In a recent interview, Tiger Woods said something that I found interesting: “In golf, mental practice is crucial because the ball sits still on every shot. Unlike, for example, hockey, tennis or basketball, golf is a game of creation, not reaction. Negative thoughts and anxiety can easily intrude when an athlete has to initiate a motion.”
I was thinking that the same goes for that eerie stillness that sometimes surrounds my easel. So many times I’ve asked myself how relatively good work happens one time — and not the next. So many times I’ve had to look into the particulars of my mental practice. Today, for some reason, I seemed to be knocking the ball onto the green and close to the pin. Today seemed better than a lot of other days. I’m going to analyze what was going on today and we’ll try to find out why:
Concentration: The capability of focus.
Visualization: The sight of the unseen.
Curiosity: The need to be intrigued.
Desire: The wish to do well.
Drive: The pressure of eagerness.
Patience: The place of no hurry.
Worthiness: The finding of significance.
Settlement: The joy of some inner peace.
Comfort: The envelopment of music and warmth.
Instinct: The feeling of just letting it flow.
Appreciation: The hearing of gentle applause.
Having said all that, I have to tell you that last night a snow blizzard gave us a power outage. By 3 a.m. our home was pretty cold. Even Dorothy noticed — she stuck her nose under the bedclothes and spoke to us about it. By candlelight and flashlight I brought in wood and lit two fireplaces. I fired up some coffee on a paraffin burner. Tending the home fires, there was no more sleep, so I couldn’t put “well rested” in the list above. When the power came back on about 8 a.m., I went bleary-eyed into the studio and thought about beginning. I had that nauseating feeling that today I was going to be a duffer. But something happened. In my mental tiredness, I was getting a message that I call “the extra chance syndrome.” Today might be a special day because it was already rotten and it didn’t matter. And because it didn’t matter, it did. As Tiger says, “It’s only a game.”
Esoterica: In the golf analogy, the mental practice that goes on between finding the ball and striking the ball is the most crucial. It’s looking at and thinking about your next moves on a work-in-progress that means the most and can get you into the most trouble. Art requires both thinking and not thinking. Art requires visualizing without micro-managing your visualization. And in the end when you select your brush or other tool, you put your trust in something else that is still unknown and perhaps unknowable.
Not too much thought
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
Michelangelo Buonarroti could visualize the figure within the marble before he began to carve. In his famous Pieta, intended for a French cardinal sculpted in around 1498, I imagine that much mental practice was attended to the task. Thought but not too much thought. Too much thinking I have learned can tire the mind. The trick is to learn when to stop thinking and to begin work.
Too darned hot
by Hans Werner, Australia
Robert, it is interesting to read your letter, especially about the temperature, while here in Australia I am battling with 38 degrees Celsius and in my studio it is well over the 40! Impossible to work, I try to get as much done early in the morning but by ten it is already too hot for the large panels I am doing at present. Hope this makes you feel better.
I mean really love it
by Doreen Shann, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
You really have to be so fired up about a piece you are going to do, that you know if you take your time and do your very best work, it will be great. Sometimes I have taken a subject that I have felt wasn’t too awe-inspiring and the actual painting has turned out also not to be. I think you have to really, really love the subject and idea you have. I mean really love it a lot.
Disturbed by numbers?
by Shirley Domer
Lately, I’ve been conscious of my tendency toward repetition using groups made up of odd numbers. For example, while adding finishing touches to a fabric collage my instinct was to use three velvet bows in a row, three large hooks and eyes in a row, and three designer clothing labels in scattered locations. These choices were not deliberate, but instinctive, and I became aware of the pattern only afterward. Why didn’t I use four bows and two hooks? Are certain emotional factors associated with different numbers, such as even and odd? Do some numbers or numerical combinations soothe, or give a sense of closure, or disturb us? Am I ascribing significance where there is none?
(RG note) Thanks, Shirley. Three is one of the important numbers in art. See my letter and responses to The power of three.
Some days there ain’t no fish
by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
Painting is much like fishing. We can’t see the fish and aren’t sure what sorts are lurking. Each time we cast our lines, we wonder, watch and feel for that nibble or strike. Sometimes we get hits, and sometimes get a glimpse of the phantom of the deep. Sooner or later, we get a keeper. When we paint, we are also fishing for that keeper. Each maneuver we make equates to those repetitive casts. Sometimes we sit a drift as well. This slows us down, giving time to ponder. The problems we encounter (blossoms, hard edges where we want soft) are the bottom snags. We quickly learn to cast and then reel faster or earlier so the lure doesn’t sink or we don’t have undesirable results at that moment in our work.
State of Heart
by Kittie Nesius Beletic, Califon, NJ, USA
I have experienced what you described many times… all of it! State of mind and most of all, State of Heart, seems to be the key for me. When I allow either to be influenced by negativity (negativity for me is defined by responses such as anger, fear, irritation, hatred, pity… those responses that drain my energy), when I allow my mind and heart to remain inside any of them, I am diverted from concentration and focus and most of all the allowing of the unknown. I suppose most of us are trained to conquer the unknown. It doesn’t serve us except through procrastination and by providing a lovely windmill to battle.
Seeing into the soul
by Elizabeth Azzolina, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA
Rembrandt’s work is living testimony of the exquisite power of the lifetime culmination of the disciplines listed in today’s letter. The depths of Rembrandt’s visualization talents to delve beyond human flesh and into the soul is breathtaking. His capacity to reflect the spirit of the gaze of an eye speaks volumes for the necessity of concentration and focus. The richness and sculptural application of paint renders a warm and inviting third dimension to his two dimensional canvas. As Rembrandt’s self-portraits progress, they develop an aura of inner harmony and demonstrate a sure-footed flow of the creative process. All that he achieved came without any technological aids. Rembrandt carefully placed his trust in his mind and heart to lead him on his journey toward his vision of truth.
(RG note) Thanks, Liz. Please note my letter on Rembrandt’s self-portrait and those of others in the Nightwatch, Amsterdam (The Letters Dec 7, 1999): “It’s a tronie.”
It’s like sex, go with it
by Rene Seigh, Huntsville, AL, USA
I commented to my weekly art group that painting in class seems to go better when I think about it for a while. I study the piece that I’m working on during the day, then that evening I know exactly what I want to do and can execute it in the two or three class hours. Yet sometimes spontaneity works well, too, especially on a new piece. Maybe it’s like sex; sometimes the anticipation builds during the day and makes it great, but other times it’s the mind-blowing rawness of the moment that catches you by surprise. Either way, you just have to go with it!
Less is more in watercolour
by Mary E Whitehill, Orange County, NY, USA
For a watercolorist, “Less is more.” The fewer strokes you take the better. Keep your eye on the ball (goal). Plan ahead (study your options). Relax, it’s only a game (it’s only a piece of paper). And always, good work happens one time — and not the next. Practice, practice, practice.
Acrylics that don’t stay put
by Marjorie Mason
I’m a watercolourist who has been working in acrylic for 2 or 3 years. I sometimes work wet, like a watercolour. I was working on a background and applied two different washes, then a few days later I tried a new colour but didn’t like it and wiped it off. Much to my chagrin I was back to white canvas. Why did the washes lift? My question is should I gesso the canvas again even though it is supposed to be treated with gesso already? Now I am very concerned about three other large canvases I have finished — they aren’t varnished yet and I am afraid some of the thinner areas may lift when I varnish. Any suggestions would be welcome. I have left a lot of white canvas showing on these three. Is that considered ok? Thank you for your help.
(RG note) Thanks, Marjorie. Acrylic vastly thinned with water and no medium is vulnerable and fragile. Watercolour has gum Arabic (gum acacia) as a binder that goes a long way to stabilize and make permanent. In acrylic you can’t use too much medium. In your situation you can fix the surface by spraying clear medium before you go in with the next passages. Please see my letter and responses to Golden girl.
This too shall pass
by Bruce Zeines, Brooklyn, NY, USA
My crappy feeling today follows a letter of rejection. Usually these things are par for the course, but this one is different. Quote: “Although we think your work is imaginative and engaging, we feel that it is not in line with our marketing direction.” Oy Vay! So you like my work, find it engaging and imaginative, but feel that your future clients will not like engaging or imaginative work. It would have been better if you just did not like it, and felt it was wrong for your gallery, and leave out the back handed compliment. So today I am off. Off on concentration, visualization curiosity, desire, patience (very short) as well as the other things you listed, especially appreciation. Thank god for my wife who just says ignore it.
So another blank sheet awaits, and I am hesitant. I know I will get there, but today, there is a fear that is not usually there. Fear of the unknown. Sometimes I embrace the unknown. It is the basis for my work. I am interested in what is going to happen, and take my part in letting it emerge. But today that curiosity has turned to trepidation. Maybe after one more cup of coffee, I will hear the call of the white sheet, beckoning me to stroke it with love, once again. So it is with all things, this too shall pass. Hopefully not like a kidney stone.
(RG note) Thanks, Bruce. There’s not one of us that has not felt that way. In my early days I allowed myself to ride on a crest of inflated, self-delusional baloney. I did not let myself believe I would fail. Surprisingly, I was not surprised when my self-delusions became reality.
The “feel good” feeling
by Rose Nicholson
I wonder if you have read a book by Steven Pressfield called The War of Art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. Mental practice indeed. Seems creativity includes the art of procrastination! Just do it, and do it every day is the message. My new studio is shaping up in what had been a very dilapidated old garage. Over winter break, I got a lovely coat of warm yellow on the walls and began to put away, in some order, all the bits of workshop and studio. The heat has been turned up, and soon I will steal away from the ‘must dos’ of responsible life, to the ‘just gotta dos’ of art! Doesn’t it feel good when you actually get on with it!
Metaphor for creation
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
I’m finding out that making art is a great metaphor for creating anything else in life.
The steps are the same although the materials may differ. Any work of art like any creation of any sort has to start with a desire that is strong enough to allow for actual materialization. The fleeting feelings that arise during the process of actual creation can either block it or allow for it. Mental discipline of directing and choosing ones thoughts, of letting go of the ones that do not serve the process is of utmost importance. One needs to nurture creativity. All ideas start as a seed. Unless nurtured and cared for they will not mature into a full-grown plant. Nature is a metaphor for all aspects of human creativity.
On the other hand sometimes in the middle of adversity the best comes out in us humans. The Super Human surfaces and all becomes possible to those who believe. Doesn’t it all at the end come to what we believe as individuals is possible?
Psychology of wrongness
by Maria Oppenheim, Wiesbaden, Germany
I know that situation. I like to do “Performance Painting”: My partner plays the clarinet, I paint; our languages meet and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I react; sometimes he reacts to my gestures, the sound of my brushstrokes or my drumming on the canvas. I may start out in a rotten mood and the result is a very focused picture. I may start out very sure of myself and all I get is a canvas full of acrylics. OK: I will paint it over and who knows what it’s good for… When I ask myself why and what does it have to do with my mood — my answer is that the flow of energy between people and within ourselves is not something we should control too much: it’s a gift from inside, from above, from beyond, from who knows.
I tell my students who always want to do everything right (a very common disease especially shared by German art students, beginners) to try it the other way around: try to do everything wrong. It’s so confusing, they end up forgetting to control it. That’s when the energy starts to flow.
Prerequisites for art-making
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
To create a lively painting on a dead canvas and to be in the painting mood is like hearing the unheard, feeling the unseen, painting the absence, moving the unmovable, speaking to silence and bringing it to a meaningful conversation, experiencing solitary but getting crowded, learning to get involved and let it flow, being directed without strain. In order to do all that, it requires concentration, motives, passion, patience, setting determined goals, creating a warm atmosphere by listening to favorite music, enjoying the peace of the solitary.
Rational mind still sleeps
by Cigal (Christa Gautschi), Dornach, Switzerland
It is best for me to paint right after getting up, much too early in the morning and whilst being still tired. My explanation for this phenomena is that my rational mind still sleeps, whereas my true self (whatever this is) is then doodling very play-like maybe with a simple pen on a piece of paper, just amusing itself with no pressure for a ‘good sketch or painting’ at all. That way my doodles captivate my entire self, because they start telling me a visual story and I wont to go on and on and never awake from this new story, but continue to pursue it like an addict: let the phone and the doorbell ring, or let me even have appointments. I don’t care anymore for these un- important and somehow tyrannizing things then, because I am fully absorbed and into fascinating worlds where I am ultra eager to see what happens next.
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have always wondered why I seem to do my most creative work late at night, and it might be the same reason you worked so creatively when tired. I think at night the rational left hemisphere of the brain goes to sleep, leaving the right intuitive and spatial hemisphere to run the show. Late at night I get very brave, don’t care about the consequences, start throwing paint and patterns around, and generally have a “why not” attitude to my painting. I also seem to be better at seeing the whole picture, rather than getting caught up in the parts. The analytical left brain not only breaks the painting into its components, it is also the doubter, the inhibitor, the one that doesn’t want to ruin the painting. The right brain provides the inspiration, the “aha” experience of pulling everything together into the cosmic dance that is more than the sum of the parts. I keep trying to go to bed early, but I always end up painting late.
Attitude of gratitude
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA
Sometimes we forget what we have accomplished. Robert, how many people could write a letter that is read all over the world twice a week? Wow, now that is something to remember when you feel a lack of creativity! I save and reread so many of your letters, and they never fail to inspire and teach me something wonderful about art. We could all use an attitude of gratitude.
Artist in Studio
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