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.

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.

You might be interested to know that there’s a new English TV documentary that suggests that 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.

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).


Coprolalia dept.
by Robert Genn

I’d like to thank all those who sent brief email examples of personal foul language. Ha ha, funny. I know you’re not really like that. Foul language is of course resorted to by those who are unable to express themselves properly. While there are (to date) 34 examples of foul language in the studio inbox, there are more than a hundred expressing how connective and informative our last clickback was. Thanks to Andrew for the bloody good work.


Getting through the chaos
by Sandra Moore, Asheville, NC, USA


original painting
by Sandra Moore

I tell my students I feel a painting that goes through a very abstract stage or “chaos” is a better painting in the end and the longer it stays abstract before the defining shapes are added, the better the painting. Getting through that chaos stage is very hard for some students and it is hard to teach by “feeling” a color or shape should go in a certain area. It could go somewhere else but it “feels” right where it ends up. This relates to the casualness of proficient painters.


“Art appropriating life”
by Lorelei Loveridge, Saudi Arabia


Lorelei Loveridge
ruins of Medain Saleh

I experience a process similar to “ordering chaos” as a songwriter. Songs are typically word paintings (images painted into words and music), landscapes of experience and imagination. As a world traveller (I am Canadian, but live in Saudi Arabia) and a songwriter, I absorb and take pleasure in the images and textures of life around me. The chaos of people in places eating, talking, selling, dancing, driving, working, all inspire some process in me that eventually manages to hook an idea or combine several and distill into a song. Sometimes it can take years, though, and that’s the rub. I am also well served by going into a gallery or by flipping through a book of images, painted, drawn, or photographic. There’s a magic in chaos and over-stimulation. My company motto is “Art appropriating life.” And we all know just how ordered life is.

Doodling mindlessly
by June Szueber

Starting with a mess and turning it into something is what I call doodling almost mindlessly; putting lines and colors on the canvas and letting the picture paint itself. Some of my best work started this way but sometimes it has ended in disaster. It is how I connect with my muse. I nearly always get a painting I like even if I have to paint over it and do it again. It seems to be a way to accomplish a looser, freer work (something I love but can’t always relax enough to accomplish).


Mansions of our thoughts
by Lynn Gertenbach, Calabasas, CA, USA


“Cypress Gardens”
oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
by Lynn Gertenbach

I believe the “commit and correct” really works to pull out the initial feeling we have deep inside. To spill it out with wild abandon and then stand back… move in, pull a few key elements into focus and then stand back again… My trips to the kitchen for cups of tea or crackers etc. are quite valuable to me. When I enter my studio again, I often see the whole picture and know whether it has the initial impact I envisioned and if so, how necessary is it to say more?

As mentioned by other artists, the current film, What the bleep do we know is incredibly creative. There are several physicists, psychologists, and even psychics who speak in it. The message was how Quantum physics works to prove that we really do create our own world and environment and that, with desire and tools we really can reprogram our brain and our world. Amazing film! The phrase “Mansions of our thoughts” really stuck with me.


Escaping the initial formality
by Bob Abrahams, Perth, Western Australia

I usually start my landscape paintings in a traditional manner, linear composition, drawing, tone and atmospheric perspective, etc. Then I feel impelled to try to escape this formality by undoing and breaking the image up to create an impression of loosely applied paint using a knife or whatever, to achieve a painterly impressionistic image.


by Susan Burns, Atlanta, GA, USA

I usually start a new painting by dripping, splashing and throwing handfuls of my leftover paint from the painting I’ve just finished, onto a new canvas. I may do this two or three times before I see a subject appear in the paint, and then the challenge for me is to make the entire painting seem as though it was literally thrown together. I try to keep the feeling of spontaneity while I draw and create depth and solidness in a subject. I like the energy of the painter to be there on the canvas. It is not necessary to see drips and splashes though. Energy is created through color, composition and other means by the artist. Even Frida Kahlo had an enticing energy in her work and she often painted flat on her back!


Alternating methods as subject dictates
by Mike Sibley, Yorkshire, England


“Peekin’ Duck”
graphite drawing
by Mike Sibley

I term your “commit and correct” as “dash and rehash” and I alternate between this and “slow and steady” as the subject matter dictates. Thanks for your letters. You have a great insight into the way we artists work — too great (and scary) sometimes as I feel you can see inside my head…


Abstraction in order and chaos
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey

“Ordering chaos” method relates to abstract art at some level. I have visited your quotations page about abstract art and it is very interesting in the sense that artists have so different, if not contradictory opinions about it.

I am a believer of “All art is an abstraction to some degree,” as said Henry Moore. No two artists can draw the very same thing, even if they are looking at the same thing. Likewise Ben Shahn pointed out, “To abstract is to draw out the essence of a matter. To abstract in art is to separate certain fundamentals from irrelevant material which surrounds them.” Picasso, on the other hand, said, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” Abstraction draws a subtle line between order and chaos.


“P.O.S.” stage shortened
by Ron Ukrainetz, Montana, USA

All artwork goes through many stages to its final completion. Here, that chaos stage is affectionately called the P.o.S, or “Piece of S___!” stage. In my mind, the serious artists will work through the PoS stage, learn, and eventually shorten the longevity of that stage in future works. Amateur artists will frame it and come up with a catchy new genre name like “Bungalow Art” or maybe “Biffy Art,” or something along those lines. Then they’ll have an exhibition at the Soho, and make millions, but what will they have learned?


Chaos and control with oils
by Priscilla Westesen, Bozeman, MT, USA


“Lobster shack”
watercolor, 11 x 15 inches
by Priscilla Westesen

After several years of watercolor I have been painting with oils and have missed that loose, “let’s see what develops” approach. Thanks for your letter on doing just that with oils. Watercolorists have always been able to wet a sheet of paper, drop in colors, tilt it around to get some blending, let it dry, look to see what emerges, then with some negative painting — voila — an interesting work with excitement and harmony. I never thought of doing the same with oils by placing strokes of good color, tip canvas upside down and add more. What fun!!


Same thing but backwards
by Pamela Simpson, Connecticut, USA


“The shade garden”
oil on linen, 24 x 36 inches
by Pamela Simpson

I live for the complicated scene that is begging to be put in order and the more complicated the better. My husband David Lussier is a wonderful painter who makes a solid compositional plan. Simplifies things right way… Loves a strong light and dark plan that works from the first 10 minutes of his painting. I think his way makes sense, but it is not my way. I feel like my way is riskier, but in the end I might get something that is a little more feeling and less just a cliche landscape. David gets the poetry too, but he starts with order and then goes crazy with colors and brushwork. I guess he does the same thing but backwards.


Seeking our humanity
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


bronze sculpture
by Kelly Borsheim

I find myself amused sometimes when we artists try to label our personal traits or working habits as some sort of disorder (especially if we can support the theory by aligning those traits with those of the proven dead masters). Is this our way of trying to fit in with the rest of society? Non-artists already see us as unlike themselves. It is an interesting relationship — artists need the appreciators and the appreciators need artists, but we each do not often understand and then feel separated from the other group.

If we are seen as handicapped, does this aid our acceptance into society? Are we willing to hang this label on ourselves? Then again, maybe it is something else. I find that I am attracted to wonderful, but non-perfect people. I like strong, attractive qualities in a person, but then I like to see some quirkiness or awkwardness so that the person seems approachable to me. Maybe we are simply seeking our humanity.


Place of no fear
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“Three Peaches”
mixed media
by Helena Tiainen

I recently saw a great quote by Miles Davis that said something like, “Do not be afraid of errors. There are none.” This kind of thinking allows for greatness because it comes from a place of no fear. Fearlessness expands and creates possibility whereas fear constricts and restricts. It literally kills joy and creativity. Fear makes us feel small and uncertain and most of all uncomfortable and separate.


Art-exchange blues
by Angela Treat Lyon, Hawaii, USA


oil on canvas 30 x 24 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

Regarding your recent inquiries about the online art promoter Art-exchange, I signed up with them in 1999 for a hundred bucks. Their salesman was good. I sent in my dough, saw some teeny weenie images on their site — and never heard a thing again from them — no sales, no requests for more art, no PR – no nothing. I never had a good feeling from them, and chose to disregard it and pay anyway. Shoulda listened to the old intuition. I don’t recommend them.

(RG note) A dozen or so artists noted they had been approached by art-exchange. Several more said they had signed up and had no results. So far no one has reported success with art-exchange. One artist who wished to remain anonymous wrote, “After contacting an extensive list of the artists represented by a similar company, I found the majority to be extremely disheartened, feeling as though they had wasted their money, gotten ripped off and had been taken advantage of. I got into some trouble with the owner of the company and had to send out a recant to the list of artist contacts he provided, as he threatened to sue me for snooping around, relaying information from others I had emailed and asking the artists too many questions.”







image 30 of the Virtual Visions 2000 series

Digital art
by Mike King, London, UK


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Rebecca Cody who wrote, “Can I ever really be an artist of any kind without being able to visualize?”

And also Laura who wrote, “For me it has never felt like chaos, just flow and deep connection with self. I love it! It is like magic, seeing what the watercolor has created on its own, and with me.”




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