Illusionary structures


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “Right now I’m painting old structures, especially deserted homes — all with the same dark palette. There is difficulty with one — it looks like it’s in a cemetery. Do these works take on their own personality? Sometimes I can imagine or feel or know the story of the people who lived in the structure. Are these feelings real, or are they imagined by me? In this particular one, there was a little girl who was not treated well, who had dreams and hopes of escaping but never did. Her mother was a large slovenly woman with a greasy apron. Her father was a man of no consequence. Where did these thoughts come from? Should I let the painting emerge as is, or should I make it a happy place, thereby maybe helping the little girl whose name is Misty?”


“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”
1931 oil painting by Grant Wood (1891-1942)

There are at least two paintings to be had from this illusion. One is the dark and depressing side that you describe. The other is the escape, freedom and happiness that you wish for Misty. As an artist your job is to explore the potential that your imagination prompts. Don’t lock yourself into one palette. Art, as well as being an examination of truth, is also catharsis — in this case those thoughts may well be coming from your own past — and it’s valuable to both represent and exorcise them.

Did you ever notice that the covers of romantic novels often include an old mansion or castle? Movies also, are full of this device. With these images we get permission to visualize the kind of people who might live in or emerge from the structures. You are doing the same thing — populating your real estate and investing it with your feelings.


“American Gothic”
1930 oil painting by Grant Wood

Your observation and concern is precisely the “second phase” that is most needed in the creative process. It is the wellspring of great art. Surrender to your imagination.

Best regards,


PS: I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all. (Joni Mitchell)

Esoterica: Exercise: Go to an unfamiliar area and find some sort of a structure — a decrepit or even a new home, a country store, an old factory. Stare at it for some period of time–you can generally get away with this in the sanctuary of a car. Populate the place with imagined people. Quietly, privately, tell their story. Note how windows become eyes, horns appear on the roof, doors begin to smile or frown, and young children run from the structure in joy or fright.

This letter was originally published as “Illusionary structures” on October 3, 2003.


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“All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” (Grant Wood)




  1. Illusionary Structures follows on the heels of Anxiety Creativity quite well… I’m horrified- I’m terrified- I’m emotionally distraught- so I make art! I so want my abstract art to resonate emotionally with people! I do. I really do! Years ago I attended the reception of a non-juried Open Show I’d submitted a piece for- and I was horrified. Everywhere- in virtually every piece- was the visible pain the artist/maker was in. Not in my piece. I think it’s the most amazing thing about my work. You can’t see the pain I’m in- in any of it. Oh well… Hope that little girl escapes! Why do we- as humans- create horror stories for our children to grow up in? I grew up in one. Must be why I fathered no children…

    • Fairy tales are bitter-sweet. Joyful and sad. Horrible and happy. Pain and pleasure. Demons and Daemons. Otherwise we call it life. Without the contrast, like in our painting, nothing stands out.

  2. Harriet Howell on

    One artist who transformed landscapes into a personal creative spaces was Charles Birchfield. The amazing thing is that he did most of his work plein air.

  3. I am new at receiving these letters. I wish I’d known about them sooner. I really enjoy them Please keep sending them to everyone. thanks so much. BA in Canada

  4. Perfect timing for me. We are driving to a different state for a few days and I will be looking for structures to sketch and populate with imaginary people, animals, or whatever comes to mind. Reading Jung’s works might help artists understand where their “ideas” come from. Your posts are helpful and the art chosen as representing the post’s theme is always outstanding.

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