, regardless of whether or not all your readers are artists.”

And also Ted Duncan of ON, Canada who wrote, “There are other approaches than heuristic, but for me this is the only way — much more enjoyable, more venturesome and produces less stilted work.”

And also Catherine Colsher of PA, USA who wrote, “Thank you for giving me a constructive break from painting.”

And also Gwen Fox of Colorado Springs, CO, USA who wrote, “Expanding one’s vocabulary concerning the arts is always a pleasure. I didn’t realize that what I was doing and how I was thinking when I painted had a name.”




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