Last Friday I was pacing the studio, bumping into doors and walls, tripping on canvases, knocking over cups of pre-mixed acrylic. “What to do?” I was asking myself. In my panic I briefly impaled myself on a brush I had forgotten to wash the day before. Like my head, it was hard and thick but still held a good point. Some days there ain’t no fish.
I had a look in my near-gridlocked inbox. I searched “what to do” and got 14 returns from recent incoming emails. They were asking the same question, and I, in my flimsy guruness, was stuck for answers.
I decided to consult the Brotherhood and Sisterhood via the Resource of Art Quotations on our site. It’s a place like no other — enriched by the great artists including our own subscribers. My eyes caught on the words of New Zealand painter Beverly Claridge: “Inspiration is a byproduct of discipline.”
I realized I had fallen prey to my own fatal error. The day before I’d finished a painting — even signed it before I went to bed. Big mistake. There was nothing left to do on it. I knew it all along. It’s always best to sign things early in the day. Then I dug up a faintly remembered quote from Ernest Hemingway: “I learned never to empty the well, but always to stop when there was still something in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
The quotes were getting me as hot as a firecracker. “Inspiration,” said Henri Matisse, “comes while one is working.” “I write only when inspiration strikes — fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp,” said Somerset Maugham. “Inspiration exists,” said Pablo Picasso, “but it has to find you working.
That’s when my line started bobbing up and down. Up until then I had been looking for fish in the sky. My line hadn’t even been in the water.
Esoterica: I put the previous day’s effort to the wall, went quietly to my workstation, set a virginal canvas on the easel and squeezed paint. I turned up the music, breathed deeply and settled into my routine. “Routine,” said Twyla Tharp, “is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.” It was a serene rebirth — a happenstance event loaded with calm desire and gentle optimism. “Inspiration is not born of ‘the eureka moment,'” said subscriber Sharon Knettell, “but in the quiet spaces we allow ourselves to be in — whether in a beautiful part of nature or in a peaceful meditative state of mind.” My enthusiastic and energetic stroking came later in the project. It builds up. It’s the action itself that generates the inspiration.
Thrilling scenes to paint
by Roger Davis, Aspen, CO, USA
I just finished a painting of brown trout in an imagined naturalistic setting Buddies, 16″ x 20″ oil. The older I get the more I seem to want to paint images which evoke feelings of mystery I had about nature as a boy, e.g., coming upon a fish hovering in a shadow and rising now and then to inspect a possible floating insect. Painting imaginary scenes is difficult but when one works out, the thrill is worth the effort and keeps me going. Each step presents a new beginning: What’s the angle of view? Where is the light? color?, tones? Waiting for a key idea. It can be a relief to turn to concrete topic, a still life, or portrait, where decisions seem simpler.
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Confused by letter
by Tina Bos, Crofton, BC, Canada
I love reading your emails but this one just didn’t make a lot of sense. You said it was a big mistake signing the painting late at night — yet it was finished and you were happy with it. Was your signature poorly done? Sorry, I was just trying to figure out if later you weren’t happy with the painting by you say you hung it up and started another one. Soooooooo????
(RG note) Thanks, Tina. Sorry, maybe not clear. My signature was fine. The idea is to leave a painting just a bit unfinished when you quit for the night. Then, with something left to do, there’s something to get the juices flowing in the morning. Easier to move on to the next painting, too.
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Ideas need time to mature
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
As a teacher I was fortunate to work with a group of talented teachers to produce a musical production that involved a lot of our Drama and Music students. We tried to be inventive and use our skills to produce a production that would make us proud. We allowed the students a lot of input on how we could interpret the theme so that their ideas were considered as they helped write the script. We improvised on a lot of rewritten music. I was in charge of the production so I learned to allow ideas to germinate without forcing them. Some days there were ”no fish on the line” and often it was a kind of no show. I ended up with much more stimulating and sound ideas when I left an idea to mature quietly and test it out later. This kind of rational seemed to me to work far better than lamenting on how the ideas will not flow. I often woke up in the middle of the night with a firm concept of how the next scene would work using all the available materials at hand. It seems that we have to trust our creative instincts to guide us on the right path. When now applied to my art studio I am rarely at a loss for ideas. I seem to need to hold back and lose some of the impulsiveness of youth that drove my earlier work and plan a little more carefully.
Daytime and nighttime work
by David Clinch, London, UK
Been there done it and got the T shirt! That’s why it is so important to keep more than one painting going at a time (for example Lucien Freud worked on a nighttime painting and a daytime painting, both at different stages of development). Your letter mentioned ‘cups of pre-mixed acrylic’ – I am intrigued. Have you explained your painting method anywhere? How do you keep them from going off?
(RG note) Thanks, David. On larger acrylic paintings particularly I premix some of the colours in small yogurt cups (Tip: Put your kids on yogurt). The cups with lids keep the paint wet longer. Generally I go off before they do.
Constructive boredom leads to inspiration
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
When wanting to paint but having inspirational challenges, I went to the household job jar. I selected an excruciatingly boring job that requires no thought whatsoever, power washing. Dressed in wet gear, wearing hearing protection, armed with a device that precluded interruption, I was in a near sensory-deprived state. I day dreamed for sometime but then quite unconsciously drifted to thinking about painting, and of old challenges never fully met, how I might attack anew, new challenges and so forth. It soon became evident I had to write ideas down — they started to flood me as I flooded the deck. Jotting down ideas was impossible immersed in one’s own storm.
Must go back and finish the deck some day. Did well to get the machine put away. A little selecting, sketching and so forth thinned the ideas out to a nice little list. Ideas at the head of the list spawned other ideas. I suspect there are several jobs in that jar that could create an inspirational environment simply because of the overwhelming desire to escape the clutches thereof. But of course there is the deck to finish.
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Keeping a line in the water
by Jacqui Chapman
My College tutor used to say, “You can’t think a painting, you can only make a painting” — I have been in my studio all day yesterday after a long absence and had a few unruly paintings to tackle and made a start on two more which I am not happy with… but my line’s in… hoping for a sardine run soon!
PS: On Facebook this afternoon at 5:15 I posted the painting I had struggled with and finished yesterday and it sold 15 min later! Sardine run it is! Whoopee!
Ambushed by delight
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Yes, I have a lot of days when the fish aren’t biting, muse not singing. The fish, the muse, the mermaids are indifferent to our creativity — and yet, for me anyway, necessary to it. As you say, you have to work while waiting for the tide to change, but work on what? The same thing over and over (apparently the secret to success for some artists) unfortunately doesn’t work for me. This is the advantage of working in several different media. OK, I have no new image, so I’ll make a print of an old image, or a sculpture of an old image, or animate an old painting. Those are semi-inspirations in themselves, and sometimes, in the middle of this quasi-repetition — WHAM! — the muse will kick me in the head.
A few weeks ago, when Venus and Jupiter were in conjunction, I came home late from working on a sculpture at a local foundry. I wasn’t thinking of painting, hadn’t painted anything for a while, let alone a landscape, and was preoccupied with bronze women. When I got out of car to close the gate, I was ambushed by a sky full of stars. The two bright planets nailed me to the spot, and then the stars multiplied as my eyes adjusted to the dark and became an overwhelming presence. Gradually the trees became visible against the glow of the eastern horizon. Orion was up high, Taurus the Bull, the Pleiades — and then up the road to my left a car came over the hill, headlights sweeping through the trees — WHAM! — a painting. It was like I had never seen the night sky before.
The problem was that what I was seeing as a painting filled a much wider angle than what you can see without turning your head. Orion was up 45 degrees or more, and the span of the road I was seeing as the base of the composition was about 90 degrees! So this was definitely not a Giotto-perfect moment with one vanishing point and linear perspective. My composition was actually a kind of animation, a record of the journey of my gaze, up and down and back and forth. This moment of unexpected amazement led me to a new kind of skyscape (new to me anyway). This is the way inspiration often comes for me. It’s usually something I’ve seen hundreds of times before — this was my front yard after all! — but yet have never seen in that way.
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A feast of insights
by Miles Patrick Yohnke, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
As always, I sure do appreciate your bi-weekly letter and the insights that they provide. That YOU provide. You’re special. Yes, this world states that we are all ‘special,’ that we are all children of God. But most are too lazy and do little with their lives. Pity. Pity them. Though you sure don’t. A blueprint to a man, this is what you could be called. I thank you for including me in your quotes. An honour indeed. Humbled I am.
(RG note) Thanks, Miles. Many of the insights that come from this site are the direct result of our Resource of Art Quotations. That’s where many of us get our power. In case readers might not have gone there, please do so. If you have ever written to us, or placed a note in the live comments on the clickback pages, you may find that you are already quoted there.
Enjoy the past comments below for No fish today?…
Luccicare 1 & 2
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 Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I once read that the best way to keep motivated is to have three projects on the go or in the back of your head — that way you realize there is always something to do.”
And also Deborah Ridgley of Cincinnati, OH, USA, who wrote, “A quote in the studio: ‘Just begin… and your mind will be heated…and soon your tasks will be completed .’ ”
And also Redenta Soprano, who wrote, “If I wait overnight for the well to fill I’ve forgotten my inspiration by morning!”