Paint by seeing paint


Dear Artist,

In the last letter I happened to mention a system I call “Paint by seeing paint.” In three days, six hundred artists have written to ask what I was talking about. There’s definitely something wild about email, isn’t there?

I’ve always noticed that master creators have a seemingly easy ability to think on their feet. They look at their work in progress and amend it in what appears to be a natural and intuitive way. It’s easy to get the idea that they are just talented and have always worked in this manner. I think it’s an attitude, and it’s learned. I’ve also noted that the process is unpredictable — sometimes you least expect it and you have it — other times you need it badly and it lets you down. Experience surely hones it, inaction withers it and desertion certainly kills it.

If you’re still with me, let’s get specific: Say you were to put down a splodge of bright red in the middle of an appropriately primed canvas. For a moment, perhaps a nanosecond, you ask, “What’s next?” You may, for example, be making your next colour choice. Let’s choose gray. Now you have a multiple choice of what to do with a brush-load of gray. You can cover the red with the gray, circle it, spot it, shade it, go nearby, cut in, go over an edge or short of an edge, go somewhere else or nowhere near it, even put the gray brush-load back in the pot. And that’s just for starters. You can also elect to use the gray transparently, opaquely, glazed, scumbled, impastoed, dragged, bumped, flicked, etc. When you move to the next brush-load you compound your choices even further. For many painters this may seem like reinventing the wheel, but also think of the variety of brushes or other tools you can use.

Did anyone mention subject matter? A useful idea is to remember that it’s just paint trying to become a “barn.” If it’s not becoming a barn it may be becoming a Ferrari. You may think this attitude is nuts, but these days it seems to be a way to get to interesting stuff. Right now I don’t want boring surfaces. Boring for me or boring for others.

It all starts with seeing, really seeing what you just did. Let your last stroke — or that stroke over there — tell you what’s needed. Thanks for asking.

Best regards,


PS: “After the first brush stroke, the canvas assumes a life of its own; at this point you become both governor and spectator to your own event.” (Anonymous quote from our Resource of Art Quotations, provided by Derek Franklin, the reigning “King of Quotes.”)

Esoterica: One of the wonders of oil or acrylic is opacity. Watercolourists need not read this. Opacity mends all sins. No one need ever know what’s under there. Magically, the only part that really catches the eye is what you finally left on top. “Oil paint is the life blood — a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime.” (James Elkins)


Placement indicates placement
by Sheila Grabarsky NJ, USA


“#5 – 2 Gifts Series”
original painting
by Sheila Grabarsky

I just came down from my studio where I was, once again, painting by seeing the paint. That’s how I must always work. Since my spirit has evolved towards abstraction I innately compose by color placement, movement, balance, mimicry and watching forms evolve (or not). It is the placement, the placement, the placement that indicates the subsequent placement, placement, placement. I must work intuitively tuning in to the frequencies playing within me and go with that channel. It is that very intuitiveness, despite years of art school teaching, that keeps me in flight. Thinking is a very bad thing to do in my studio! Smelling, breathing, giggling, dancing, those are allowed (as well as aloud!).


Methodology for abstraction
by Carol McArdle, Ft Myers, FL, USA


“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Carol McArdle

Paint by seeing paint is the only way I paint my abstracts. I discovered this process for myself when I began abstracts a few years ago. Up till then it had been representational paintings. (I had used paint by seeing paint then, but was unaware of it.) What a glorious difference it has made to my inborn creator that is always yearning to passionately express.



Incorporating defects and irregularities
by Jamie Morhaim, Parkland, FL, USA


“Box with Lightbulb”
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Jamie Morhaim

Regarding “paint by seeing paint,” in my latest ventures in oil painting I’m combining surrealist imagery within an abstract framework. Indeed, after the initial drawing, I begin to fill in the blanks. Inevitably, a brush stroke lands in the wrong place, or the color and value seem out of place. Rather than wiping out the “defect,” I try to see how I could incorporate this new pigment irregularity into the newly evolving composition. It may only involve a small percentage of the entire image, but if it happens enough times, the effect is interesting and unexpected.


Jumping off a mountain
by Jo Scott-B


“In the Red”
acrylic on board, 16 x 20 inches
by Jo Scott-B

In the initial rush of starting a painting, I have learned that others cannot “see” the painting, which in my eyes, is far more realized. This connection to the work, where the painting seems to tell me what to do next, is what I have referred to as “channeling.” There is no doubt my strongest work results from these experiences. I was recently chatting with a para-glider. His description of jumping off a mountain, seeking out the thermal currents and not knowing where he was going to land, reminded me of the same creative rush I get when the painting takes on a life of its own.


“Conversation” with the painting
by Janet Badger, Sulphur, CA, USA


original print
by Janet Badger

Though I usually begin an art project with a subject and a sketch, there comes a point in the process when I have to throw out all my preconceived notions and listen to where the etching wants to go. This “conversation” with my artwork is fascinating and challenging. It is magical, and far more interesting than working toward a specific result. However, when a commission “fits” who I am, the results can be just as satisfying.



Love the paint itself
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Blue window”
original painting
by Eleanor Blair

People who have watched me paint ask, “What are you paying attention to?” Having seen videos of me painting, I understand the question. My brush seems to bounce around, irrationally, all over the place. What am I paying attention to? The beauty of the world, of course. The perfect shadow on the perfect white wall glowing with the warmth of sunlight and blue sky. I love light. But, for painting, it’s more important to pay attention, to honor, to love the paint itself. Every pigment has it’s own magic, and for the alchemy of painting to work, I must let the paint be paint. So my attention is focused on the space between what I see, and what the paint is doing on the end of my brush.


Painting as spiritual totem
by Sara Genn, New York City, NY, USA


Sara Genn in her studio, 2004

Painting by seeing paint is actually the extreme end of the wide and broad scale of painters. Some painters simply can’t help themselves in their “purity,” or their “reduction” of what it means to make a painting — that is, their work is painting, with not one other bell or whistle, no distraction, no other tool, and even rejecting subject heightens this unapologetic exploitation (or celebration — however you want to look at it) of the archaic, glorious, dead simple and infinitely complex medium. The painting is a painting. It’s about paint. I now find myself addressing painting as a 2D surface ready to accept a lifelong, ineffable mastery of medium dragged over it. As a result I get something that is a spiritual totem that makes me weep with love, longing and admiration for the stuff — pigment suspended in an oil slick.


Beyond what you know
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


John Ferrie – Ambient Wallpaper
photo in gallery, 2004

To be truly creative, you have to work beyond what you know. Pushing the envelope is what being an artist is all about. I have had some catastrophes in the studio, but I have learned by every mistake. It is when you sit back and let the materials work with you, that your work becomes gold. The collections of my work I love the most, is where it all just happens. I have structured the pieces out in my sketchbook and it flows out in the studio.


Deeply into the action
by Joseph Tany, Alhama de Granada, Spain


“The Shade”
oil on canvas
by Joseph Tany

As you get more and more into the habit of painting, you develop your inside relation with the process. But as you deepen into the action those feelings and intuitions may fade, because the mind cannot follow the action. You are too deep into action, too intimate and energetic to allow understanding or even clear viewing. Then when you paint you paint, but when, in a minute or so, you look, there is no understanding created but the need for more action and more intimacy. There is a conflict invited to this arena, where the habit of explaining is established.

(RG note) It bothers me that when we do this we may be merely cloning previous moves. This means danger. If I understand what you are saying, we may actually stop seeing what it is we’re doing while we continue to engage our inside relation to the process. The concept of “painting by seeing paint” is a stab in the dark as a way to prevent an undesirable condition from taking over.


Start and let rhythm happen
by Therese Conte

I’m a muralist. It can sometimes be overwhelming to start a large wall mural, even with all the preliminary work in front of me. (renderings, color swatches, reference material etc.) I have found that “just starting” is the best way to go. There is a rhythm that happens, and sometimes the mural just seems to paint itself. One color leads to another. I find the process quite amazing at times. I love color and never tire of the possibilities. I had a client ask me once how I knew what colors to use. I really couldn’t tell her. I know years of studying and observing come into play, but there’s a certain amount of intuitive choices that happen. Just letting things unfold in front of you opens the door to so much possibility.


Rhythm of the soul
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey

The natural, intuitive outcome of the “Paint by seeing paint” technique is the rhythm of the soul. It is a dance; the previous gesture permits the next move to flow. Dance is dance, only if you have this natural rhythm, otherwise it is just a physical exercise. Music is music, only when the notes flow touching the soul. Otherwise it is noise. Each step gives meaning to the last: a brush stoke leading another stroke, a form calling another form, colors singing when put next to each other. As a whole, they unite in harmony and become a symphony.


Churchill discovers “audacity”
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada

Winston Churchill was a fine painter, even though he didn’t start until middle age. His book, Painting as a Pastime, has a wonderful passage about his first attempt at painting: “My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto,” and “with infinite precaution made a mark about the size of a bean… so subdued, so cataleptic, that it deserved no response.” Then a painter friend arrived and… “What are you hesitating about?… then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas… The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon (it)… I have never felt an awe of a canvas since.” This “beginning with Audacity,” as Churchill points out, “is already a great part of painting.” Seems to me that your idea following one colour with another in whatever way you choose, is indeed Churchillian — so long as one begins with Audacity. This small book is worth reading and re-reading.


Remaining the explorer
by Margaret Stone, Panama City Beach, FL, USA


“Odin and the Ageless River”
original painting
by Margaret Stone

I paint by seeing paint. It is an exciting entry into a land of mystery, magic and challenge. It suits my adventurer’s spirit. It constantly renews my questing child who wondered at the images in clouds and the feeling of a rain puddle. I pour my acrylics and splash and tilt and splotch. Perhaps contemplative for a moment here and there, but still, I remain an explorer in a new land. The paint smiles at me and asks for some purple, “there, please”. I comply and add a run of blue. It’s an interactive process as the surface becomes rich with color and the form of the content begins to emerge. In Odin and the Ageless River — I had been reading about and considering contemporary attitudes on aging. It influenced me at some deeper level because aging was not the intent of the painting when I put down that first color. The text in the lower left of the painting reads: “It is said that when the seasons change from Winter into Spring, the one-winged bird of Odin flies through the mists of time and carries us to the ageless river.” Now, it is to Odin, who in myth was considered the father of the gods, that history bows in its search for the proverbial fountain of youth.


Random starter for writers
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA

Writers do something very much like this with words. The exercise I sometimes use to get me started is to fan a paperback dictionary and stick my finger in at random, then swirl it around a bit. After my finger comes to rest, I look at the word and write it down. Then I do it again, and I’ve got two words. Go! Make something from it. Like your paint by seeing paint, sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does work, it can add interesting constructions of character, twists of plot, or even entire short stories or novels. At the very least, it stimulates the creative brain, and never fails to bring that rush of surprise at how the seemingly random can be so connected. And as for the times when it doesn’t work, after reading biographies of people who have done so much with their lives and how they’ve left their mark, I’ve developed the motto — “The one with the most failures wins!”


Endless flow on computer screen
by Richard Woods

Here’s a neat way to remind yourself of what you’re doing with your art: I loaded a bunch of my sketches, drawings and en plein air work into a pictures folder in the memory of my computer and pointed my screen-saver at the folder. I get an endless procession of my working ideas on the screen whenever I’m not actively using the computer. Both Mac and PC have this function — just poke around in the screen saver utilities and you’ll figure out where to type in the folder name and file path. The slide show effect jogs my memory, and prompts me to consider how I intend to approach all the paintings waiting to be done.







By the River at Evening

oil painting
by David Atkins, London, England


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 Mary E Whitehill who quoted Edgar Whitney: “Don’t paint what you see, see what you paint.”

And also Betsy Kuhn of Albuquerque, NM, USA who wrote, “Recently an artist friend who I had enlisted to help me ‘loosen up,’ told me to become comfortable with the ‘not knowing’ part of the process.”

And also Jenny de Bruyn, of London, England who wrote, “I don’t know how I do it. I just start with a vague idea and then the paint takes over — it’s as though I blank out until it’s done.”




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