Managing delay


Dear Artist,

Frank Partnoy in his book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, tells us that procrastination is a winning formula. The idea that procrastination is evil came along with the Protestant work ethic and the Puritanical era, he claims, while most of the greats in ancient times sat around delaying decisions until they became obvious. Wise folks throughout history have waited until the last second, he says. As artists, perhaps we can take some wisdom from this.

The Chess Game, 1555 Oil on canvas 28.3 x 38.1 inches by Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625)

The Chess Game (depicting the artist’s sisters), 1555
Oil on canvas
28.3 x 38.1 inches
by Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625)

The art-vetting process: Delay tactics around the secondary easel — the place where finished works are gathered and contemplated. If you’re like me, with more than a dozen galleries handling your work, there’s fair pressure to deliver. I’ve learned to be absolutely positive about the quality before shipping. Many a time a major boo-boo is picked off the FedEx truck just in the nick of time. Further, collectors are known to hold onto works for generations, while we creators look at our work for relative nanoseconds. We need to look well and hard right up to the last minute.

It’s also good to delay the commercial decision as to which works to send where. Many artists take into consideration geography, personality, and buyer sentiment. Fitting specific art to specific agents can be an art in itself.

Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Painting, 1556 Oil on canvas 25.9 x 22.4 inches by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Painting, 1556
Oil on canvas
25.9 x 22.4 inches
by Sofonisba Anguissola

Creative delay is when you look at your work-in-progress and are unable to decide what to do next. While audacity and “seizing the day” can be valuable, also acknowledge times for prolonged reflection and consideration. During this delay the mind subconsciously continues to sort options and devise ploys. A few hours — or days or weeks — can be needed to disclose a solution. The beauty of delay is that solutions are often simpler than you originally thought, making it possible for direct and cursive flourishes that often triumph over unsure noodling.

What to do with yourself while being delayed by others: I’ve found it particularly valuable to go prepared with basic materials. Ferry lineups, airport delays and the annoyance of dawdling companions can be turned into creative bonanzas. “An inconvenience,” said Confucius, “is an unrecognized opportunity.” Car-based canvases languish in the trunk calling, “Choose me, choose me.” It’s also one of the great principles of life: Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen. Keeping busy is not something you want to delay.

Best regards,


PS: “Wait for the last possible moment to make a decision.” (Frank Partnoy)

Self-Portrait, 1610 Oil on canvas by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-Portrait, 1610
Oil on canvas
by Sofonisba Anguissola

Esoterica: Delay is one of the great negotiating techniques. The controller waits patiently until his adversary has shown all his cards. If you, as the artist, are controller, then your work of art might be the adversary. “Let the painting tell you what it needs,” says Charles Reid. Unfortunately, most of us find that sometimes a work is not always ready to let you know what it needs, and you must postpone. This waiting game can be one of the great joys — when the work finally speaks, it often does so loudly and clearly and in a way that is both beautiful and motivational.

This letter was originally published as “Managing delay” on July 24, 2012.

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  1. I am SO saving this one! Very timely and helpful. In the past I’ve made the mistake of putting out things that seemed done, without the necessary reflection. If they don’t sell I’m bummed and end up bringing them back, revising or tossing. If they do sell I regret knowing that there’s problematic work out there. A no-win. Lately have found myself literally saying out loud to a piece of artwork in front of me “Talk to me! What do you need? What do you want?”.

    I’ve also been frustrated with the “cold easel syndrome” that Robert described in one of the letters. Having had to put several things aside to review techniques, materials, consider sources of revenue, upgrade the studio–it’s now frustrating to feel that nothing’s moving forward. Last night instead of being angry with myself, I thought of it as having to start a lawnmower or something that’s been idle over the winter. You have to prime it, pull the starter cord, nothing happens, repeat four times, finally you get a stutter, then another, then at last it roars into action. Next time is easier and it runs fine from there out, with just maintenance. But cold starts are just hard. A bit secondary to the letter but might be helpful.

  2. My paintings never seem to be done. I leave them some where I can see them unexpectedly so I can see them with fresh eyes. My best decisions usually when I first wake up so my mind is empty of preconceived ideas. I’m never in a hurry to finish.

  3. Thank you, Sara. Once again, your dad’s letter has resonated well, particularly the quote by Frank Partnoy!
    As I make a decision as to when and which painting to send out, I believe it’s helpful to note that it’s important to offer our potential art clients/collectors a realistic time frame to receive paintings. Gallery, however, are often not included in this luxury so pressure rises high.
    When a larger, or highly complex commissioned by a collector or by one’s gallery, a single painting may require several months, or more, to complete, I try to arrive at a realistic completion time and offer appointments to view my work in progress, hence the reason I manage my own work from my studio gallery. It works for me at this time, but is not recommended for all artists.
    Yesterday I participated in an online photography of artwork and marketing workshop. One of the presenters stated that an artist’s marketing process should require an equal amount of time to it’s very creation! Well intentioned words, I believe, but perhaps unrealistic. As was also aptly mentioned, however, exhibition and gallery submissions are often rushed, despite the artist’s best intentions, especially in these demanding times, and can affect the direction and progress of the artwork. Rushing the artist’s free will to procrastinate in order to meet marketing demands and social media inclusions can also potentially detrimental to an artist’s completed work, reputation and ultimate enjoyment. It appears that most people crave more time so our choices as to how we proceed (and hopefully flourish) will vary according to our abilities, personality and needs.
    Robert’s letter, which encouragrs careful thought and time to be highly regarded and truly valuable, before leaving the artists’ discerning hands. We owe this precious time and devotion to ourselves, artists’ passed and our faithful collectors.

  4. I feel better about my “process” now. Thanks. It can take awhile for the painting to speak to me. I think they get tired of me looking at them, because the answers do come in a flash after a really long “not look/look” situation .

  5. I believe it takes practice to be in the zone … it is like clock work to me prioritize. For me first thing is wake up have my cup of joe then after Put a creativity music then “ Boom “ creativity starts.. (energy) once I’m done finally do house chores , errands . 5 years ago my dream to be creating and have a WEB site. Fast forward 2021 “ I’m living my Dream “ don’t let creativity stop you!

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