Maker’s blinders

Dear Artist, We live in miraculous times. I’m set up on a mesquite hillside overlooking the delicately tinted low-rise pueblos of Santa Fe. The crisp morning air is blessed by the call and occasional appearance of a canyon wren. Out of a cloudless cyber-sky my inbox jingles from another time zone — someone with similar problems to my own: “I have a condition I call ‘Maker’s blinders,'” writes Robert Bourke of Pickering, Ontario. “I find I concentrate my attention on one part of my work and not on other parts — similar to the way a carriage horse with blinders would look only in one direction. Other elements in the work can be substandard, and I don’t see them. You might say I get an emotional connection to one part of my work. What’s going on here?” Thanks, Robert. Good name for a major problem. It’s human nature to pay attention to what we do well and avoid what we don’t. For example, if we draw well it’s easy to measure our work (and the work of others) by our good drawing. While the blinkered life can lead to some interesting art, the evolved artist learns to multi-task. This is a subtle ability — mostly self-taught — to keep some things in mind while keeping other things in mind. Here are a few tips: — See the “big picture” — the whole work as it might play out — perhaps in many possible outcomes, as in a game of chess. — See the “whole meaning” of the work — whether an idea or an object — so that one part will not distract from the main thought. — Regularly refresh and reboot your image-in-progress to get a better understanding of your goals. This may mean walking away and leaving your work for a period of time. Evolved artists teach themselves to compress time so vetting is compounded and becomes more efficient. — Give yourself creative power over all. When you begin to see yourself not as a technician but as a master “auteur,” you begin to be one. Don’t consult with another — especially early on in a project. Your consultant may have the same blinkered hang-ups as you.

“In Canyon de Chelly” 1920
oil painting, 10 x 14 inches
by Edgar Payne

Best regards, Robert PS: “Let neither drawing, nor composition, nor form dominate your attention, but pay heed to all at the same time.” (Edgar Payne, 1883-1947) Esoterica: I recently spoke of painting and other art-making as a spiritual event. In our case, spirituality does not need to be an honouring of a narrow path but rather open to all possibilities. From our folding stools of the field or in plushy studio comfort, our zone is made large by our imaginations. Here on this hillside the largesse of the universe is palpable, and while humility dominates, it doesn’t interfere with the ghost of Edgar Payne.   Some bitter fruit by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Bill Hibberd

Artists, being human, fall victim to the same weaknesses as the rest of our tribe. We love to box ourselves into systems and rules. We believe the lie that we must approach and execute our work in a particular way even as we repeat unsatisfying work. It’s pretty humorous though bitter fruit. I’m as guilty as anyone and need to regularly ask myself why I paint in default instead of in a state of openness and exploration. As artists, surely the one thing we can demonstrate is how to exercise freedom.   There is 1 comment for Some bitter fruit by Bill Hibberd
From: Darla — Mar 18, 2011

What a wonderful, serene painting! I’d like to walk into it and climb those hills.

  Receptive right brain by Kath Hankel, Jefferson, IA, USA   The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, deals with the issue of right brain, left brain and how they share information. They each have totally different ways of functioning. The right side takes in the overall picture, is nurturing and socially tuned. The left is linear, mechanistic and looks at portions only. This sounds like the problem with the artist who is stuck on a portion of his painting and is unable to complete it — he is stuck on the left side of his brain. McGilchrist’s book is fascinating and I have gained some knowledge into why people are the way we are. The stifled artist might try using music when he paints. It is a right brain activity and might put him in a more receptive mode. Let that muse in. The creative spirit is exciting and the epitome of hope for the human race. There are 3 comments for Receptive right brain by Kath Hankel
From: Michael Jorden — Mar 18, 2011

The left brain/right brain theory works well for me. I plan a lot before painting and over-attend to details as I concentrate [left brain]but if I step back some distance I can see the overall, strong value pattern I am seeking as it develops [right brain]. Apparently John Singer Sargent wore a groove in his studio floor doing this so it must be useful.

From: Betsy — Mar 18, 2011

I once met a brain surgeon and mentioned this left / right brain theory to him, as very popular with artists. To my big surprise he smiled and said, mumbo-jumbo. He said that we should think of that as a conceptual thing, not that really you can divide the left and right hemisphere of the brain.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin TX — Mar 22, 2011

Should you find that you ever need one, I would try finding another brain surgeon! I don’t mean to be harsh, just sayin’.

  Gestalt painting by John Pryce, Uxbridge, ON, Canada  

original painting
by John Pryce

The word Gestalt has its origins in the world of psychology and philosophy. Sometimes it’s described as “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” In visual art, the word Gestalt can be used to describe the wholeness or unity of a painting. The Wikipedia encyclopedia uses the phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to explain the word Gestalt. Colour harmony is an important element in achieving unity in a painting. One way to obtain a degree of harmony is to allow the under-painting colour to permeate through and around shapes. Some early Canadian impressionist plein-air painters used pine panels that were varnished. The golden wood colour of the panels was sometimes left around brushstrokes giving the paintings a wonderful harmony. There is no single solution to achieve that wholeness in a painting and the use of colour is just one important element. Each subject and each season has to be dealt with accordingly. I am sending an example of a quick plein-air painting of a summer scene in Gibson’s B.C. using a warm red under-painting that permeates throughout the painting giving a form of harmony. Looking at the big shapes first and dealing with the smaller detail later helps to overcome the urge to pick away at an area and not to see the whole picture. To have one colour dominant also helps to achieve unity. There are 4 comments for Gestalt painting by John Pryce
From: Dottie Dracos — Mar 18, 2011

Love your painting — and greatly appreciate the way you describe a method for achieving harmony in a painting.

From: Anonymous — Mar 18, 2011

I love the way you have unified this piece with the red.

From: Zidonja — Mar 18, 2011

love the peace ,love to walk there. The colorsare wonderful

From: Reggie Sabiston — Mar 19, 2011

Very delightful painting! I love how you’ve repeated shapes and colours and how your lines lead you around the painting. Well done!

  Concentrated energy by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA   As I heard in the past from a teacher… the picture plane is your world in which to create… step back often. You must be aware of every part of it at every time along the way to make the painting hold together. However, some of the best advice comes from Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. “A good painting is a remarkable feat of organization,” “hold to this principle that the greatest drawing, the greatest expression, the greatest completion, the sense of all contained, lies in what can be done through the larger masses and the larger gestures. If we build a painting successfully, the most important work is in the beginning and it does not allow us to fiddle with detail or incidentals. The awareness and energy of the work carries through to the finish with,” (and I love this one), “every line, area, tone, value, texture, in fact every effect produced in any way, including even the pressure of the brush, should be considered a compositional or constructive element.” We cannot not see a brush stroke’s effect on our whole picture plane if we have blinders on. The other thing I became aware of years ago, is that if a painter is tired or distracted, they tend to paint with blinders on, since it does take a lot of concentrated energy to make a painting, not so much to paint a square inch at a time. There is 1 comment for Concentrated energy by Susanne Kelley Clark
From: tatjana — Mar 18, 2011

That is so true, especially Robert Henri’s words which I interpret as a reminder that the painting is our own world for which we are responsible from the beginning to the end, with everything that we do to it. Not to paint looser or tighter or bigger or smaller – but to give it everything we have and make it work our own way. When we are tired, or try to use tricks, we are not giving the painting what it deserves.

  Playing to the strengths by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Cows in Clearing”
pastel painting
by Paul DeMarrais

It takes years for each artist to accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses. How they develop has a lot to do with what emerges as an artist’s style. I believe, although you can improve in weak areas, it is unlikely that a weak area will become strong through sheer repetition. I’m strong in color and shape, less good at drawing. I’ve come to believe that it is a reality that all art and artists are flawed and each painting we complete is destined to fail and fall short in some way. In the end, I try to play to my strengths and live with my shortcomings. I have to accept the fact that in art and life, I’ll never be as good as I would like to be. There are 2 comments for Playing to the strengths by Paul deMarrais
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Mar 18, 2011

Paul, the painting is stunning. When you can do this, I think you should quit worrying about whether you think you can’t draw. So, you don’t do architectual drawings! Your colors and feeling in the painting are fantastic. It draws me in!

From: Barb — Mar 18, 2011

I Love the colors that attracted me to this work. The balance is there as well. Living with strength and short comings is what keeps us trying ti improve in each piece we do.

  Fresh eyes by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA  

“Campobello Beach”
acrylic painting
by Nina Allen Freeman

I have been working on a painting of a barn for a couple of weeks now and something about it has really been bothering me. I painted and re-painted. Finally I took it to one of my classes and let my students pick it apart and they had some ideas. It wasn’t until I took it back home that I finally saw a glaring error. I had a roofline ending at the edge of the painting right next to the edge of a major area of bushes. Your eye was directed right out of the painting. I was able to correct it but it is strange that all that time I was working on this now very irritating painting, I would have discovered such an obvious problem. I think it was moving it to a different location, in different light and having new eyes look at it. This enabled me to also look at it with a fresh eye, I think. There is 1 comment for Fresh eyes by Nina Allen Freeman
From: Bev Searle-Freeman — Mar 19, 2011

love your painting!! :) … also agree with moving a ‘problem’ painting to a different location with different light for a fresh eye, even if it’s just your own … mind you, putting it away for a month and then bringing it back out often reveals any ‘problem’ areas :)

  Reverse engineering by Lorrene Baum-Davis, Placerville, CA, USA  

“Cologne #3”
mixed media necklace
by Lorrene Davis

Previously in my art life I was a goldsmith and used the term ‘reverse engineering.’ I would draw what the client wanted and then later work backwards to the starting point. This way I could make sure the project worked. I do the same thing with my graphics and my syllabus for the teaching and making of polymer and metal clay arts. It is nice to know that the work will be balanced, artful and wear well.     There is 1 comment for Reverse engineering by Lorrene Baum-Davis
From: Moyra Ashford — Mar 21, 2011

What a beautiful necklace, looks ancient & modern at the same time! Please could you explain how you do the ‘work backwards to the starting point’? Is it to do with visualising the completed picture and then working out how to do it? That sounds rather daunting to me, though I love the ring of the words ‘reverse engineering.’ I often use the accidents that happen with paint. Could you say a bit more about how this works when you are doing a painting? Many thnaks, Moyra

  Uncertainties inhibit flow of decisions by Darney Willis, Siloam Springs, AR, USA   One solution for “Maker’s Blinders” is tackling the difficult areas first, at least far enough until they’re not a nagging uncertainty any longer. When I am teaching I call these tough areas “the question marks.” I tell my students to search over the canvas and get rid of the question marks — those areas they don’t know what to do with. I encourage them to bring the whole canvas up together, not just focus on and finish out the areas they are most confident with first, and then try to retrofit these unaddressed areas later. Painting can flourish when it is a very intuitive and confident experience, and having these uncertainties out there can inhibit the flow of the many choices needed to be made. Finishing out only the area we are most confident with first, and then trying to bring in the left out areas is sort of like having a committee composed of six or seven people that are supposed to meet many times and all but one of those committee members meet every meeting. The one member comes to the very last meeting and then tries to give input, but is totally uninformed, out of the loop. It’s hard to integrate much of value to the proceedings unless you are included all along the way. There is 1 comment for Uncertainties inhibit flow of decisions by Darney Willis
From: Ingrid Christensen — Mar 18, 2011

I like the “question mark” idea. So often, when I ask students how they will develop a vague area, I get, “I don’t know. I’ll get to that later.” And that’s always the area that sinks the painting when they discover that there are no great solutions “later”.

  Drastic measures by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA  

“Night Looms”
mixed media painting
by Mary Moquin

A professor of mine related a story about one of his professors. One day, when a student was struggling with a painting, the student pointed out the area that was “working” and expressed frustration over the parts that weren’t working. The Professor then dipped a paintbrush in a large can of black paint and blotted out the portion of the painting that the student was attached to. He said, “There, now make the rest of it work.” Extreme measures to get the point across. But sometimes it takes drastic measures to make a whole piece work together. I have known of artists that cut out all the working parts and make new mini paintings — a great way to recycle old work that is hanging around with just a few “sweet” parts. Or, perhaps covering up the part we are attached to with something temporary to keep us from being distracted by the part that is working and allowing us to focus on what isn’t. There are 2 comments for Drastic measures by Mary Moquin
From: Darrell Baschak — Mar 18, 2011

This is a great painting and well titled, the structure has a real presence Mary. I dreamt the other night that I burned every painting in my studio, I wonder if that could have the same effect as black paint?

From: Bill Skuce — Mar 18, 2011

Have admired your work since first seeing your website images several years ago and added it to my favourites. Always appreciate your comments as well. Still at Cape Cod?

  Artists have individual goals by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Hourglass Lake Backdrop”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Software engineers have figured this out. The person who makes code cannot see what’s wrong with it, thus the industry devised concepts of extreme programming. Two designers sit next to each other, while one codes the other one watches, and various testing techniques. In any case the message is that the creator is infamous for his blinds. The difference with art is that software designers, despite the imaginative solutions and algorithms, all work towards a common goal. In art, there is no other living person who should be going towards the same goal as you. Even if, close enough, there is a fellow artist who can open up his vision and understand your work, most of us wouldn’t like to consistently “be corrected.” Actually, neither do the software engineers, but are forced to put up with it. It’s great to be an artist! There is 1 comment for Artists have individual goals by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Michael — Mar 19, 2011

‘Lennon and McCartney’, anyone? We should all be so lucky.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Maker’s blinders

From: Darla — Mar 15, 2011

There are any number of “tricks” to see the flaws in a work-in-progress. The simplest is to turn the painting upside down, go have a cup of coffee, and look at it when you come back, from across the room. Often drawing and compositional flaws will jump out at you when you do that. If you have trouble with values, look at it through a red filter to mute the colors or scan it into your computer and reduce the color saturation that way (in the olden days, I would use a copy machine, if the painting was small enough). Once the image is in your computer, you can look at it at a reduced size, flip it horizontally or vertically, “unfocus” the picture (or just take off your glasses), or manipulate it in different ways to try to see the problem areas or how it could be improved. Another way is to work on several paintings at once, so you can leave one and work on the others for a week. Come back after a time and look at the first one, and you may see problems that you missed while you were painting it. Or you may see that it’s pretty good after all!

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Mar 15, 2011

I have been working on a painting of a barn for a couple of weeks now and something about it has really been bothering me. I painted and re-painted. Finally I took it to one of my classes and let my students pick it apart and they had some ideas. it wasn’t until I took it back home that I finally saw a glaring error. I should have photoed it. I had a roofline ending at the edge of the painting right next to the edge of a major area of bushes. Your eye was directed right out of the painting. I was able to correct it but it is strange that all that time I was working on this now very irritating painting I would have discovered such an obvious problem. I think it was moving it to a different location, in different light and having new eyes look at it. This enabled me to also look at it with a fresh eye, I think.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Mar 15, 2011

I have been teaching painting for a number of years and one simple trick that all my students routinely ignore ( at least until I remind them ) is the act of stepping back. All you need to do is walk away from your painting several feet turn around and look. This simple yet effective tool will keep you looking at the entire composition all the way through the process. This has become so ingrained into my painting process that I often put only a couple of strokes of paint on the canvas step back, paint a few strokes more, step back and so on. The second important habit is to be painting all of the composition all of the time. It is important not to become too focused on one area when other areas are not even worked on yet. This gives you a true overview of the level of colour saturation and if it is working or not.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Mar 15, 2011

Yes, stepping back frequently and squinting is most important. Another tactic is to turn your back to it, and look at it in a mirror. I also employ the “time” element …working on 2-3 dozen at a time, setting them aside in various stages, not in a hurry to get them completed.

From: Darlene Natalia Konduc — Mar 15, 2011

I left my job to pursue my passion of art. You are such a gift to the art world. We are so blessed to have you.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — Mar 15, 2011

Many artists have the same problem. When I get stuck on a certain aspect of my work I get away for while or put it in the distance to review and rethink what my intention for painting it in the first place. I ask my self what is the inspiration behind the work and how do I make it clear. Review part by part perhaps dividing it in sections to connect each part to make the whole. Do they coincide or do they complement or are they unified as one to tell the whole message. When I do this looking the work as a whole I can see where I need to work on.

From: Gail — Mar 15, 2011

I love Robert Genn – LOVE his whole sensibility, approach to things, positive take on everything.

From: cindy walton — Mar 16, 2011

My work is also a spiritual walk. It’s about taking all those things that make me who I am,things seen,places traveled and translating them to the canvas. thanks for in site.

From: Lois Isaacs — Mar 16, 2011

I have been painting for over forty years, most of it pure delight. I have recently discovered one way to see the big picture without getting too analytical about progress is to cover my work with a sheet when I finish each day. I don’t allow myself to look at it until I begin the next session. When I uncover it I can immediately see what needs attention and how to work the next stage. For me this has been a revelation enabling me to stay focused and consistent. I must say that I usually work over the whole canvas so that elements remain balanced. If I am working outdoors I paint on the bonnet of my station wagon – covered of course – and a large, complete painting takes approx. two to three hours working the entire surface almost like a dance rhythm. My other big decision this year has been to not allow anyone to view my work until it is complete. I find that the comments of others tend to poison my thinking and bring me into performance mode rather than creative. This too has proved a big success, in fact I am not allowing anyone to see my present series until I have pretty near completed it – who knows how long that will take?

From: Rhonda Bobinski — Mar 16, 2011

You might also suggest that the artist simply re-acquaint herself with the principle of movement, specifically visual movement. There’s a time and place for “deer in the headlights” emphasis, (or as I sometimes refer to it, “punch you in the face with art”) but the artist is not really thinking of the viewer too much if she is creating her art in such a way. It’s an interesting reflection on self absorption actually. The artist focuses on a part that she is good at, and only wants the viewer to look at that part as well. The other areas become excessively subordinate and neglected. It’s like art that is always on it’s best behavior and never flawed. But with visual movement, those other areas are just as important. Yes, they may not be as dazzling, but they help to create a beautiful flow throughout an art piece so that we see the whole person, er, I mean, the whole art piece. I would suggest an exploration of that principle, both in her art and her life. Working beyond the confines of her specialty and delving into new perspectives and considerations may actually have a gestalt effect, where the total is larger than the sum of its parts.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 16, 2011

I find this to be a common problem. One solution I use is to develop the painting as a whole. I work my piece in three stages 1- The Lay in. I draw in thin paint until the idea and items are placed relatively correct. I stay here as long as it takes. In fact each stage takes as long as it takes. 2- Rendering. I work the whole canvas bringing everything along together. Again, this takes as long as it takes. 3- Finish. By the time I reach this stage, everything is developed to my satisfaction and areas well. From here I add the “flourishes” to give a painterly effect. I dot my “I’s” and cross my “t’s”. Using this method keeps one from noodling in one area too long. The two last pieces of advice. 1- Don’t critique your on-going work. Wait until you finish. 2- Don’t fall in love with a piece while you work it. Again, wait until you finish.

From: Janet Austin — Mar 17, 2011

I have recently discovered that when I take a photo of a tapestry, and post it on my blog, I instantly see everything that is wrong with it! When this happens soon enough I can unweave (“penelope”) and make corrections. The camera “sees” things that my eyes miss.

From: George Held — Mar 17, 2011

Getting blinkered is a significant male artist problem. At some time a sort of arrested development kicks in, and the male artist caves into it. Economics and the need to be “right” as well as provide for a family may be part of it, but that can’t be the whole problem, because many women have it pretty bad.

From: Norman Chow — Mar 17, 2011

We need to broaden ourselves as whole people before we can unblinker ourselves as artists. Art is a “life,” not a series of techniques that work.

From: Doug H. C. Saunders — Mar 17, 2011

Many painters are blinkered in their use of colour. Without an understanding of the values of grays and neutralization that makes bright colors stand out, there is no craft. Some galleries are full of garish work that shows this fault to be so widespread it has become acceptable.

From: Nancy Delpero — Mar 18, 2011

Hello Robert..While in Taos…..visit me at the E.L. Blumenschein Museum…You will enjoy the museum…

From: Jackie Ivey-Weaver — Mar 18, 2011

Some of the early Hippies. Looks like they were enjoying themselves.

From: Weldon Persig — Mar 22, 2011

Keep your eyes and your mind open, and both sides of your brain will contribute appropriately.

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acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches by Suzanne Gaudette Way, Nashville, TN, USA

  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 Mary Kramer of Oro Valley, AZ, USA, who wrote, “When that happens to me, I realize that the neglected part of the painting just doesn’t interest me anymore, and I crop it off. I call it ‘design by guillotine’!” And also Ian Fry of Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “With the complexities of the creative mind being what they are, I can only speak for myself, and while working on one section of a painting, I somehow hold a hazy image of the whole work in the back of my head. Having painted for years, I only became aware of this recently, but it works for me.” And also Pat Kamperschroer of Brazil, who wrote, “This not only applies to art in any form, but to life. I find it easier to focus on the things that bother me and forget all of the goodness that surrounds me. I have added this link to my reflections page.”    

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