Cultivating ‘notions’

Dear Artist, On Saturdays, my mom used to take me along when she went shopping in the big department store. Inevitably we rode the elevator to “Notions” on the third floor. “What are notions?” I asked one day on the way up. “They’re things you didn’t know you needed, but when you see them you have a notion to get them,” she told me. Mom seemed to wander around in a mental daze, picking up things like needles, buttons and cuticle remover. She once bought a red pincushion “so grandma can have a place to organize her pins.” Pin organization was one of my lesser concerns in those days, and this sort of frivolity only confirmed how much I hated stores, a prejudice that lingers against many stores to this day.

These rubber ended ‘brushes’ come in a great variety of styles

A notion, as well as being a department in a store, is a state of mind where you do something on a whim. It’s largely triggered by seeing an item, handling it and figuring out how it might be used. In marketing terms it’s called “point of sale” and apparently it works better than peering at a screen. Over the years I mellowed and now consider attendance at well-stocked art-materials stores a desirable deviation and an art in itself. Materials-shopping can actually be a creative event not unlike the experimentation that happens in the studio.

A bit regular in its effects, it’s best used just here and there

You need to be relaxed, open-minded and prepared to stay in the store just short of the time it takes to get picked up for loitering. I recommend putting your hands in your pockets for the first while and then only handling stuff on the second pass. Well-stocked stores are loaded with new gadgets, tools and materials that invite pause and the inevitable creative question, “What could be?” Novelty is vital to the stimulation of life. This Christmas, for example, Dorothy the Airedale played harder and had more fun with this year’s ball than with last year’s. It’s in human nature. The same old same old is transmogrified by the creative crossover triggered by seemingly minor novelties. New neural paths are sparked by caving in to notions.

Detail: Glazed and scumbled, the effect can be enhanced or minimized

Best regards, Robert PS: “The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake) “Life is trying things to see if they work.” (Ray Bradbury) “I didn’t think; I experimented.” (Wilhelm Roentgen)  

Detail: Just a little variety, perhaps novelty, just a notion

Esoterica: On Boxing Day it took me about an hour to find the thing I wasn’t looking for. There was a bunch of them in a bin in all shapes, sizes and configurations. The one I got was a rubber spatula-type thing about an inch wide with rubber prongs like a short springy comb. I don’t know what it’s called, but it has “Catalyst by Princeton” on the handle. When I got back to the studio I didn’t take off my coat before trying it out. When used to push around relatively thick paint and combined with glazing and scumbling, it provided a few textural touches I’d been missing.   Wedges and Blades by Lynne Dearing, AZ, USA  

Dick Blick Catalyst Wedges & Blades

I knew I had seen your “notion” somewhere so did a bit of searching online. Found the Catalyst ‘Wedges & Blades’ on the Dick Blick website. They are listed under brushes as “wedges & blades” by Princeton (who coincidentally also make other “notion” types of brushes). Priced from $6.99 to $11.99 they are available in various sizes and a color-wheel selection of colors. The info gives them a five star out of five stars rating! Thanks so much for this really “fun” deviation. (RG note) Thanks, Lynne, and everyone else who told me what those things are called. I shall refer to them by their proper name from now on.   Very stiff brushes by Sandy Schultheis, Evansville, IN, USA  

Dick Blick Catalyst Polytip Bristle Brushes

I discovered the Catalyst tools at my local art supply a couple of months ago when they were 50% off, and bought the orange one that you demonstrate plus a couple of smaller ones. I loved the effects I got because the marks were different from anything I had tried previously. Princeton also makes a line of brushes with very stiff bristles, Catalyst Polytip, in a range of shapes and sizes. I am very hard on brushes and these seem to stand up to abuse. I use acrylic paint, but they can be used with oil as well.       Mix it up by Ingrid Mueller, Toronto, ON, Canada   I never walk out of the art store with just what I intended to purchase. I’ve also discovered that there are many tools and interesting gadgets in the kitchen and workshop that are quite useful for painting and creating effects. It would seem that many artists become single minded and resist exploration. Traditional painting requires brushes and, perhaps, knives, but there are many tools and substances that work well to create an effect that one may be trying to achieve. For example, I sometimes use drywall compound instead of gesso for a heavy textured base. This can be sculpted like paste, only 20 times cheaper. It dries quickly and creates a surface that accepts all acrylic mediums (not sure about oil, as it would have to be sealed). Of course, it depends upon your style of painting, but we often tend to stick to what we’ve learned and are afraid to venture from the norm. My point is: MIX IT UP!! LIFE IS SHORT! My next point is: Life-long learning is a critical mindset for a successful journey, and experimentation is a part of that learning process.   The real you by Ann Porter, Lake Hill, NY, USA   Question: To what extent do artists use two mirrors (instead of one) to do self-portraits? One mirror depicts how one sees oneself while use of two mirrors provides viewers with the “you” they recognize more readily… however, it will not seem like “you” to you. (RG note) Thanks, Ann. Not many, I’m guessing. I tried two mirrors a couple of times. It made me above average confused.   Making do with this and that by Valerie Vanorden, Kalamazoo, MI, USA  

“Desert mountains”
pastel painting
by Valerie Vanorden

I often get inspired by looking at Pampered Chef catalogs, and going through hardware stores, looking at how various problems have been solved… maybe I’ll find something that applies to my own conundrums in life. I often drool after bar carts thinking I can make cheap taborets out of them, and other things. I use plexiglass taped off to prevent ambient light for a light table, poised over a table lamp on the floor; I use a stool for a table (we’re space challenged here). I use a decorative 15 watt bulb for light for light-table… the list goes on and on. I love to read art catalogs and think of how to substitute expensive items for artists with less expensive substitutes meant for other, more common crafts, such as scrapbookers. Who among us have not used common tackleboxes for our art supplies?   Quicker is better by Don Getz, Salem, OH, USA  

“Adirondack Experience”
watercolour painting
by Don Getz

Week of December 22: The opportunity to finish up some of my quick sketches arrived and I have started my fourth journal on the trip, having arrived in Florida. The sessions have not always been full, to this point, as many here have the holidays in mind… but with the many ‘snowbirds’ in Florida, I am sure that will change! I have enjoyed the opportunity to sketch so frequently — not having that under normal routine… and it causes a situation, where intense work creates quality in your work — and the quick sketches come quicker! (RG note) Don Getz is taking a year to travel the USA, fill sketchbooks and teach sketchbooking. You can get an idea of Don’s workshop movements and the workshops of many other fine artists by going to our Workshop Calendar. For everyone’s benefit, we also feature selected workshops on my Facebook page.   A light in the dark by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA  

“Silent night”
oil painting, 12 x 12 inches
by Brenda Behr

I tell people my mother “drove me to paint.” This is mostly true. Although I’d been a “Sunday painter” for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until becoming my mother’s primary caregiver that I started painting ferociously. She suffered dementia which evolved into Alzheimer’s which evolved into my needing to paint all the more, mostly en plein air, which meant getting out of the house. So the idea of painting at night occurred to me. What about safety? I could paint in my car with the doors locked and a book light clipped to the windshield visor. Somewhere, I ran across a head lamp that I could wear, that would cast light upon whatever surface I turned my head. I can’t remember where I found the first head light, but before long, I found an even better one. They were like much of my art stuff, well intended to use or to incorporate one day, but left in a drawer as a “someday might come in handy” item. Fast forward five or more years. My mother, God rest her soul, is gone and I now have a painting buddy named Robert. He’s as crazy plein air painting passionate as I am. So about a week ago he started talking about painting the Christmas lights downtown. This meant night painting, of course. Turns out he has one of those head lights too, like mine, never before used. So check it out. My most recent On the Plein Air Trail blog post shows Robert and I in the dark donning our head light “notions,” as well as my resulting oil painting. There are 2 comments for A light in the dark by Brenda Behr
From: Janet Blair — Jan 01, 2013

Absolutly beautiful painting

From: Brenda Behr — Jan 01, 2013

Thank you Janet. Last night I went with buddy Robert to paint the annual Pickle Drop at the home of Mt. Olive pickles in Mount Olive, NC. What “Silent Night” may be to quiet and peacefulness, my pickle drop painting is to funniness. Painting at night opens up a whole other world.

  Notions of people by Donna Veeder, Utica, NY, USA   Ever since we have lived here, we have found friends who came from other traditions. There are White Russians nearby and a beautiful gold-domed Monastery within five miles of the farm. In Little Falls, a tiny Ukrainian onion-domed church sits within two blocks of us. We went to the funeral of our friend’s father there long ago. Last Sunday we attended a party at a Lithuanian family’s home. A friend of theirs came who is Filipino. I took cooking classes from her. Many of our doctors here are from India, Pakistan or Africa. The doctor who removed my kidney in 1975 was of a Lebanese family in Utica. He saved my life. I have had artist friends from Italy, India, Belgium, Argentina and other countries. We met more friends from afar at a large meeting in the ’70s, at the World-Wide Natural Foods Associates Convention in Montreal. A friend from Sri Lanka we met there still writes to us. Of course, there we also met the French! Our Northern Canadian border is part French-speaking. A young friend married a French girl. We have made friends with Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, & Scientologists! I still hope to attend a service at the Synagogue in Herkimer. Around here there are Holland Dutch and Palatine Deutsch (German) whose families fought in our Revolution. There are North American Indians: Native Americans. Once I met an Onondaga Chief and his family. A Mohawk Chief spoke at one of our United Methodist Conferences. We have had friends, neighbors and now family from the Caribbean Sea Islands. This area is a kaleidoscope of peoples from all over the world. I would not have missed this exposure to “others” for anything. When I go to New York City, I am almost overwhelmed at the numbers of people walking along any street who come from the whole wide world. I can’t see the city for watching faces and listening to languages that I cannot understand. It is like swimming in a World Soup. (RG note) Thanks, Donna. The above is an excerpt for Donna’s Year-End Journal. Thank-you to everyone who sent journals. Journaling seems a growth industry.   It’s what you do with it by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

oil painting
by Peter Brown

As a struggling young painter, I had a spare bedroom art studio and began to acquire stuff. A big easel and a big bulletin board for images I liked to look at. I added special lighting, and a drawing board, a tall stool, large brushes, large canvasses, a special palette and palette knives and jars and bottles of varnishes and dryers and medium. I did some decent work in that studio, won a Best of Show cash prize that didn’t come close to what I had invested in things I thought I needed to be a painter. Then something wonderful happened. A group of three painters, all much older and established, asked me to join them en plein air. My suspicion was that they really needed me to chauffeur the “old man.” He was 77, and was recovering from a stroke. It was hard to understand his speech, but he had a vocal opinion about everything. With me driving him out to the painting spots, often an hour’s travel away, the other two painters could have a private conversation. Loading up that first morning, I hauled all manner of gear out to my car. The old man came out with a small paint box, a bag containing a small jar of turp and a rag, and, under one arm, three smallish canvasses. At the site, he walked a few yards away to access a long view. He sat down in the grass, and almost before I got set up to begin, he had completed a loosely painted 11 x 14 inch panoramic view. This one Saturday, was the single greatest art lesson ever provided me in any art class, college course, or grad school. Eventually, I had a tidy little mechanic’s tool box. Twenty paint tubes stood up with card board dividers. There was still room for a turp jar and rags, the brushes laid on top of that, and my plexi palette, wet or dry also fit in, under the lid. That little red mechanic’s tool box and a shelf in the garage served me for 35 years. I do have a studio, now. I am retired, and I can spend lots of time up there. I even have some of the gadgets that I do not really need. But what I learned from my old man friend was quite simple. It ain’t the gear, it’s what you do with it.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Cultivating ‘notions’

From: Darla — Dec 28, 2012

Cool gadget! I’m often inspired by expensive but cool items like that to improvise with pencil erasers and dollar store silicone basters and spatulas. If you look at the makeup, kitchen and hardware sections of stores, you can find all kinds of interesting gadgets for moving around paint.

From: ReneW — Dec 28, 2012

Notions of yesteryear are impulse items of today. They are now found at the check-out line.

From: Frances — Dec 28, 2012

My ‘notions’ used to be men….you didn’t know you needed it until you saw it/him. I have a plastic brush baster in the kitchen. I think I will transfer it to my studio.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Dec 28, 2012

I almost broke up with my fiancé (now my wonderful wife) many years ago, because she wanted me to spend the afternoon with her in a shopping mall. But when it comes to art supplies, I’m like the proverbial kid in a candy store. On Christmas Eve day, I used a sharpened popsicle stick “notion” to do some “scraffito”, and to lay in some tiny highlights on a piece. Experimentation is definitely a “catalyst”.

From: Dwight — Dec 28, 2012

Scratching or squeegeeing wet paint is an old “trick” in watercolor. The brush handles sometimes are chisel-shaped for that. However, much better than that is a nylon very-sharp-edged kitchen pot scraper. Better also than the edge of an old credit card.

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 28, 2012

At first I was puzzled at your mother’s idea of notions, especially given earlier generations. Sewing today is made into easy patterns with explicit instructions … anyone can teach themselves to sew. Prior to the mid-1860s there were no patterns. Tailors and women had a “notion” or idea what they wanted to sew. They then went to a store and surveyed the options of material, thread, ribbons, and buttons and constructed their garment according to their preconceived design. But the concept or notion was already in place only to be carried out after choosing the needed supplies. I’m sure many an idea was altered after seeing an attractive material sample the seamstress or tailor had not considered before. But going to a notions department on a whim doesn’t quite make sense … that isn’t to say I haven’t bought some impulse items there. After all, there is far more in notions departments than thread and fabric. I get a thrill looking at art supply catalogs. Most art stores carry staple supplies and I know which aisle and display to find them. Browsing often inspires and is great fun, and a notions department bears a definite resemblance to an art store in that respect. The “notions” you refer to strike me every time I go to a hardware store. Invariably, I will bring home an item I had no intention of buying. Browsing there could break a person.

From: Lorry — Dec 29, 2012

This is interesting, since it seems that where Robert Genn lives they still have art supply stores!

From: Paul Hough — Dec 29, 2012

Perhaps we should just wander around the aisles in Home Depot—like a lot of seniors–no particular purchase in mind–Apparently a man thing. Then we can go for coffee and you can explain “transmogrified”.

From: Bill Stephenson — Dec 29, 2012

Now that I formally understand “Notions”, I am going to gather my notions into a box for safe keeping… maybe I won’t loose so many.

From: Heather van der Breggen — Dec 29, 2012

Tom Tait of Galleries West magazine told me about you last spring. I decided it is overdue that I thank both of you! I have not commented previously as I have been amazed that each twice weekly letter I read seems to be written just for me! It is astounding how you have spoken to me! I am an uneducated full time artist (for 3 years now). My greatest fear is that I don’t know what I am doing, although people seem to like and purchase the work. My fear that a “real” artist will expose me as an impostor is slowly receding with the information in your letters. Thank you for the gift of your words!

From: Norman Call — Dec 29, 2012

The average kitchen is filled with “notions” that can be pressed into service. I access them when my wife has gone out for the day, then carefully wash them and return them to their proper drawers before she returns.

From: Lawrence Sterne — Dec 29, 2012

Sand paper (all grits) are one of the most useful of all studio notions when used on dried acrylic paintings. Amazing effects.

From: Ulla Farrelly — Dec 29, 2012

Thanks for making me smile with this letter and the last one too. Many blessings to you and yours for all the inspiration.

From: Ifthikar Cader — Dec 29, 2012

Compliments of the Season and thank you for the gift of your Twice-Weekly Letters that contributes so much to the enjoyment of being an artist.

From: Marguerite Roland — Dec 29, 2012

I think it’s best to pick up and handle the notion the minute you lay your eyes on it. That way the surprise is fresh and the neural sparks can cross over and mix and match with what you are working on that very day. We all enter stores with a list–notion lists are open ended and should be followed above all other lists.

From: Jacqueline C. Satterlee — Dec 29, 2012

I appreciated your letter on anxiety. I am (re) redoing my attic as a studio, where my art books have been accumulating and gathering dust for forty + years, waiting for me to retire. Now that I am retired, I’m not sure how to utilize them, or even whether I should keep them. I’m sure I will find an answer in one of your great letters! Elmira, N.Y. USA

From: Charmian McLellan — Dec 29, 2012

One can never have too many “notions”. Boulder, WY

From: Red Rogers — Dec 29, 2012

What about blowing puddles around? You only need a straw for that.

From: Nicci Battilana — Dec 30, 2012
From: Dennis Waite — Dec 30, 2012
From: Barbara — Dec 30, 2012

Using the computer is just one more way to express one’s creativity. I do believe it can also be a distraction if you are trying to paint and perfect your skills in oil, watercolor, or whatever. But as far as following in the footsteps of the masters-what about Johannes Vermeer who is speculated to have used the camera obscura? I only wish I could travel in time to see what art will look like in the future. I hope the old ways are still used, but would hope there would be some wonderful new art forms too.

From: Russ Hogger — Dec 30, 2012

I have tried no end of gadgets to move paint around in my life time, but I have always come back to my old brushes in their various stages of wear and tear.

From: Camille Bodey — Dec 30, 2012

Enjoyed seeing your use of the thigamajig. I’ll look for one. Thanks for your letters.

From: Cameron Wong — Dec 31, 2012

An ordinary kitchen spatula makes an excellent studio tool. I cut the forward edge in an irregular fashion using an Xacto knife in varying sizes V shaped cuts. Where the spatula turns at the end can be used for finer work.

From: Marilyn Miller — Jan 01, 2013

Thank you for great ideas, notions, and inspiration! Always you get me considering and doing!

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Marsh dawn

oil painting, 12 x 12 inches by Marilyn Allen, VT, USA

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