It’s easy for some of us to forget to put our whole bodies into our jobs. Some of us sit on our bottoms for hours — it’s no wonder some of them are quite flat. We lean into our easel or worktable, clip our ever smaller brushes in the tips of our fingers, put on our close-up lenses, and fiddle. In my case these bad habits have been responsible for a higher percentage of failures than any other factor.
For some reason I’ve always had to remind myself to hold the brush by the end of its handle and put my whole arm and body into the act. Just as a brisk walk airs out and refreshes the brain, so does standing rather than sitting. Norman Rockwell told me that as he grew older he was profiting from standing up. There’s a nagging feeling, a failure of intensity that haunts an artist, he thought, and this sometimes makes an artist think he might do better if he gets closer and tightens up. Not so. As you get better you must also get bolder and more physical. Though onlookers may become curious, we must swing out, yell out, even get puffed out.
Ours is a physical job. Moving stuff around the studio, getting down on the floor to varnish, fooling around with framing, building shipping boxes, even setting up and taking down on location can add to satisfaction and overall quality. Here’s an exercise that I can pretty well guarantee will surprise and pay dividends: Just for a day throw out all the chairs and stools from your space. Choose tools that are larger and more aggressive than those you usually use. Squeeze out more than those miserable little dabs you usually put on your palette. Turn up the music and dance. Strut. Posture. Seize your work, seize the day, let your elbows fly, try to use all the large muscles. Keep reminding yourself that under-worked machinery begins to rust and that you are not going to let that happen. At the end of the day you will sleep like a baby. And in the morning when you are bringing in your chairs, you might just be bowled over by the marvelous volume and quality. What a day!
Esoterica: Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844-1900) talking about his inspiration for Thus Spake Zarathustra: “When my creative energy flowed most freely, my muscular activity was always the greatest. The body is inspired: Let us leave the “soul” out of consideration. I might often have been dancing; I used to walk through the hills for seven or eight hours without hint of fatigue. I slept well, laughed a good deal — I was perfectly vigorous and patient.”
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Expression in the movement
by David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA
Loosen up! Feel daring and free! It will show in your work. In the 1960’s I was a newspaper illustrator. Being that this was before the technology that allowed all kinds of graphics and colour, we had to create images that were reproducible by engravings. Therefore pen and ink was the order of the day. All newspaper illustrators scratched out their Crowquill etchings and it looked every bit like a pile of bird scratches. One day an admirer told me how his father was one of the few illustrators that could do pen and ink style with a brush. Ah ha! Maybe I could master the brush technique and pick up some speed on my deadlines. Indeed, I did and not only was I no longer running late on my submission deadline, my illustrations took on an incredible expressiveness. The quality of line said it all. I could create gestures and movement with less than half the controlled line scratches of a fine Crowquill pen. In painting, it’s the same. Pick up the larger guns and fire away! Find expression in the movement. New paintings will emerge and you will be emboldened.
by Alfred Muma
I don’t have chairs or stools in my studio except in the office at the computer. My children often complain that there is nothing to sit on. I’ve never had a chair, as one can’t paint properly, as you have mentioned in your letter. One has to use their whole body to draw and paint if one is holding their pencil or brush right. It’s the first lesson I give when teaching art.
(RG note) Without chairs in the studio there is no place for visiting time wasters to sit.
by Jill Smith, UK
People should remember that it isn’t only able-bodied people that are artists. I am disabled but I am no less an artist for that, if art is in your soul you can never give up on it, you just have to find a way around things. But so many times l read people just wearing blinkers and never once stopping to think that the world is made up of lots of different artists, not just the able ones.
Do the dance
by Michael Aronoff, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada
I believe good dance and ease of larger muscle use allows for a better ‘calligraphy’ in the composition and the brush strokes. I remember seeing a film clip of one of the French Impressionists who had his easel about 50 meters away from his palette. He would study the canvass from a distance, load his brush and sprint to the canvass and quickly make his mark. Then he would walk back and look at it and make his next mark the same way. I have always admired Fragonard’s brushwork because of the freedom and movement to his stroke. I try to ‘dance’ my compositions so that my whole body can feel the movement of the composition. I keep a large exercise ball in the studio for a few reasons. If I use it as a chair, I am ‘actively sitting’ and do not get stiff as I would in a regular chair. I also use it for my arms to move my muscles in a large circular motion. There are parallels in all the arts to one another. What we can express in one form, can be transposed into another. I am learning Tango this year and it gives me a wonderful insight into line and form, space, and of course, movement.
by Fae Maranata, Topeka, Kansas, USA
I am not a painter with oils etc. but I paint with words. What you have to say keeps me thinking and looking with new eyes at my world of words. I am currently teaching children this summer at our local library how to keep journals. I was wondering if you or your letter recipients would help me with a project. We need a list of words associated with art and especially a list of color words.
by John Rocheleau
I never sit when I paint. For 5 days a week I am standing all day painting. Sitting would be too confining. Your whole body does have a say in your painting — if you let it — besides, I need to step back a lot to see the painting from a distance — or in the mirror — or upside down — or upside down in the mirror. I used to sit and paint, and I would look closely at my work; the brushes would get smaller and smaller, the work tighter and tighter. It lacked the visceral energy, cohesiveness, and looseness that I relate to in the work of others that stirred me. I moved the studio to a larger space — 22′ x 12′ — forced myself to let go of the temptation to work details and little pieces in the paintings, and brought my whole body, bigger brushes, music, and the odd glass of wine (the garden variety) to the task. My work has a long way to go, hopefully a lifetime, but I know now it is moving in the right direction — I can feel it in my bones.
by Andi Arbuckle
You might also try out the medicine ball available at Wal-mart for 10 bucks. A good bounce on that for 10 minutes or so a few times a day does wonders… just stay near to your easel until you get your balance. Arm breaking is simply not allowed! Try singing really loud while you bounce… clears the lungs, the brain and gives us sitters some much needed exercise.
The right table height
by Gloria Wick
I have been doing all my painting in the kitchen for so long and always standing. Very recently I got my own space to paint in. It is wonderful. No more having to clear the work in progress out of the way so that I can make dinner. This is great! But the one drawback has been the low worktable in my new workspace. Because it is lower than the kitchen counter I have been sitting to paint and it is definitely coming through in my paintings. In some of the more detailed work this is good, but on the whole, it is not good. I find sitting very constricting so I have enlisted help finding extenders for the legs of my worktable. Ken, my “find a solution for any problem” partner, has found a solution and we are going to implement it this weekend. I’m looking forward to returning to the old stance. I need that whole physical participation!
Stretching and watching the breath
by Bobbie Stasey
Hearing all the conflicting comments and information in these clickbacks somehow gives me more permission to “do it my way,” even though some days I wonder what the heck way my way is. I have been practicing yoga far longer than I have been an artist. Yoga is my friend when I am painting. I more easily remember to breathe, so soften the belly, to not force or at least to recognize when I am forcing and to go back to the breath. Yoga teaches me to stay present in whatever I’m doing or at least to recognize when I am far, far away from my creative task at hand. I’ve never been interested in turning into a pretzel, nor can I. But the simple act of stretching and watching the breath and staying present becomes all. After all, the meaning of the word yoga is union… union with The One, union with The Breath, union with The Universe. What artist, or anybody for that matter, couldn’t make good use of more of that?
The following are a few more of the 400 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest. The contest is open until June 15, 2002.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.