Flushing the Rolodex

Dear Artist, This morning, Edward Vincent of Victoria, B.C., Canada wrote, “Often the early stages of my paintings have a strong graphic structure with powerful notan. But as the painting progresses, this gives way to a weaker image. It seems the critical graphic design is often reduced as one strives for compositional balance, detail and finish. It’s as if a committee is taking over. Do you have any thoughts on this situation, and how do you overcome it?” Thanks, Edward. Most of us know exactly what you’re talking about. How many times have we watched our first courageous strokes deteriorate into a cluttered mess that looks like the work of fussy ne’er-do-wells. This happens for several reasons and they’re mostly psychological. You can go a long way toward fixing the problem by first lying down on your couch. You need to know that when you begin you’re generally in “big-brush-layout” mode. Feeling yourself in the safe zone of “just starting,” your painterly confidence temporarily triumphs over your natural human tendency to refine. In short order, all of this changes. When you see your start is not bad, a sort of guilt kicks in and tells you it can’t be all that easy. This is when you start to compulsively add material, that is, you begin to give too much. Each of us has our own ways of giving. We need to understand what those ways are, and what they serve. For example, while you’re on the couch you might need to quietly chant the mantra, “Details do not a painting make.” Your “servant brain” may be telling you to put in that little house over there, those seagulls flying, those blades of grass. You need to know that small additives often lessen the big picture. Tucked away in our cortex we have a dossier of our own wonderful issues — recipes and ploys that have worked in the past or a precious collection of winning ideas and motifs. We all have them, and the more we paint, the more of them we have. Our servant brains think we need to distribute this stuff around our work because our hard-won skill-sets tell us we can. With the self-knowledge that this condition exists, we need the self-discipline to flush the Rolodex, arise from the couch, and cleanly begin. Our work will be purer, fresher, stronger and more powerful. “Less is more.” (Robert Browning) Best regards, Robert PS: “It is one thing to praise discipline, and another to submit to it.” (Miguel de Cervantes) Esoterica: One of the persistent bad habits is overworking. I have so much longed for some sort of neural vacuum cleaner to exorcise this devil. A route that many workshop instructors take is to strictly adhere to a proven, controlled process. While this approach may work in some cases, in my love of freedom I’m not going to soon adopt the system. I believe creative people need to become both their own best teachers and their own best counsellors.   A nod to nature by Joseph Hutchinson, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“Interior with orchid”
oil painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Joseph Hutchinson

I work hard to make sure that nothing in my work is too carefully solidified. I use a counterpoint — rough up the edges, distort perspective and mess up the geometry — a nod to nature. Over-painting and glazing give an atmospheric quality. Like Cezanne and Diebenkorn, I try to generate small feelings — little moments of beauty and sensation that occur when sight and memory filter through my mind, then to the brush and then onto the canvas. I hope others can share that in my paintings.     There are 3 comments for A nod to nature by Joseph Hutchinson
From: Ingrid Christensen — Sep 07, 2012

This has a beautiful, musical rhythm.

From: Anonymous — Sep 07, 2012

To me, it’s a good start but not quite enough there to be satisfying.

From: ken flitton — Sep 08, 2012

I agree with Anonymous

  Spooked but relieved by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA  

original painting
by Marie Martin

I’m at once relieved to see that I’m not alone, and simultaneously spooked because it seems you’ve been inside my head! Time and again I let those big, loose beginning strokes get lost in a fog of “fixes.” I get a painting to a certain point, then back up, sit down and try to imagine how to resolve the painting — all the while fending off that guilt voice. “It’s not finished. It couldn’t be finished this early on.” Snapshots of paintings in progress have shown over and over that the beginning “naive” painting had so much more energy than the refined version!     Devil in the Detail by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England  

“Devil in the Detail”
original cartoon
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe

Your latest letter on flushing the Rolodex reminded me that a while ago I did a cartoon on this very subject which you can view here. I do a regular life class and it’s a universal and immutable truth that the drawings done in the five minute poses are on average fresher, more dynamic and more interesting than the drawings done in forty minutes.     Our sacred space by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA   When writing I have had to lie on my couch many a time. Also, I am a Christian Science practitioner, and in my metaphysical work for others, I can apply many of the ideas you present. Your letter on willingly being alone in a small space and (my interpretation) going deeper rather than scattering one’s thoughts among others, i.e. being willing to be alone with God to work things out, is an example. I recently said good-bye to a son and his family as they returned to the mid-west, after gracing my Rhode Island home and community for a year, and at the same time my Mom, my dearest friend, passed on. Your letter “The Sacred Space” reminded me that our greatest satisfaction and personal growth often comes from our losses and our going deeper into our own wealth of substance in God. This is not to say that we won’t then get opportunities to share this new richness of self, but these opportunities will have to come on their own and cannot be contrived. We simply need patience and willingness to work things out in our own private, sacred space. There is 1 comment for Our sacred space by Nancy Schempp
From: Diana Rutherford — Sep 09, 2012

Somehow I don’t recall this letter. I’m sorry I missed it. I’ve found sacred places outside in nature and try to make my current art about that. I think you refer to an inner place of transformation maybe? How do your losses manifest as art?

  Early stage phenomenon by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Misty Waymouth”
acrylic painting
by Mike Barr

As you have rightly reassured Edward, most of us do know that feeling early on in a painting and have been tempted to let it be, even in the early stages. Of course we plow on with the work and often see the initial impression vaporize that was borne by big bold brush strokes and punched-in darks. I don’t think super-realist painters would get this feeling but rather those who have a liking of impressionism. I have watched demonstrations where that initial powerful impression is completely lacking. Many artists fiddle from the start. Recently, I started painting a wet street scene and I was certainly nowhere near finishing but really liked that impression of the painting. In reality the darks were too dark and shapes unrefined but it gave an impression of the day that would have been lost had I gone on. Before sending it to a show I did fiddle! Some more reflections were added and straight away it took away from that initial feeling. What I did learn from the whole exercise, though, was I need to stop much earlier than I do. I also feel allowed to have darks that are a bit excessive just to accent the light. I’ve always read and been told not to use black paint but it is now one of my favorite colors – mixed with other colors. I’m looking forward to hearing how other artists have discovered this phenomenon at the beginning of their paintings. There are 5 comments for Early stage phenomenon by Mike Barr
From: Anna H. — Sep 06, 2012

I love the darkness of your paintings! Keep doing what you’re doing!

From: Anonymous — Sep 06, 2012

In spite of the weather and the congested traffic the scene appears to be at rest, makes one ponder to be present

From: Sarah — Sep 07, 2012

Love the way you capture the feeling of being in the rain.

From: ken flitton — Sep 08, 2012

I agree about black. So many people exclaim ” Oh, youve used Black!! without explaining what they mean. It is surely a useful colour in the right places

From: Anonymous — Feb 08, 2013

Nice work… the tinge from a Yellow Cab in there would have been hilarious.

  Realize concept in stages by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Close to him”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

We all fall victim to overworking. Several things come to mind when this happens. One is not having a clear idea of the concept of the piece. The initial idea was not thought out enough and you feel that it will develop as you work. Not so. The other thing is work in stages. You decide how many stages to set up for yourself. For instance, the first stage could be the drawing or concept, second, the lay-in of general color, third finish, fourth the clean-up, five the “details.” Doing this gives you time to realize your concept in stages and allows for changes. After each stage, stop, get a cup of coffee, walk the dog, kiss your spouse, make lunch. This last idea takes some discipline. Get away from it physically and mentally. It has been shown in studies that when we let go of a problem temporarily, generally, the solution presents itself.   Artist as collector by Leslie Kruzic, Orange Park, FL, USA  

watercolour painting
by Leslie Kruzic

I wonder what you might have to say about the artist as collector and vice versa? I am an artist but also love buying art, especially from artists I personally know. I have a limited budget, but never try to deal people down. I tend to wait until they paint something that I like in my price range. I feel there is nothing more gratifying than producing a beautiful or interesting piece of art — except maybe sharing it with others. (RG note) Thanks, Leslie. Many artists build significant art collections. When I look around at my own, and remember those that I have owned in the past, a fair percentage were not paid for with cash, but traded. One of the great values to me has been the educational value of having something really fine around my home for a while. Further, when you buy the work of an up-and-coming artist you confirm their sense of self-worth and give encouragement to their careers. I still very much appreciate the well-known artists who bought my early work.   Fried paper bags with that? by Mary Jo Van Dell, Stillwater, MN, USA  

“Moose Bay”
oil painting, 18 x 22 inches
by Mary Jo Van Dell

I greatly agree with much of what you say in your recent letter on “Humblebragging.” On the other hand, if we just shut up and paint in our studios and without getting in the game, so to speak, don’t we run the risk of snuffing ourselves out or getting left in the dust? I have been a full time painter for thirty years. I was born on a cold winter day in a house without heat; we had fried paper bags for dinners most evenings. Well, close. I have been supporting myself on my income as an artist for a long time. I have had to work the marketing aspect of it as well in order to create income. I now have an employee who helps with the marketing. We have arguments about this very subject with me on your side. However, I also need to note that I would not be able to support myself through my paintings if I did not somehow promote myself and my work. So, as much as I agree with you, I also know that we, as self employed artists (unless you’re otherwise privileged and don’t need the income), need to make a little bit of noise to let someone know we’re out there. How do we draw the line between marketing and bragging, or are they one and the same? There are 2 comments for Fried paper bags with that? by Mary Jo Van Dell
From: Tatjana — Sep 07, 2012

Lovely painting!

From: Tikiwheats — Sep 07, 2012

Yeh, what’s up with that? After all, Robt sells his art in galleries? So, someone is bragging somewhere!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Flushing the Rolodex

From: Faith — Sep 03, 2012
From: Faith — Sep 03, 2012
From: Doug Mays — Sep 04, 2012

Overworking is avoided by putting down the brush…. a half hour ago.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 04, 2012

A freedom loving little guy named “Art” takes over and disrupts the grand plan. I love the idea of putting down the brush a half hour ago!

From: Ted M — Sep 04, 2012

You writing has helped me understand that most of my paintings have three phases: I love it, I hate it, and then hopefully I love it. “I hate it” is the result of focusing on the details and letting the overall design get muddled. When I reach “I hate it” I find that selectively bringing back the broad highlights with a cloth often brings me back to “I love it”. My process doesn’t seem to include the guilt part.

From: Deborah Lacativa — Sep 04, 2012
From: Catherine Meeks — Sep 04, 2012

So appropriate for my work in the studio yesterday. I transformed a dynamic, sparkling, early-morning scene into a muddy mess. Fortunately, I took its photo pre-mud, and hopefully I can return it to some acceptable stage.

From: Marilyn Hartley — Sep 04, 2012

Painting is not my best hand; drawing is. My drawings are done relatively quickly. When I paint, I have a rag in my other hand … for wiping. Maybe it has something to do with age, and simplifying my life … and my art. For me, it gets better and better.

From: Freda Gudopp — Sep 04, 2012

Overworked; I took a break from my painting for nearly a month, while on my break I was hankering to grab a brush and start another painting, but I knew I needed this time out. When I did start painting again, I feel my painting has taken on another level and is so much more better for the break I took. I think we overwork ourselves and need these short breaks now and again.

From: Kathy Howard — Sep 04, 2012

One sure way to flush the rolodex is to paint in plein air, no time for details and all the time in the world for rejuvenation of the spirit of nature, the reason we paint in the first place.

From: Elisabeth Phillipson — Sep 05, 2012

It was so helpful to hear artists talk about this issue of starting strong and progressing toward weakness – the thought that “it can’t be this easy” manifests itself and the painting becomes difficult. It’s as though I’ve asked for it to be difficult. With your insight, one can be aware of this tendency and stay more in that strong beginning place.

From: Helen Jeglic — Sep 05, 2012

As I sit here and evaluate my latest painting I’m struck by your letter and think ‘oh, how very true’. It is good to know I’m not alone! If I could only stop before I start noodling it to death.

From: goldmudder — Sep 05, 2012

The best way to start and finish a successful painting is with a detailed and completed drawing.

From: Caroline Planting — Sep 05, 2012

Thanks for these thoughts – I’m another “speedy delivery” person.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Sep 05, 2012

I think Khonius gave a speech at your birthday party, right? Must be your distant relative judging by the surname.

From: Terrel Jones — Sep 05, 2012

So pertinent to what I have been trying to do as well as explain, both to myself and others. Thanks for addressing an issue that we all struggle with. The joy of the first general brush strokes, the pain of the difficult decision –making follow up to finish the painting!!

From: Julie Eliason — Sep 05, 2012

I think it depends on the person. Some people are detail oriented. Some are not. I don’t think there is a good and bad about it.

From: Doris Daigle — Sep 05, 2012

I want to tell you that I love your humour and how you infuse life into your letters. Like the “lay down on the couch to fix this … ” So human, so simply a good recommendation. Love it …

From: Edward Vincent — Sep 05, 2012

Interesting and most useful advice. You suggest a good strategy and approach. Your comments parallel your letter of a few weeks ago, where you talked about creativity …… John Cleese video. I found this profound (sounds strange using ‘profound’ and ‘Cleese’ in the same sentence). We need the couch, we need the play, we need to be constantly re-creating.

From: Janet Spreiter — Sep 05, 2012

Don’t say you haven’t been warned! Don’t err on your Scottish homeland treasures drawing. Start bold, stay fresh…..Wise old Auntie J

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Sep 05, 2012

I think artists share the same dilemma in deciding when a painting is really finished. We scrutinized every detail and sometimes get confused. When we over analyze we blur the original inspiration we had in the beginning. Sometimes in a group situation when the artists ask for comments and people come over look at it they see different things and offer suggestions and some will say that is done leave it as it is. I am not sure that we can stop ourselves in studying our work. Thinking back to the original concept of our painting we are better able to decide when the painting is done.

From: Diane Horn — Sep 05, 2012

I was struggling with this today! I began a painting on a small canvas and what a nice start I made, but when I took the canvas home 2 1/2 hours later it was so cluttered the essence was gone! I was so disturbed I painted it out. I realize after reading this what I did, I let the little details rule and lost the nugget of gold at the heart of the painting! I will need to think about this a bit but I do think I can go back to this landscape and try it over and if I try to limit my time spent, maybe I’ll avoid the same pit fall.

From: Hank — Sep 05, 2012

I am finding that old age helps in forgetting some of my better painting techniques.

From: Ann Trainor Domingue — Sep 05, 2012
From: Ruth Rodgers — Sep 06, 2012

In my own experience, and in working with my students, I find the most common problem when that lovely strong notan starts to disappear is a muddling of values in the painting. When I see this happening, I sometimes suggest that the student look at their work through a red transparent sheet of plastic (which reduces it to a grey monochrome) or take a digital photo and put the screen into b&w.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Sep 06, 2012

I remember you mentioned the idea of being “too giving” in character when we overwork a painting. I thought about that and I just can’t see it in myself, although it would be very nice if it was true. I think that I just enjoy lot of visual information in art from some reason – in works of others and in my own. Serene images can be beautiful, but they just don’t capture my imagination as much as visually rich ones. Sometimes I indulge in adding to a painting endlessly to satisfy this desire, knowing very well that the painting is probably lost for the outside world. I don’t think that this is about giving, but more about visually entertaining myself.

From: Bob Ragland — Sep 07, 2012

Speaking of Rolodex , I have three and gonna use them to have a porch show, yard show or open studio show. Just thinking.

From: Bob Ragland — Sep 07, 2012

I still find the big gap in art schools, teaching artists how to make money and survive after art school is a problem. All the schools have to do is, invite working artists in to speak to their classes, about making money. Too many people tell me all the reasons this does not happen. Shame, the wisdom is i the art community. Every artist is not starving.

From: Lynne Schulte — Sep 07, 2012

I struggle with the line between plein air and studio painting. In a recent trip to Maine, I created about 15 small paintings, Only two of them were not worked on, and quite strongly in the studio later: The result: each piece worked on became much better, stronger in compositional factors. My feeling about them is that they were not finished before but are now. However, there is no excitement. Perhaps they have become an exercise but not a challenge. In my recent pink chair project and my coastal sunrise series, it is the large studio ones that draw me and other people in, and these are quite finished, but there is something else infusing them; like I met a worthy adversary in the size of the canvas and conquered. These are the ones that people are buying more often (though none sell well right now)Inside the studio, it is more comfortable and you can work for long periods unbothered by bugs and weather and light changes. But I crave the feeling of painting on site and wait eagerly for spring so I can get out. I am not sure how this will all turn out in the end. Sometimes I think plein air painting is like my concept of fishing – a legitimate reason to spend time in a beautiful spot. I post on daily paintworks and on pinterest and in doing so, I find that what I am drawn to in my boards “artists who inspire me” and “things I wish I’d painted” are always more impressionistic than my work turns out so I think I want to go there but haven’t found the bridge yet. It is helping me to look at lots of art.

From: Lois Wooldridge — Sep 08, 2012

Your message reminds of when a fellow artist said to me, “You always have a path and a bear in your paintings!” I was astonished! I looked at several of them hanging, and was amazed that she was right! I quickly figured it out; when the painting seemed too blah, too “nothing,” I would say to myself, “I will add a path, wending through the painting.” After I succeeded with that, I realized that the painting was too blah, too “nothing,” and added a bear on the path, since we live in bear country and that is what the clients want. I was doing this without a whit of consciousness. Soon, I replaced the bear with an eagle; an eagle in almost every painting … Now I am ready to flush the Rolodex. Tomorrow, I start anew, and go with SIMPLE! If I get the urge to add some detail, I will put the piece away for awhile.

From: tom hoffmann — Sep 22, 2012

Imagine that the amount of information we choose to put into a painting exists on a scale, with “ way too much” on one side, and “not nearly enough” on the other. If you were to place your failed pictures on one side or the other, which way would the scale tip? I’m guessing the “too much” side would drop fast. If so, you are in the great majority. If not, I salute you. It is easier to add to a watercolor painting than to take strokes away. Why are we so inclined to overload our pictures? Again and again I hear painters say, “I want to keep it simple, but I always end up putting in too much detail”. The inner voices that encourage us to keep adding more information are very convincing. Even if you are sure that the paintings you want to make are bold interpretations of just the essential aspects of your subject, you may still be prone to over-painting. In the early stages of learning about a new subject, we are susceptible to the assumption that if the painting in progress doesn’t feel quite right, it must need something more. Having not yet internalized the basic structure of the image, we look to the photo or the scene to see if there is something we’ve left out. And, of course, there always is. When it still seems wrong, we find another bit to add, and in this way we keep cramming in more and more information, when the real problem may well be that we already have too much. Whether we set up before a plein air subject or a still life, or work from photos, we are faced with a nearly infinite amount of visual information. The human eye can register wonderfully subtle variations in color and value, and it is a real pleasure to indulge this ability, but remember, it can be a separate activity from painting. We are not obliged to put all that information into the picture. Ironically, our job as realist painters most often is to edit out the majority of what we can perceive. Some information is essential, but most of it is optional. Discovering which is which is largely a matter of getting out of your own way. For example, my first impulse as a (double Virgo) painter is to record everything. It feels like it’s my job to do justice to each separate bit of the scene by including as much information as I can observe. I am supposed to do it. I would need a note from the authorities not to. And yet, the paintings that result from that kind of attention do not appeal to me. How can we get “permission” to paint the pictures we really intend to paint? Since so many of us spend more time on the “too much information” side of the range, it makes sense to explore the rest of the territory, but this can be intimidating. It feels like trespassing if we believe we’re not supposed to go there. I find it effective to set up an exercise that is clearly not a painting. The usual preliminary studies, such as a five-value monochrome, are not meant to be beautiful in themselves. Their job is simply to provide answers to questions about what not to paint. When there is no expectation that this piece of paper might become a “keeper”, the usual self-imposed restrictions do not apply. It is liberating to make an intentionally oversimplified version of the scene, as a temporary license to enter forbidden territory. In the process, you will also discover a great deal about which features of the subject are the essential ones. The best way to find out if something needs to be in the picture is to leave it out.

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Field and Stream

oil painting, 18 x 24 inches by Bonnie Holmes, CA, USA

  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, 2013. That includes Henry Donaldson of Falmouth, ME, USA who wrote, “Excited about a weekend class with Henry Issacs on Cranberry Island, Maine, Skip Lawrence said, ‘Paint the dog, not the fleas.’ ” And also Susan Young of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England, who wrote, “I’m the world’s biggest sinner for starting to put detail into a previously relaxed composition. The only time I resisted it was the only time I sold a painting at a local well known Arts Festival.”    

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