How to improvise


Dear Artist,

“For an artist, greatness happens when you can take something organized and make it feel like it was improvised,” says dance teacher Helena St. Rogers in the drama series, Pose. In painting, you may wonder how to do this without ending up with an aimless jumble. Improvisation, the act of composing without a plan, unfurls in real time but rests on an armature of known structures and experiences, with the goal of getting to a breakthrough. Just as a jazz musician takes a solo over a grid of eight or twelve bars, your improvisation should have a beginning, middle and end. “I will keep playing until I get something interesting going and manage to reach some kind of climax before I end my solo,” says American vibraphonist Gary Burton. Gary also recommends starting strong. An exclamatory phrase, he says, introduces your style and serves as a jumping off point for the development of your ideas.

1957 - PH-957 oil on canvas 92 1/2 x 108 inches by Clyfford Still (1904-1980)

1957 – PH-957
oil on canvas
92 1/2 x 108 inches
by Clyfford Still (1904-1980)

Improvisation needs to be nothing more than a series of experiments. Set out a dozen prepared grounds and, without planning anything, drop, lay or drag your brush as if you were attacking a solo, knowing your band is holding it down behind you. The secret is to avoid meandering around while waiting for inspiration, but to instead hit hard with something exciting enough to play with and expand upon for a few minutes.

For this exercise, resist the temptation to change tools. Keep your palette simple and don’t forget to leave spaces between your runs and within your dynamics. Your textures should come from what’s in your hand now. Remember that what you don’t play is as important as what you play.

1951 PH-374 oil on canvas 57 7/9 x 54 7/8 in by Clyfford Still

1951 PH-374
oil on canvas
57 7/9 x 54 7/8 in
by Clyfford Still

If you’re struggling with sameness, go up a brush size. Liquify your colour. Punch in with intensity. Harness the power of “strong and wrong” — the musical idea that it’s better to blow a strong note off key than to produce a wimpy one that doesn’t get noticed.

In order to get new ideas, you have to be in the practice of summoning them. When returning to your regular work flow, keep in mind the access point to surprise. Improvising your way through an existing plan or subject, colour story or composition puts you in a position to offer the viewer the feeling of wildly inspired and spontaneously-made art — it puts you on the dance floor.



1954 - PH-1182 oil on canvas 117 7/8 x 93 7/8 inches by Clyfford Still

1954 – PH-1182
oil on canvas
117 7/8 x 93 7/8 inches
by Clyfford Still

PS: “The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

Esoterica: During dance class, Helen St. Rogers’ students rehearse the choreography to their new piece. In French, the word for “rehearse” is répéter, or “repeat.” Ms. St. Rogers notices one of her students absorbed in the music and movement, present in his experience as opposed to thinking through the steps. “You were not rehearsing,” she says, “you were dancing.” Painting, while not usually a performing art, is still an act of creation in real time that demands the same exertion and human expression as dancing. The difference in what we do is that we’re also simultaneously creating a physical record of a creative event —- that thing we call “a painting.” How much of it was improvised is up to the artist — our work carrying the potential to feel as immediate and unique as if it were.

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“Most people learn to improvise on their own, listening to records, endless hours of noodling on their instrument in the bedroom with all their spare time. That’s traditionally how people learn.” (Gary Burton)



  1. Rachel Bushnell on

    Wow! How inspiring!
    Gary and Chis’s music to float along with.
    Don’t think I’ve ever been so inspired to pick up a brush and 5 canvasses and 3 colours and fly.
    How clever, Sara, to pair up these amazing jazz artists to float us beyond the box.

  2. The improv approach you describe seem to lead only to abstracted work but, I think it is way to start realizing any kind of scene or image. That approach lets you describe the major thrusts in what is going to go on. Even if working from a photo of a waterfront, the idea is to capture the story about to happen. It is not necessary to lock in the waterline or that cloud, rather to describe relations between parts to give the image more dimension and place the viewer. Control is everything, but not the only thing. Thanks, Sara, Chic, Gary.

  3. This concept always works for me. Currently
    Completing a piece of 3 x 4’ which I started a year ago, and then put aside when it didn’t work.
    When again nothing seemed to work, I removed pieces of Collage, sanded down half of the piece
    And ran with what I felt. “Improv” is again
    ‘Flying by the seat of your pants’. And being inspired by whatever appears. Now it has arrived

  4. I have been trying to abstract my landscapes and just this week did the first one that seemed to go as “planned”. Big brushes and simple shapes. Thank you for this timely inspiration and music to boot!

  5. Ginger White on

    “Anything is possible, one stroke at a time.” This is the motto of Zentangle (r) founders Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. I practice this artform, and am a certified teacher of the same. Personally, I believe this phrase extends to everything.

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Los Angeles-based artist Lisa Chakrabarti works in a variety of media: oils, acrylics, pastels, watercolors, graphite and colored pencils. Focusing on a style she calls “romantic naturalism” – impressionism based largely on subjects in the natural world – her works have found their way into galleries in Los Angeles, Florida, Colorado and New York. In 1995, after being introduced to sumi-e and Chinese ink painting by Asian friends, Lisa became captivated by the apparent freedom and subtlety of this ancient medium.  This shift in focus has informed her work ever since.


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