In looking at quotes you have to ask two questions: “Is it true?” and “Is it true for me?” You have to be careful in this quotation game. Take, for example, this quote of Claude Monet from a letter to Gustav Geffroy: “No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”
Even Monet, with all his thoughtful brilliance, was still a man of his times. Think of all of those paintings before, but mostly since, where no picture at all existed anywhere near its final form in the head of its creator. The idea of preconception is a popular one, and a reliable one at that, but it’s not necessarily true to the spirit of creativity. There’s a whole world out there for artists who think on their feet, move this to satisfy that, and let the painting tell them what it needs. It’s riskier — there’s going to be a loser or two — but it’s a lot more fun.
Here’s the single most compelling reason for winging it: It keeps you interested.
Of course, you have to know your methods, their variations, and when to break the rules. Some of us have spent a lifetime putting methods in our pockets — but to suggest you always have to stick to one puts the activity on the level of knitting. In, over, under, off. And composition: Yep, poorly conceived compositions are the cause of more misery than perhaps any other aspect of quality art-making. It’s sure nice not to be stuck with a composition that looked okay in the rehearsal.
The point is that lots of fine people, even artists, say one thing and do another. More than a few times Monet sewed extra canvas on one end or sawed an inch or two off the bottom in order to solve his problems. That’s creativity.
PS: “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” (Edgar Degas)
Esoterica: Paint-by-Numbers. In 1949, an unemployed artist by the name of Dan Robbins invented a system that made it possible for the masses to get satisfaction painting between the lines. After being relegated to the garage along with the hula-hoop, Craft-Master and PBN are now making a comeback.
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities Thank you for writing.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I made the transition from the cerebral, hard-edged color-field exercises that passed for art back in the sixties to plein air landscape with great difficulty and lingering guilt. In art school and for a few years after graduation, I planned my work in meticulous detail; graph paper, color charts, a hundred little jars of individually mixed acrylic paint… all the creativity occurred before the brush (and masking tape) ever touched the canvas. The actual production of the painting was an act of will.
Then I was invited to teach a landscape painting class and, having no real knowledge of landscape painting techniques but well-grounded in color theory and drawing, I taught my students by painting small demonstration sketches. Each sketch was done quickly, from life, to answer one question. “How do you paint a tree trunk?” “How do you create the illusion of distance?” “How can I keep my colors from getting muddy?” etc. I invented my process as I went along. My little oil studies (on paper) were prized by the students. I began stretching small canvases to use for my demonstrations, and I exhibited them. They were well received. For a few years I continued doing my ‘real’ art, suspecting the value of my lovely little landscape paintings. They were too easy, too much fun, and too well liked, all characteristics I had learned to suspect in art school.
These days, every painting is a surprise.
What’s wrong with knitting?
by B Davidson
Knitting is a great activity. While sweaters can be produced easily and cheaply by mechanical means the exercise of doing them by hand continues. It’s the zen-like feeling that makes it enjoyable — repetitious, yes, but rewarding. Another beauty of knitting is that you can do it while you’re doing something else, like visiting or watching TV.
by R T Lawson
Quotephobia: Fear that you may change the way you do something by reading a quote.
Quotemania: The obsessive desire to collect quotations in the hope and expectation of becoming a wiser or better person.
Quotephile: One who practices the above.
Degas quote in question
by Randolph Winter, UK
I guess you put that Degas quote in to get me thinking. You generally do. I think Degas is wrong. I think Degas, were he around, would now be embarrassed if he knew what he had said. The glories in art, the satisfaction and the joy — to say nothing of the greenery, goes to the artists who know what they are doing.
Right on Degas
by Mary Jean Mailloux, California, USA
Your letter made me think of how I work. Sometimes I have a plan, however “the best laid plans” as they say. I think Degas had it right. I think true creativity lies in using everything available in the medium at the moment. I think it’s important to have a plan but I think one should also be flexible and go with the flow.
I have a problem with completion of a piece. If it’s a commercial design, it’s not a problem, but if it’s a piece I’m doing for my own pleasure, or that is “fine art” I love very full colourful pieces, but I tend to paint fine art in a minimalist way. I get insecure about how much is enough. How do you make that decision?
(RG note) You can never get enough, nor is it bad for you.
by Margaret Baird Davis, Decorah, Iowa, USA
I’ve re-compositioned things more than a few times with watercolours and acrylics on canvas board. Wouldn’t have thought it could be done with regular canvas. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has had to modify as I went along. It’s a lot more fun to improvise.
By the hour
by Jack Trimble, Alberta, Canada
Readers might be interested in a creative motivator I’ve developed. I put the clickback of quotations beside my easel and when the news comes on the radio every hour I look at and tick off a new quotation. This gives me something to think about while I’m working — and whether I agree with the quotation or not — gives me a feeling of taking part in the bigger scheme of things. In one of your seminars you mentioned “name it and claim it.” This is an idea I have pursued. After a while the thoughts of the great become mine.
by Louise Cass, Haliburton, Ontario, Canada
I, for one, would have to agree with the Monet quote. I do visualise paintings before I actually execute them. The problem is that I have far more in my mind’s eye than I can possibly carry out and very often the ones I do don’t live up to what I had in mind — the intuitive or instinctive (i.e. a kind of spontaneous creativeness) always plays a part of course. I wonder how many artists do actually previsualise these days?
(RG note) The problem, as I see it, is that the mind’s eye, while highly developed in some, is still a faulty device. It is seldom fully capable of anticipating all of the nuances and possibilities. It is only when you have your hands on and are well into a project that its potential becomes clear. Furthermore, the items in the mind’s eye tend to become precious if we think about them too much. They also, in my experience, tend to disappoint upon execution. It’s a saw-off. Eisenstein‘s remark is still valid: “Careful planning, and brilliant improvisation.”
Saying one thing and doing another
by Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA
There are many reasons why people say they are going to do one thing and yet do another.
1. Too lazy to follow through and really do what they intended to do. Take the easy way out.
2. Not enough training, experience in the way it should be done. Inadequate for the project.
3. Change of mind — starting to do something one way and then veering off in another direction.
4. Creativity by accident. Being open to happenstance through relaxed experimentation.
You may be interested to know that artists from 74 countries have visited these sites since June 1, 2000.
That includes Enriquillo Rodriguez of Santo Domingo whose grandfather gave him a book on Monet that gave him early encouragement to become a painter.