Ordering chaos


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, I was being curious again about one of my little habits — a habit that some artists might relate to. I like to start a painting off in a mess and then try to harness and control the thing. It’s appealing to me to make something unruly into something ordered. Please don’t mention this to anyone — right now I’m compulsive about it.


“Infinity Mirrored Room”
Yayoi Kusama installation on view February 23, 2017 – May 14, 2017 at Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC

Others, too, have told me about a mode such as this — something we’ve named “commit and correct.” This mode, enacted somewhat unconsciously, permits a worker to see her work holistically. This means an all-at-once focusing that allows a work to “materialize” rather than develop out of areas of calculated rendering. The brush becomes rather like a bee going to flowers, here, there, everywhere. More than anything, it’s a matter of looking at and asking what something — any part, or all of it — looks like, then defining it better. Further, it’s often a matter of putting a colour — any colour — on the brush and somehow being guided to where on the painting it is needed.


“Infinity Mirrored room: Hymn of Life” 2015 installation of color-shifting Japanese lanterns
by Yayoi Kusama

You might be interested to know there’s a new English TV documentary that suggests Mozart suffered from the obsessive compulsive disorder Tourette’s Syndrome. The claims are made by the British composer James McConnel, who himself has the condition. McConnel says the clues are to be found in letters written by Mozart as well as in his music. McConnel says that Mozart’s fascination with wordplay and obsession with clocks, shoe sizes and gadgets, as well as his documented twitching all pointed to him being a Tourette’s sufferer. “Tourette’s is a constant battle between chaos and control, having a compulsion and trying to control it, and that translates into music,” he said. “Mozart let his music run off in chaotic directions but then always brought it back under control.”

I’m not of course saying that I’m Mozart, and I’m not suggesting that you become him either, although in some ways it would be nice. What’s interesting and perhaps valuable to artists is the process implied in the condition. While natural to some, for others it’s simply a learned habit that can lead to a way of seeing and developing works of art.


Window installation created for the Louis Vuitton store on 5th Avenue in New York City, 2012, featuring a wax replica of the artist, Yayoi Kusama

Best regards,


PS: “I do not hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them gleich alles zusammen (at the same time all together).” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) “Art is the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” (Saul Bellow)

Esoterica: Tourette’s Syndrome is a rare disorder named after a French neurologist who first described it in 1885. It starts in childhood with repetitive grimaces and tics, usually of the head and neck. Involuntary barks, grunts or other noises may appear as the disease progresses. In about half the cases, the sufferer has episodes of coprolalia (using foul language).

This letter was originally published as “Ordering Chaos” on September 3, 2004.

Yayoi Kusama, 87,  has worked professionally since the early 1950s. She continues to create Spaces of Wonder: Infinity Mirrors is touring the US in 2017.

yayoi-kusama_princess-of-the-polka-dots-video_louis-vuittonDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.” (Yayoi Kusama)



  1. I’m with Robert! I just took a one week foray into abstract art for a company requesting art-to-lease. I’ve just gotten cataract surgery so I have like, 1 1/2 eyes!! I thought I’d better use my non-dominant left hand to cut loose, using a variety of texture making tools and just 4 colors. I had so much fun, and was amazed by the 6 paintings and the way they flowed… without trying to force them into being…. listening and etting them tell me what was needed here and there. You can see them on my facebook page this week. Just saying…the power in your right brain is benevolent, careful, open, dynamic, free, curious, and non-judgmental.
    I have often used my left hand when ‘l want to get unstuck’, since reading Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain decades ago. It works for personal journaling, too. Ask questions with your right hand, answer with your left! Try it– you’ll like it!!

    • I’ve often used the right-left hand drawing. When I was diagnosed with cancer (free for 19 yrs), I had just moved and the only art supplies unpacked in my studio was a pad of watercolor paper and Tombow pens. I asked a question and then was drawn to a color and created a line/shape, selected another color and drew again. That process repeated. Sometimes I thought I saw an object and the next line/shape changed it. Eventually I knew the line painting was complete and I had an answer to the question. I did this throughout the treatment process. Whatever the chaos, order was formed by letting the drawing/painting be whatever felt was next. I call this series “Beautiful Questions.” They created a deep inner peace at that time in my life and I still smile when I look at them, even when I just think of them.

      • Zena,

        I was also diagnosed with cancer (31 years free) and found practices that contributed to my deep healing. Since then I’ve found myself drawn to creative responses to dire diagnoses and was captivated by your description of “Beautiful Questions.” Is there someplace I could view images of this work you created? I would love to see them!

      • Elaine Ringgenberg Hartley on

        Thank you for shaing. I needed to hear this. I just finished treatment for breast cancer and am struggling to reconnect with my art…with life.

  2. I believe letting the canvas have a say is being open to enormous possibilities and growth in one’s work, even if eventually a calculated pattern evolves, which probably includes certain times of letting go to the
    “somehow of being guided” as mentioned in the letter.
    I believe this is Creativity itself – it is not calculated but rather being in a state free to receive which may involve appreciating our experiences, our education, a spiritual aspect and our own personality.
    Thanks Sara for posting Roberts insights again to encourage us in our painting expeditions of Chaos and Order and contemplating the fine balance between the two.

  3. A great article thank you !
    For the last few years I have used leftover paint from cleaning my palette as a base to start new paintings . I love the chaos and the randomness in the abstract foundation . Sometimes I leave colours to pop through and other times I cover when it doesn’t work . There’s a beautiful balance between the abstract and figurative that is elusive but wonderful when you can achieve it !
    It is an interesting dialogue between the paint and the painter and sometimes the paint is right and the painter is wrong .

    • Yes Andrew, I too use my left over paint as a base to start new paintings. In my latest series, Imaginary Gardens each painting begins with my outlining the shapes and smears created by random brush cleanings. I find the whole process freeing and rewarding.

  4. I have painted like this and taught painting like this for 20 years. For me, it has evolved, somewhat, but it is important in this mind dominated society that i remember and honor intuition and soul.

  5. This is me too! I like to do minimal drawing before starting to paint and just apply oil paint with the aim of covering the canvas quickly, without worrying about likeness, if a portrait, at this stage. So the process feels and the result looks chaotic somewhat. What it avoids for me is being tight, drawing a detailed drawing and then filling in.
    Then I look at the result and decide what needs more work. I aim to do the minimum in this second stage, consistent with my aim for the painting.

  6. My studio style is almost always much more ordered than my plein air style.
    A studio painting is planned: a photograph is processed and refined in graphics software, sometimes the image is ‘cut and paste and change’ from several photographs; or a still life is set up, (with fruit that won’t rot before the piece is done) and the painting more or less proceeds in a linear fashion.
    A plein air painting is definitely chaotic: after beginning the painting I can see how it all will go terribly wrong and struggle to “fix it” as I work. Somehow it all comes together before the last two or three brushstrokes, and the panic was pointless and laughable.
    (That’s what makes plein air painting exciting!–Risk, Panic, Resolution)

  7. Amateurs are afraid to be BOLD…Professionals are afraid to be TIMID (Edgar Whitney) This says it all. Feeling secure and safe with your place in the universe? Got it all under control? Then do so something bold to that mediocre work and bring it to the edge…then stay there.

  8. Mary Manning on

    This tension one of my favorite ways to create art. Since late last year, have been timid, but boldness ready to break loose with spring buds. Thank you, Sara, for this important trait!

  9. Thank you! I know I am not the only artist to work this way, but it’s affirming to know that so many artists do. I don’t always create chaos as such, but I don’t plan anything – I just start and it takes off from there. If I sometimes do make a ‘mess’ – I will work at trying to make it harmonious – to make it visually ‘work’. I usually create abstract drawings or painting and I love the freedom of creating and seeing how the parts make the ‘whole’ as I add to it. I have a artist friend (she is a senior artist 15 years my senior that is, though I am already 65 years old myself!) and she often will encourage me to “make a mess”! Which is how she herself often will purposely do in beginning her art making. I have learned from her to try to be bold this way – I must admit I don’t always want to ‘make a mess’ but I do try to be fearless in trying new ways of doing art.

  10. kathryn taylor on

    Thanks for this letter! It reminds me of a book I read years ago, by William Butler Yeats. I was looking for his poetry, but found this book instead. A Vision I think it was called. But it was about Yeats doing this exact thing with his writing. He called it free form writing, where he would just take pen and paper, and start writing, to see what he would end up with. It was really interesting, creative. I think this can be done in all the art forms. Its liberating. As Susan Burns said, its using intuition and soul.

  11. About 10 years ago I took a week long workshop with Gerry Bromberg, a west coast artist who had developed a process using Japanese Washi paper as a base. You tore the Washi papers ( different patterns and weaves) into pieces and built up a surface on canvas or board. The fibre textures that began to assert themselves would begion to form a third dimension to the work. Then you would seal the surface and begin your watercolour painting on this surface, but the painting would be shaped and formed by the Washi base. In a way, the process matches Robert’s ordering chaos or finding order in disorder.

    One of my small non-painting exercises is finding forms and shapes, faces and animals in toweling. It’s like looking for animals or demons in the Queen’s hair on a ten dollar bill. It is an exercise in finding, but not seeking. ( Does this qualify me for the fruit loops medal?)

  12. Yes yes yes , it’s great to know I’m painting like an artist ! And the chaos in my studio is just the way it should be , how reaffirming that is to me !

  13. make something unruly into a thing called art ….wonderful…but let’s not forget unruly households and do some old-fashioned spring cleaning, too! The health and the art are better when home and studio and supplies get a good going over – keyword GOOD. :-) Donate, and deduct the value of things – there is probably a nice clean local tag sale, as well, to help get some cash back and have fun clearing some refreshing space for future work and buying in wonderful new clutter in the home, in the studio and in the mind and hart – it’s spring – it’s about life :-)

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Against-the-Wall-wpcf_300x239.jpgAgainst the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

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