The law of recent memory


Dear Artist,

We have a patio built out above our overgrown ravine. If I stand on the edge I can drop a ball down into the jungle. Though she can’t see where the ball goes, Dorothy will enthusiastically tear around, find her way down below and generally bring back the ball. Sometimes she can’t find it. If I drop a stick down near the ball — she will go again and generally bring back the stick. Even if the stick is lying right beside the ball she will bring the stick. If I tell her to bring the ball she will bring the stick. This is an example of the law of recent memory. Though the squeaky, bouncy ball is the more interesting plaything, the dog will retrieve from the more recent event.


Dorothy on the patio

An artist’s reference holds to a similar principle. Recent material, however ordinary, is more exploitable than old. And recent material stays “hot” only so long. I learned this the hard way. I used to be cool and try to let new environments and new reference mature in my imagination — so that the results of my travels gained the benefit of thoughtfulness and reflection. I lived with the fact that nothing whatsoever came out of some of my trips. I was thinking about art as a “big thing” that was going to be important and a lot of work. I was wrong. Art is a joyous thing that you can grasp and drink from like a glass of orange juice. Plein air painters know all about this. Some do it daily in the way that other folks play tennis.

The creative memory is fickle and needs to be taken fresh. If you seize the day and go to work at the first flush of interest, you’ll find your work and your creative ideas freshen up too. Just as the love of a certain medium can have a “life,” so too can subject matter. Many artists report tiring of themes or subjects. Feeling they haven’t exploited them thoroughly enough, they guiltily resist moving on. Sometimes they get stuck for months, even years.

With the popular use of digital and other cameras it has become easy to put stuff in the can — sometimes without even looking at it — for another time. This can be a mistake. The important thing is to be wired, enthusiastic and alive in the moment. You can learn a lot from your dog. Tail wagging is a bit of an act for some, and it can get on the nerves of fellow travelers, but it’s the straight route to creative joy.

Best regards,


PS: “Paint like a fiend when the idea possesses you.” (Robert Henri) “One must act in painting as in life, directly.” (Pablo Picasso)

Esoterica: One of the ongoing curiosities in life is the tendency to act immediately on some things and put others on the back burner. The stick of recent memory is somehow more deserving. Like the pages of a book the plot of creativity develops in a progressive manner. To interfere with this natural flow prevents the artist from getting on with things. Photographer Harry Callahan said, “If you don’t do it, you don’t know what might happen.” After our recent trip to Costa Rica I assembled notes and sketches in “Excerpts from a Costa Rica Journal.” No particular reason other than it was fresh.


No time like the present
by Kathleen Arnason, Willow Island, MA, Canada

I recently watched the movie Beyond the Sea and there was a line about “placing memories on a moonbeam” — I also listened to a friend introduce a musical piece by stating he wanted to finish a piece he had played at a previous concert because he felt “he still had the music in his hands.” These statements refused to leave my mind until I wrote the poems releasing them. It was as though they were yelling “pay attention” because we are not going away until you do something about us. I truly believe it is in awareness that we bring everything to life that lives within us. There is no time like the present to give birth to creativity. Listen and you will hear.


A new freshness from “in the can”
by Candace Faber, Dallas, TX, USA

You must have read my mind, although you are able to state this thought so much more clearly. These last two days I have grappled with an idea (back-lit mesquite in the evening), but I keep saying to myself, “No, you have to finish that work inside on the easel first.” It is an image from last fall. However, if we do put something “in the can,” as you say, and then look at it much later, we may still be inspired. It may look fresh to us in a new way, just not the way it looked to us when we captured that first reference.


Improved visual memory with no camera
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, QC, Canada


watercolor, 14 x 21 inches
by Raynald Murphy

My digital camera broke down a year or so ago and since I did not feel compelled toreplace it immediately, I discovered that during that period I drew more, observed more intently and finished more paintings on site or soon after. I have noticed that my visual memory has improved, possibly because, among other factors, I do not depend on photo references as much but trust my visual memory. The camera is a great tool, but it can become a crutch, I feel. I would even venture to bet that the “pre-photograph artist” had, in general, a better visual memory than most of today’s artists.


Percolating ideas measure growth
by Joy Cooper, Valley Head, WV, USA


watercolor painting
by Joy Cooper

Your point about responding to recent material is well taken. The flip side of that coin involves percolating. I keep a file of ideas — both photos and mind-images — that I don’t know how to execute yet. Sometimes I’ll think about one of these and realize — “I think I can do that now!” It’s exciting to bring out that old image and see it come to life on the paper or canvas. What a neat measure of growth this is.



Preparatory site-work is potential energy
by Dan DuBois, Toronto, ON, Canada

I am still at the paint-pushing stage of art, and have done plein air, which to borrow your image, is indeed something like taking a drink, not in my case orange juice, at least, not unspiked. The experience is heady, but the result of my plein air work, which I always love while the paint is drying, doesn’t have much of a shelf-life. I’m subject to the usual self-critical impulses, maybe more than the usual amount, but have discovered lately that doing a good deal of preparatory site-work — pencil, possibly a watercolor of something I’ll rework later in oil — stays remarkably fresh in my mind even months later. The basic requirement is that I should interact with whatever it is I’m looking at, in a way more intense than taking a digital photo. The experience of making a pencil rendering or watercolor sketch on site, in the rush of inspiration, seems to sit somewhere in my brain as a form of potential energy. If I also happen to have taken digital pictures, well then I have the benefit of useful reference points. What I recollect from the site work seems to vivify what I’m doing in studio, freshening the finished work. I’ve had the opposite experience with work I’ve done in the studio, working only from old pictures.


Ideas developed 360 degrees
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“One Sun, Many Moons”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Helena Tiainen

I find that something calling me to paint it stands out amongst its surroundings over and over again until I answer its call. It will not leave me alone. It sticks up like a sore thumb, only in a more pleasant way. I cannot ignore it. It plays with my mind and memory and calls me out to play. This goes on until I actually do something about it. So, I guess, I am somehow different from your dog. I sometimes let the well fill until it is ready to run over before I release the creative flow and run after the ball and the stick. This allows me to develop ideas 360 degrees before I even touch the canvas. But, of course, my paintings are only partially grounded on external realities. They have a large degree of other dimensions about them.


All about being present
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

I find that with visual art especially, working in the moment of inspiration is vital. If I put a vision on hold, life’s practical concerns will often diminish the potential of creative impulse into a doubtful possibility that had felt so real at the time of its dawning. When I am able to follow through on a feeling or sensibility that has captured me, the work is fresh and alive. It is a relationship of inspiration and spontaneity. Sometimes it is hard to say which allows which to occur, but it is certain that when the two come together the outcome is an exciting flow. I have had times when I felt moved to apply something specifically in my painting and didn’t get to act on it, and it faded away as if it had no reality. I guess the truth is it has no reality, unless I heed the inspiration that can blossom into something visual. So the inspiration is not concrete until I use it, then it can manifest into a distinct reality. I suppose that is why we call it a figment of imagination. It takes the will and action of the artist to bring it forth into a tangible state. On the other hand, I find that with writing I can allow time for incubation on a topic before expressing my perceptions through words. In fact this time of gestation allows for more clarity and meaning to surface. Once it begins to gel I feel inspired to see what I can say with the feelings bubbling up inside. In some ways this works in painting, as long as when I stand in front of the work I am completely present and responding in the moment, without holding on to an idea that came to me prior to this moment if it no longer applies. Most likely that prior idea added to the outcome, but not in the way I may have originally imagined it. So it’s all about being present and doing the work with full consciousness. Ideas and inspiration, past, present and future are mingled together in the work of the artist.


Puts it off for 7 years
by Lori Simons, Merrimack, NH, USA


“Autumn Light”
oil painting, 22 x 30 inches
by Lori Simons

There is a small antique house in our town that grows lovely, mature rose displays in the spring. A number of years ago, I photographed this home when their garden was in full bloom. This house is on a main street across from the high school — has a lot of traffic, so it wouldn’t be convenient to paint from life. So here’s why it fits into this topic: On the way home from the post office, I was wondering what I should paint and while I passed this house (as I have done hundreds of times), I said to myself, “Why am I putting off painting that house?” Today, I shall paint it! Indeed I did paint it, and the result is the best painting I have done to date. I put if off for about 7 years… silly me. Maybe now I’ll make a short list of some of those scenes or still life objects that keep popping into my head as something I would love to paint — and then I’ll get to it.


The joy of painting
by Gerhilde Stulken, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Noisy bunch”
watercolour painting
by Gerhilde Stulken

I have been very sick the last 3 months, due to complications of a chronic illness. I was only able to do the absolute necessary things and could not even think about painting. Over the years I always enjoyed your comments and other artists on the joy of painting without any given concept and without the angst of not doing a good painting. I started feeling a bit better about 10 days ago. Sometime in February I received a catalog with women’s clothing, which had a lovely photograph of purple Crocuses seen through a window through the rain. Since I love the colours of purple and green, this image did not leave me, so as soon as I started to feel better, I went into my studio one afternoon, wetted a piece of watercolour paper and took my selected colours and let them flow on the paper. Once I was happy with the colour saturation I left it to dry, not having any idea what I was going to do with it. The next afternoon when I looked at it, I saw all kinds of tropical birds in the painting. I very lightly took out the shapes without much disturbance of what was there. After I was finished I experienced such joy and this painting became a gift to me, knowing that I would paint again whenever I can. Since then also due to the weather warming up I have started to feel better and I have renewed hope. So to all my fellow Artists out there who are struggling with one thing or another I would like to say never give up your Art and your Hope.


Photoblogging feeds painting
by Nina Meledandri, NYC, NY, USA


oil on canvas, 48 x 52 inches
by Nina Meledandri

I am a painter but I was once a photographer and I have been shooting consistently again for the past few years. I have become very heavily involved with various photoblogging communities (it is an addictive activity) but I am finding that it feeds my work in the studio.

And I think the reason for this is what you are writing about here: the excitement of the new; taking an image, posting it, getting feedback, knowing you have released a bit of you, out into the world. Somehow this energy fuels my painting as well. Sometimes if I am a bit stuck in the studio, I’ll find the “equivalent” of what I am trying to express in a photograph, post it and be able to then translate that back on to the canvas (a bit unorthodox perhaps, I’ve learned not to question what works). Some of the best communities (imho) are:, PhotoBlog, flickr, Fotothing. For any who are interested, the way to get started is to post, comment on images that you like and join the groups. The friends I have made this way have been marvelously supportive to both my painting and my photography.


Homeomorphic and loving it
by Lyn Lecuyer, Chilcotin, BC, Canada

I have to admit I am homeomorphic. I love it. It’s my stained glass background. I have always felt that each piece of work that I craft or paint has to have the negative spaces standing on their own. Each must be equally as strong and enticing as the image itself. Homeomorphism lends itself well to that philosophy. However, I should clarify that I am never really consciously aware of it. For me it just happens and I’m usually quite pleased about it.


“You can’t paint from such a place”
by Michael Carpenter, Victoria, BC, Canada

The letter from Anonymous criticizing Toni Onley for being a one trick pony got me thinking about something that I observe in a number of artists. Perhaps it is the difficulty of making a living painting, or perhaps it is just ego distortion, but I listen to so many conversations where someone wants to trash another person’s work. This is very different from positive and thoughtful criticism aimed at learning and growing. I am still a beginner, but I fervently pray that as my skills grow I will not fall into this trap. I spoke with one of my teachers about this one day — this person is a well-recognized and established artist. He said, “You can’t paint from such a place.” Today, when I start to feel jealousy or the urge to trash another, I try to remember his statement. For me, creating art is accessing a shining sliver of divinity — which is all positive, loving energy. When I go to a place of negativity and fear, I find that my access is denied.


Santa picket thwarts starvation
by Warren Mangione

I went to a Christmas bazaar in Sunapee, NH and there were crafters and artists displaying their work. The artists weren’t selling much and some of their work was good. There were nature scenes painted on circular saw blades and on two-man lumberjack saws. What was selling like hotcakes were the fence pickets painted to look like Santa at $10 each. She sold a truckload. Compromising by producing those is one way not to starve, I guess.


Different persona at art fair
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA

I like selling at outdoor shows because people flock to the photography stalls after being baffled by all the “new” art that confuses them. I can make a bundle off their impulse spending on the prints I have matted in shrink wrap in large bins. I’m happy, and they’re happy because they can walk away feeling they’re not complete art idiots who didn’t buy at least something at the fair.

I’m careful to keep what I sell at fairs different in quality and content from the pieces I sell through galleries. Why do we have to choose one over the other? Why limit our experience? Isn’t that antithetical to being an artist and drinking in the world around us? Art fairs can be a good time, and a great opportunity to meet a wide variety of people and enjoy their diversity. I also get to present myself with a different persona at an art fair than I do at a gallery. All of it’s fun and exponentially increases this wacky experience of being alive.


Lessons from a roadside gallery
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA


oil on canvas
36 x 48 inches
by Karen Gillis Taylor

Selling paintings out of a tent is an experience every artist can learn from. I did it only once and it gave me the courage to open a small gallery in my home town which has met with some success and has taught me invaluable lessons about what the public thinks of art in general and my work in particular. How would I have learned that if I’d first put my work with a traditional gallery and waited for occasional phone calls?

In February I listened to a panel of “expert” collectors at Site Santa Fe tell of their motivations in buying art. They may be in the high-end art-buying bracket, but each one was collecting art they felt had a personal connection to themselves. Every person who has bought a piece of art from me in the last year has had a very personal comment or reason as to why they liked the work. The reasons are wide ranging, from deep to superficial, but there’s always a reason, if you ask. What is surprising is that many times their reason for buying your work has absolutely nothing to do with your own reason for creating it!

From my little “roadside” town gallery, I have learned that it’s still best to paint true to oneself and let the buyers choose as they may. Art is personal. Once we create it, we have to let it go and let someone else love it for their own reasons. It belongs to us at first. Then it belongs to anyone else who looks and appreciates, even if only for a minute or two. Sometimes that is enough. When the artist gets to hear an observer’s comments, it can be really special. If you hear it from a roadside, because you don’t have a proper gallery, you are blessed.





The Music Lesson

oil painting
by Paul Hedley, UK


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