Starting a painting is very much like entering an empty room. There may be fresh primer — but no furnishings. You walk in with the anticipation of designing the space to your liking. In larger paintings where you might enter for a few days, this “living in” can give a high like no narcotic.
It helps to understand the creative stages you’re going to go through while you’re living in that room. For many of us the first stages of planning and layout are the most daunting. The idea should be potentially valuable, the means practical, and the work doable. It’s both an idea and a process. That’s why you don’t want to be too sure of yourself. The golden word is “rough.” It’s comforting to know that great work comes out of changing your mind. “Win me over,” we say to the room. “Interest me.”
When the general idea is somewhat firmed up, then your larger areas might be conceived and rendered. (You generally place the sofas before you place the doilies.) For most, easily accomplished areas tend to precede the more difficult passages — and this is okay. It’s at this point that you really start to live in the work, to have the full joy of the intimate relationship. The outside world, the stock market, the sprinkler system, crumble away and evaporate.
With this intensified involvement, most artists now find themselves beginning to adjust colours and relationships. They look for and further define “conditions” that may exist within the work — and to dig for that elusive thing called “truth.” Abstract or realistic, surfaces are treated to an obsessive canvassing. The eye cruises for “what could be.” This is the stage that can really bring out those creative nuances and stylistic touches that make your work unique. Do not let your touches be tired ones.
Somewhere at this point you take a rest — perhaps stepping out of the room for a temporary change of pace. Returning for the “final cruising” you see the room afresh. You make repairs, additions and subtractions. You notice and fix problems not previously seen. This tidying up of the room brings to a climax one of the great human experiences. Then, always, always, that slight wisp of disappointment gives courage to go again to yet another room. This is no slight accomplishment.
PS: “Need must find idea and method. Obsession follows. Obsession cannot occur before idea. As idea leads, the form of one’s art emerges, and at its best, an accumulation of painted images leads to a surrogate of the real world.” (Hiram Williams)
Esoterica: When does the judicious moving of furniture change to desperately rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Time, as well as just being there, builds the proficiency to make the creative event satisfying and successful. Lived-in work gives all-enveloping joy and stands a better chance of being lived in by others. “As the decades go by, a painter’s life becomes a life lived with paint, a story often told in the thicknesses of oil. Any history of painting that does not take that obsession seriously is incomplete.” (James Elkins)
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I have a 30 x 20 inch mirror hanging on the wall of my studio opposite my easel. It’s a problem solving tool. When trying to draw or paint a circle, for example, and it looks a bit out of round I go and look at the painting in the mirror. That slightly out of round donut now looks like a twisted pretzel! The flipped image appears fresh to a tired eye. Values jump and colors too high in chroma will poke your eye out. This allows one to see the room freshly again.
No one way to fix a room
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
Besides being a painter I am also an organizer and a redecorator. I have always considered arranging furniture and accessories and everything that it takes to pull a room together to be highly creative work. There is no one way. The best options are often based on the purpose the room plays in the life of the people who live there. And of course, color and form play a major role. Many people have commented that I seem to have an uncanny sense of space. Eyeballing things works well for me. I know what fits where without measuring it most of the time. And this can save a lot of physical labor — be it measuring or rearranging. I use my sense of space and spatial relationships constantly in both painting and decorating.
Let lions into the room
by Todd Plough, NY, USA
Many painters start out to slavishly copy an image. It will always be their master — what’s the fun in that? If painting isn’t about freedom, what is is good for? If I knew what a painting was going to look like before I started it I probably wouldn’t even do it. First listen to the source image — then at some point the image will leave the photos or place and speak to you. As a painter you are only a vehicle to help others see that which longs to reveal itself from dreams. We must not fear the unknown for only in seeking the unknown is there learning and wisdom. Art without mystery is only science. Science can buy a lion and put it in a zoo — but artists must realize that only what is savage and forbidden in nature is true. Keep your paintings lions.
Pain and pleasure in the room
by Murray Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
I am reviving my practice of drawing. Over the years I have got over my fear of the blank surface, and it is the initial stages of mucking about with idea and shapes that get me over this hump. The process of making something come to be is an exciting one, and this excitement provides the impetus to keep on going, even when lapses of enthusiasm occur. There comes a time, near the end of a particular work, as you described in your letter, where one has brief feelings of disenchantment, but this feeling is what gets one to get out the next blank surface, regroup, and go for the next attempt to wrest yet another piece out of the backlog in the mind clamoring for expression. Isn’t this what we all live for, and which gives us so much pain and pleasure as artists?
Escape to your room
by Richard J. Rogers, Lawton, MI, USA
I am a painter as well as a writer. I use both mediums to escape my present world and enter another. It actually becomes somewhat unhealthy when you almost prefer your created world to your own, but it is a nice escape. We have the only profession in which, by working, we are creating our own vacations.
Spinning around in the room
by Peter Senesac, Gainesville, FL, USA
Several of us were talking at breakfast this morning about spinning around on one foot (being overwhelmed, getting things done, remembering what to do and focusing). The thing that works for me, when I get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do next, is the age old “to do” list. I don’t prioritize it. I just constantly write down everything I think of that I need to do, no matter how small. I keep a spiral note book just for this so I don’t write on little scraps. Then when I’m spinning around, and don’t know what to do next, I look at the list and do something on it. It doesn’t matter what. Just do something. I try not to do anything that’s not on the list but add things as they come up. It feels good to scratch things off the list. It helps to keep me productive and not scattered and procrastinating. When the page is full and the list is all scratched up, I transfer the old things that didn’t get done to a new page. Some things might not get done but I’m reminded. There is a certain motivating guilt factor in a page full of “to do’s.” The List is the Boss. I have to be careful not to put too many of those vague, never-ending tasks on the page like make art or clean up because soon the page will be full of things that never get scratched off. Not good. The object is to have nothing to do. It also helps with the “Geeze I didn’t get anything done today” syndrome. This simple system works and doesn’t require any maintenance.
A room of one’s own
by Anna Hansen, Copenhagen, Denmark
In her feminist manifesto Virginia Woolf wrote brilliantly about the need for the solid backup income and the private room. The “room” of one’s art that you describe is an extension of the safety and security of your own roomyour studio. Without the studio, however humble, the room where the imagination can enter cannot exist.
A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s classic (1929) expression of the creative woman who finds her centered place of solitude where her innate creativity blooms.
Pricing and public values
by Vernon DePauw, USA
We all are, in a way, affecting each other’s prices as well as our own. I try to keep in mind that if I put a rock bottom price on my items, that I then contribute to a public opinion of what this type of artwork is worth. At any show we are all in competition for the public’s attention and money. Do they buy my item or someone else’s? This is more true when there are others selling similar items. I find it very discouraging when I am competing with someone who makes their living from another job or are retired and sell their items for cost of materials. I have talked to many of these people and the attitude is that they only want enough money from this piece to buy supplies for the next. So I find myself charging $200.00 for a similar item they have for $30.00. I know it is their right to do so, but I then find the public putting a low value on all items of this kind. I find that the general public has little concept of the true value of art so I believe it is all our jobs to educate them by putting a fair price on our work.
by Linda Anderson Stewart, Twin Butte, AB, Canada
I was reading the responses to the last letter about pricing and one thing that did not come up was what happens when a gallery changes their commission scale and you have to increase to compensate. It happened to me this year — going from 60/40 in my favour to 50/50 in one season — a 20% increase! Very frustrating when you finally feel like you are getting a leg up and suddenly your prices climb and your buying public doesn’t have a clue why! I have often wondered if it wouldn’t be beneficial for galleries to publish the commission they are charging just so the public has a gage on what artists are really taking home. Perhaps it would help the sympathy level if nothing else. I have also heard rumours that the trend is toward 60/40 in the gallery’s favour and sometimes as much as 70/30… do you have info as to that possibility?
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. Gallery prices (as sold to the public) should be consistent across all galleries. The deal you cut may vary between galleries. You might consider favouring galleries that give you the better cut. Having said that, I reward my more effective galleries by giving them the 50/50 cut. Telling the public how much the gallery takes is a bad idea. It doesn’t work in any other form of retailing. Bigger cuts than 50/50 that favour galleries are not on my horizon.
My experience of galleries and art dealers has been much less satisfactory than yours, with problems of nonpayment and shady bookwork, plus the little problem of being groped by an art dealer and told that he “owned me.” But I’ve put him behind me (whoops – not a safe place). Now my problem is finding my niche in the gallery world as I am a mid-career, but not cutting-edge painter. What I wanted to ask you about is the ownership-of-the-artist attitude in art collectors. Sometimes I find people who buy my art feel they are buying a piece of me. That they feel they are either buying my friendship or can make social demands on me – e.g. be the token artist at the dinner party. Or they act as if buying my art has been mostly a charitable donation rather than a purchase of something that has value in itself. I would appreciate any thoughts you might have. I like to have a friendly, business-like relationship, but not close. Some of my collectors read this site, so I’d rather my name wasn’t published if you do choose to answer this question.
(RG note) Everyone has a different take on this one. Some relish the opportunity to be the token artist, to hob-nob and hang out. Others are simply shy, stick to their art, and keep moving. My attitude is to be a bit circumspect about getting close to either dealers or collectors. Nobody, no-how, can own you. To be frank, the big problem for me is “time wasters.” As in all cases you choose your friends. As always, choose well. My experience has been that many wonderful and respectful friends have arisen from both ranks.
Dealing in another country
by Liliana Arribas, Argentina
What sort of an agreement should I have with a gallery in another country? What do you think I should ask for to be sure things are going to be okay when I send my paintings?
(RG note) Thanks, Liliana. Dealing in another country can present more problems than dealing with a gallery that’s just down the road. Dealers that are not easily accessible are not as easy to keep track of. The best approach is to lay your cards on the table and get a few things in writing. Final prices, discount ranges if any, gallery percentages, regularity of payment, length of time to hold works, agreements for return, who pays for shipping, etc., are some of the main points I’d get across. The gallery may have requests as well and you should ask them to send these along to you in writing. Arm’s-length relationships can be golden. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” (Kahlil Gibran)
The Purkinje Effect
by Virginia Davis, Barboursville, VA, USA
Leonardo da Vinci noticed that “Green and blue are invariably accentuated in the half-shadows, yellow and red and white in the light parts.” Observe the contrast between the flaming red of geraniums in a border and their background of dark green leaves. In the twilight, and later in the evening, this contrast is clearly reversed, the flowers now appearing much darker than the leaves. You may wonder, perhaps, whether the brightness of red can be compared at all with the brightness of green, but the differences are so pronounced here as to leave no room for doubt.
If you can find a red and a blue in a picture gallery that appear to be equally bright by day, you will see that, in the twilight, the blue becomes by far the brighter of the two, so much so that it seems to radiate light.
These are examples of the Purkinje Effect. This is due to the fact that in normal illumination our eyes observe with the cells in the retina called cones, but with the cells known as rods in very weak illumination. The former are most sensitive to yellow, the latter to green-blue, and this explains the reversal in brightness-ratio of various coloured objects when the illumination varies in intensity. The rods only provide us with the impression of light, not of colour. Illumination by the moon is so weak that, practically speaking, the rods, only, are at work, and colours in a landscape are no longer perceptible: we have become colour-blind. This colour-blindness is still more complete on dark nights.
During the daylight hours we see using the cones in our eyes, which observe mostly yellows and reds. During the twilight and evening hours, or low illumination hours, we see using the rods in our eyes, which observe mostly blues and greens.
(RG note) Thanks, Virginia. Artists who might be interested in getting a deeper understanding of the Purkinje Effect and other color phenomena worth knowing about, should take a look at The Nature of Light and Color in Open Air by Marcel Giles Jozef Minnaert. Also of value is The Enjoyment and Use of Color by Walter Sargent.
Portrait of Kari Feilberg-Jacobsen
oil on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Luke Charchuk who wrote, “Just as the eyes are the windows of the soul, the painting may be an extension of this, the window to the world, or many worlds. Each as unique as the passions which define them. Yes, when we live in our art, our art lives!”
And also George Kubac who wrote, “The most difficult stage is getting started.”
And also John F. Burk of Timonium, Maryland who wrote, “Your intimacy with the painting process, both mechanical and intellectual; your willingness and ability to put it out there; and the sense of friendship that comes across to another artist and ‘striver’ is an unusual ability to articulate so well something that is not easily talked about.”
And also Sally Ogletree who wrote, “I am constantly amazed and in awe of your ability to verbalize such depth of feelings and insights that an artist struggles to understand. You simplify it and cut to the chase and make everything so much easier and clearer. Every email from you is a great gift that I treasure and enjoy.”