Make a list

Dear Artist, Stepping into an environment with an open mind and no plan is possible. Such a serendipitous attitude can surprise with joy and unforeseen opportunities. But you can also be caught unprepared and blind to both potential and problems. Just as walking right by a particular owl in a certain kind of forest is possible, you need to know how to find what you’re looking for. Go out with a list. A list from a recent mountain sortie suggests looking for: Foreground design that echoes background design. Large patterns of complexity and arbitrary abstraction. Contrast of light and weather for potential drama. Opportunities for neutralized and gradated grays. Opportunities for high colour in counterpoint. Authentic form, inside knowledge and specific detail. Some artists may not find it necessary to write this sort of thing down and keep referring to the items while shifting the easel. Beginning artists, particularly, should write them down. For advanced and focused artists, list items can be more automatic and burned into the creative psyche. For all of us, self-briefing before going out or starting a project sharpens artistic wit. A good example of this sort of understanding is the British photographer Martin Parr — best known for his candid shots of people. Working backwards from Parr’s brilliantly defined, colourful photos, we get a glimpse of what must be his list — the sort of things he consciously or unconsciously looks for when he steps out with his camera: Posers posing. Open-mouth eating. Extreme frumpiness. Gross flesh. Tight close-ups. Artificial environments. People selling. Evidence of vanity. People echoing one another’s actions. Children being childlike. People decaying. Technological threat. Human separateness. Media, print, and signage as comment. The contrast of beauty and ugliness. Animals as humans. Humans as animals. Shopping mayhem. The vacant life. Extreme people. Mid action. Top of action. Doppelganger. Incongruity. Banality. The list goes on. If you catch my drift, a list is the unseen backbone of passion. A list gives work the appearance of effortless creativity. Make a list. Best regards, Robert PS: “Work harder, get closer, be passionate.” (Martin Parr) Esoterica: A list of your own making is the most powerful list of all. As well as the nuances of materials and equipment, personal lists can include work processes, both indoors and in the field. The good stuff can be “love at first sight” — in need of study, courting and claiming. And like a love note, it’s nice to have things in writing. Incidentally, I’ve just hung up from talking to my daughter, Sara, in New York. We were going over her list: Battery radio. Flashlight. Spare batteries. Water. Granola. Sardines. Canson papers, Pastels. It’s good to have a list.   Martin Parr photographs 103012_robert-genn2 103012_robert-genn3 103012_robert-genn4 103012_robert-genn5           103012_robert-genn6 103012_robert-genn7 103012_robert-genn8             A change for the better by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada  

original painting
by Jeri Lynn Ing

I must admit list making does not come easily to me. After reading your letter I gave some thought to my process and I made a list. 1. Composition 2. Colour relationships and light source 3. Simplify 4. Be Fearless 5. You cannot have light without dark 6. Simplify 7. Brush marks and edges 8. Be Fearless 9. Think! 10.Simplify I see this List as advice from my mind to the heart and back to the mind and it follows a quote I read recently from Richard Diebenkorn‘s own pre-painting list: “Don’t be a Pollyanna!” My artwork has become stronger and more joyful recently and making a list of my process showed me why and how I have changed for the better. There are 2 comments for A change for the better by Jeri Lynn Ing
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Nov 02, 2012

I love your list … especially the many times you mention “simplify!” Very interesting painting, also.

From: Suzette Fram — Nov 02, 2012

Love your painting!!

  Activating the thinking process by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA  

“Glaucous III”
encaustic painting
by Alan Soffer

As an abstract expressionist painter my list is usually quite brief, but all the same very important. In our ART INCUBATOR workshops we refer to it as “concept.” How can you expect to convey something of value if you have no concept? So whether doing a landscape, still life, nude, or abstract, a point of view is essential. When I am plumbing the depths of my subconscious I always start with a few things in mind, though I don’t have to write them down at this point. I think writing ideas is powerful when beginning the process. I might be thinking about working in a minimalist, reductive way. Perhaps focusing on soft colors rather than vibrant colors on a particular piece. Thinking about line vs mass, and so on. Taking this a step further, I might be thinking about some personal issues or some issues in the universe. Ultimately, this approach can lead to something that speaks to people rather than simply a nice little painting.   Lists rule by Maureen Brouillette, Dallas, TX, USA  

“Kool breeze”
acrylic painting
by Maureen Brouillette

I really like this letter because it focuses on something I think is a very important issue with artists. And that is focusing on the left brain, analytical side of things. I have always been a list maker, planner and thinker about what I want to do with my art and my life in general. I even make a list every night about what I want to accomplish the next day. Art, art business, laundry, groceries, etc. Whatever does not get done, goes on the next day’s list. When I’m planning a new series, I have a large drawer in my studio where I store materials and ideas for future work. Most of the ideas come to me when I least expect them. That is my intuitive side. Many times while I’m reading, taking a shower, doing the dishes or watering the yard, an interesting idea will come to me. I quickly write these “insights” on sticky notes and throw them in the drawer. By the time I am finally ready to start the new series, I have reams of material to work with. I am usually surprised and happy by the notes I have left myself that I had totally forgotten about! I also make lists of changes for work I am still doing. I work in acrylic both transparently, and opaquely and on WC paper and canvas, so I have a lot of options. More contrast at the center of interest? Softer edges going off the space? A warmer dominance? Fewer shapes? More quiet areas? Way more DARKS! Whatever. There is 1 comment for Lists rule by Maureen Brouillette
From: Rose — Nov 04, 2012

sweet painting….

  Comprehensive but not off focus by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA  

original painting
by Elle Fagan

In the olden days, they’d snigger if you did refreshers, as if that meant you never really made the date “yerrown.” But today we know the mind likes its fine points refreshed and it shows in the art when we do it. Thank so much for the note on the topic… I am perfecting my use of speech to text so that I can save typing, typing typing time. But even the typing is valuable — it gives the fingers a good workout and typing exercises and speed typing workouts help too. I am even doing a speed-knitting thing — did you know they have contests in it? Wild , no? I had the classic “lady” arts training — some of it all and love it all, and admire experts in other foci and try to stay comprehensive but not off-focus.   Planning finds style by Celeste McCall, Southlake, TX, USA  

original painting
by Celeste McCall

Edgar Whitney‘s quote is something like, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I mostly agree with his thoughts on this. However, I have seen, in rarity, a nonchalant GREAT painting made from running paint. I’ve seen such destroyed later by ‘plans.’ So, be happy with GREAT however it comes. But do plan 86% of your paintings. Otherwise, if we don’t, we might become victims of the inability to gain a recognizable style. Style, in my humble opinion, is formed for each artist through years of practice. And it’s what puts artists in the history books.       Just go and look by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

original photograph
by Peter Brown

My humble advice to artists everywhere is to make no list. My humble advice is to simply look at the world. Do people really need to make the same paintings over and over again? I don’t get that. What is the point? Look at the world. I had the great privilege to be in British Columbia in late October. What I saw belies your list. Quite used to it, you may not experience it in the same way I do. Those obese British people at the beach leave me cold. Colder than late October in a summer cabin in B.C. The B.C environment is truly beautiful. Far more beautiful than a bunch of sweaty British people at the beach. Make a list? Hell, no. Just go out and look at the world. Make an image that is surprising. PWB. There are 2 comments for Just go and look by Peter Brown
From: Ron Ruble — Nov 02, 2012

Peter, “Untitled” is why photography is fine art. Great stuff!

From: Tatjana — Nov 02, 2012

Thanks for the reminder Peter! Awesome photo!

  Don’t need a list by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

oil painting
by Robin Shillcock

Making a list is good for beginners. I used to keep a sketchbook with lists of ideas, of dreams that needed to become real, and notes on the hours spent on work, on what worked and what didn’t on work under hand. But in the end keeping notes became a drag, so I abandoned that idea. I wonder, perhaps it is better to make notes afterwards? To evaluate what you have done. I guess I prefer going to the chopping block with a sharp axe and an open mind, and hope I won’t lose my head in the process. You state that such an attitude can lead to missed opportunities, but the same could be said of making lists beforehand. Because I am a “generalist” sort of painter, with interests in the landscape, the people, wild and domestic animals and plants that inhabit it, and traces of man’s presence, like a footpath, shacks, rusted machinery and even old power line pylons, I feel I don’t need a list to be open to all possibilities. Hiking up the mountain, as I did recently in the French High Alps, offers all kind of opportunities, from foreground details to vast panoramic views. The gear I cart along, however, limits the possibilities to a certain extent. Leaving my spotting scope in the valley frustrates the opportunity of painting wildlife. Having only a small sketching box limits capturing vast panoramas, but everything in between is still possible, and a joy to do!   Hurricane Sandy by Esmie G. McLaren, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Esmie G. McLaren

All the best to Sara. Sounds like she’s doing okay amidst the calamity in New York. (RG note) Thanks Esmie, and all who wrote in concern for daughter Sara in her fourth floor walkup on 20th Street in Chelsea, NY. We have forwarded all your emails to her. As I write this she still does not have power but it’s amazing what she can get done sitting by the window in the daylight hours.        

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Make a list

From: Tom Henderson Smith — Oct 30, 2012

I enjoyed the Martin Parr photographs. Such effective examples of the photographer’s art got me thinking about the whole question of photography in relation to painting concluding that for me such strong photos as Parr’s wouldn’t translate well into paint. On the other I find that sometimes quite ineffective or flawed photos can be an excellent starting point for a painting. I suppose it’s all down to experience of the two media generating different lists of what works best in each of them. Tom : – )

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Oct 30, 2012

I enjoyed reading your list, especially because it deals with “thoughts” and not necessarily “things.” As a plein air painter about 50% of the time, it is important to have a mental list for looking when determining a “spot” to paint. I usually have an idea, but no list written. I know the items that always inspire me … but then I try to find a different perspective for those so my paintings don’t look the same every time. And, it helps me to try something new and hopefully grow by doing! When in the studio and working from my plein air resources or photos taken … I try to also think through my mental list about what I want to accomplish with this painting. So a list is still a good idea in the studio! For students or less experienced artists … what is it they need to look for? … and this list you have given is a good starting point.

From: Claire Remsberg — Oct 30, 2012

Realizing that this is your personal list, still, I’d like to read more elaboration of each point in your list. Thanks

From: Marvin Humphrey — Oct 30, 2012

The act of writing down lists, plans, and strategies is important to keep us “perpetual apprentices” on track. I even have a little note on my easel reading: “Step Back”.

From: Janet Sheen — Oct 30, 2012

Your comments regarding making a list certainly hit home. I am writing from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – so very different from the flat prairies and rising foothills of southern Alberta. After many trips here I have yet to paint anything that pleases me although I have wonderful photo references. So … no sketchbook today, but rather a notebook to record what interested me as I walk the beaches and cobblestone streets. Maybe this trip will turn the corner! Tomorrow night marks the opening of the P.V. Art Walk season. I can’t wait to be inspired by the beautiful creations of the artists here.

From: Debrah Barr — Oct 30, 2012

I am a huge fan of lists. Maybe not a fan, but more like an obsessive habit, in my deepest part of my artists soul. I like some good paper on hand when the weather is going to shut me in- – paper, pen and watercolors, good coffee, definitely a pot of soup, cornbread, good chocolate and some crispy apples definitely get me out of whatever box or cubicle or stormy weekend I happen to be cooped up in!!

From: doris — Oct 30, 2012

I hope your daughter is out of harm in NY. I can’t amagine anyone trying to work in the situation the east coast is going thru right now. Love your letters. Doris

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Oct 31, 2012

We have gazed in open-mouthed horror at the photos and TV reports of the destruction of America’s east coast and New York in particular. Echoes of a Hollywood disaster movie, but this time it’s real… We are thinking of all of those of you who have been affected, and wish you the best. A small note: there seems to be a glitch wrt the clickback: each time I click on it, it takes me to another online version of this letter. Obviously just going to the pomodoro letter lets me see the Martin Parr photos, which did not enhance my day, to be honest. Just thought I’d let you know about the clickback bug.

From: ReneW — Oct 31, 2012

Is’t your list a plan? I think of a list as a “to do” or “groceries”. Those lists change daily. But a plan is a mode of operation to accomplish something. Fail to plan, plan to fail. Nez pas?

From: Lou Maheu — Oct 31, 2012

Make a list. Check it twice.

From: Xi Ching — Oct 31, 2012

I think one of the main characteristics of successful artists is that they are able to internalize their lists. In other words, they know their list and keep running the items through their minds as they work. As you mention in The Painters Keys book Robert: “Art is a matter of keeping some things in mind while you keep other things in mind.”

From: Cindi Hendrickson — Oct 31, 2012

I need a list for a jeweler person like me…..I appreciate your letters.

From: Comments moderator — Oct 31, 2012
From: Holly Ulrich — Nov 01, 2012

It fascinates me how you said recently that talking to ourselves is not useful to creativity, but writing a list can be. I am a list maker. Often the myriad lists in every pocket end up in the wash machine! But it is the act of committing the list to paper that can help lay your mind to rest.

From: Helmut Brugge — Nov 01, 2012

Lists can be specific approaches or they can be generalities. Generalities open one up to the a broader picture yet leave the door open for new angles, improvisations as well as new specific approaches. It’s a combination of knowing where you’re going, and “winging it.”

From: Polly Stark — Nov 01, 2012

This list will be very helpful, I am feeling artful just thinking about it! Keep sending great tips!

From: Russ Hogger — Nov 01, 2012

No list required, I seem to have all the necessary info with me at all times.

From: Janet Badger — Nov 02, 2012

I make lists and then find I prefer doing something not on the list, just because I can!

From: Joanie Evarts — Nov 18, 2012

I love your list idea. I make to do list but never thought of a list for my paintings.

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Snow on the Ridge

watercolour painting by Grey Darden, Valley Head, WV, USA

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The Pomodoro is particularly useful when painting in inclement weather.

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