Seven useful ploys


Dear Artist,

Many painters find basic ploys to be old hat. For those who don’t, maybe it’s okay to hear about them again. Still others need badly to hear a few of these for the first time:

Shuffle the deck. When working on a series, go back to half- or nearly-finished pieces in a random order. You’ll find that reshuffling the pile brings fresh insights to individual pieces, as well as a uniform spirit to the series.

Mix and match. The transposition of motifs from one work to the next gives power to a series. It’s sort of like the “leitmotif” in a musical production — returning to and reworking felicitous phrases. Mixing and matching teases out visual joy.

Commit and correct. Don’t know what to do next? Commit yourself anyway — in the full knowledge that your effort can be changed. While it’s good to look three times, think twice and paint once, it’s often valuable to make a move rather than to interminably stew about making a move.

Overshoot and cut in. When going for the magic of negative shapes, try to set yourself up to cut into rather than to paint up to. It’s not always possible to make this happen, of course, but when you do it’s the efficient way to find expressiveness.

Black and white. Works can be reduced to black and white by squinting at them or viewing them in reduced light. When the black and white pattern of a painting holds together, the work will be more convincing in colour.

Let it cure. Giving half-finished work a chance to be by itself for a while permits the artist to be surprised by both its felicities and its faults. Critique yourself in a timely way. You only get a wee while with your work. The customer gets an eternity. You owe it to the customer to use every ploy you can to get the thing right.

Slip into elan (meaning vivacity and impetuousness). Variations in brush speed brought on by pressure, impatience, flow-mode, dream-mode or showmanship can cause an effect known as “surface confidence.” A convincing casualness trumps weak, stuffy or overworked surfaces. Elan is the golden mark of professionalism. It carries with it the truth that our main job is to connect.

Best regards,


PS: “One must struggle so that one’s work, while full of labour and sweat, appears to have been done quickly and almost without any labour, and very easily, although it was not.” (Michelangelo)

Esoterica: Ploys are both universal and personal. Michelangelo didn’t consider any of them to be old hat. Those of us now privileged to stand on the shoulders of the masters can also add our own idiosyncratic, stubborn, perverse and peculiar ploys. And that’s how today’s greater stuff miraculously appears. “Art is made noble by the mind producing it.” (Michelangelo)


Baking an art cake
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada

Recording stages to one’s development is like baking an art cake. It is another useful ploy in creating better works. I am not a diary writer, nor am I a very organized sketch compiler, so for me the progression shots help me to record my progressions and to remember my ingredients. The secret to my recipe is to take periodic digital pictures of my work. I like to snap a few off after the work is sketched in, then after the major fills are put in, then as I start working certain details within the piece. I feel even the act of stopping and taking a closer look through a lens can in itself reveal new approaches. I usually take the elements of my “cake” that are the most bothersome into the computer where I save a copy of the original then play with the ingredients. I’ll drop the color, flip the image, blur it, contrast it… the list goes on to what one can do. After I print out a few variations and I can play with them until I’m happy, then… BAM! The ingredients are there and it’s back to finishing up the cooking of my painting.


Taking the factory advice
by Meredith Mallwitz, Rochester, NY, USA


“Afternoon Shadows”
oil painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Meredith Mallwitz

Two weeks ago I left my part time job as a bartender at my family’s restaurant to work full time as an artist. This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made because at first, it caused my family a lot of pain. I started working there when I was 11 years old and in 2 months I am turning 31, 20 years since I began. Being a successful artist has always been my number one dream. I finally decided that if I was going to make it as an artist, I had to give it all I’ve got and produce like a factory. I will never forget the article you wrote about thinking like an art factory. Even though I knew it, I needed to see it in writing. I have been thinking like a factory, and I have been selling and couldn’t be happier with my decision.

There is 1 comment for Taking the factory advice by Meredith Mallwitz

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 09, 2008

I don’t want to rain on your parade for surely the decision to be full time artist takes much courage and sacrifice. Your work shows you have the talent and judging from your comments you are in a producing mode. I just wanted to add that few can sustain a good living from being an artist. Many who have been at this longer than you and with equal talent find it very difficult. I applaude your effort and add only to keep a clear head and if need be, “working” isn’t a dirty word. Many do it and keep painting. In fact, when sales slack off an income keeps your hear above water and keeps you in supplies. Good luck


Balancing paintbrush and book
by Sharon Feingold, San Diego, CA, USA

I just got back from an incredible trip to Rome and Florence where I reconnected with my old friend Michelangelo. I am now reading the remarkable biography of Michelangelo and the flowering of the Italian Renaissance The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. I’m in a real bind finding the balance between the paintbrush and the book! Perhaps when the sun goes down, so does the paintbrush?


The value of adding red
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany

Your newest contribution has the added charm of not sounding like a shopping list (how I hate those one liners). I heard a story about J.M.W. Turner who was notorious for going to previews armed with paints and a brush to titivate or even finish his work to schedule. Apparently the hanging of an exhibition was in full swing and his painting was displayed next to one which seemed more colorful and more attractive. So what did he do? He went up to his painting minutes before the show opened and added a tiny area of bright red. Apparently that completely overwhelmed the colorful painting next door. What I’ve been doing lately is actually glazing over paintings I find insipid. Glowing red, magenta, burnt sienna do something incredible for a painting. Everything behind the new glaze becomes sort of monochrome. A heady experience.


Spirit or ploy?
by Jasvir K Singh, India

Any art form is a combination of ploys and spirit. Sometimes the emphasis leads to spirit, other times to ploys. Ploys mean planning and thinking ahead and contriving solutions. Some artists are in themselves more spirited than ployful. These artists are having their way with art these days, it’s all spirit and few ploys. And the world is paying the price, because you can see what a dominance of spirit does to people and the decline in quality of the way they think and the things they make — it softens their brains and makes them think in terms of miracles and magical, mystical solutions. And that’s what’s wrong with civilizations — they’re turning unscientific because no one takes the time to plan anything properly any more. Think about it.


‘I don’t like lists’
by Marilena J Emsley

I don’t believe in lists of ploys. If you are too rigid about how things are going to turn out, there is no room left for intuition. Intuition and poetic insight are the secrets of great art, and any number of lists such as this one are just detrimental to being truly creative. I don’t like lists and I don’t use them.

There is 1 comment for ‘I don’t like lists’ by Marilena J Emsley

From: Ralph Legros — Oct 07, 2008

I’m with you!


Writer’s ploys
by R. P. Stephen

As a writer there is one single ploy that is practically the keystone to all others. It’s something like your “Commit and correct” routine. Even when the vaguest of ideas come into the head it’s important to just start. Any sort of start is all one needs to get into the development and fleshing out. Fantasy and imagination take over and one is soon in the flow. Some very slim concepts often blossom into significant literature, even in the direction of novels, plays, poems, etc., and all it takes at that time is the will to complete. Even working on “false alarms” — ideas that later prove they will not set the house on fire — is valuable as they filter toward the work you are more likely to complete.


The value of patience
by Peter Daniels, White Rock, BC, Canada


“Inside Passage”
original painting, 16 x 22 inches
by Peter Daniels

One thing everyone can count on is self-realization. If you put the effort into anything, you eventually accomplish it! The road to success is not being focused on money (however much it is required), but to focus on doing your best. All the rest will then fall into place. I think that individuals become discouraged when they compare their life with someone else’s… So I have learned, stay focused, have good will towards others, and keep on keeping on, and eventually it all comes together. The film director Martin Scorsese said, “It is not the most brilliant that excel in film, but the most patient!”




Public confused by conceptual art
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK


“The Arab Stallion”
oil painting, 24 x 20 inches
by Richard F Barber

I think that most people that take up art do not realize that abstract is the very bones of making art in the two dimensional sense. Learning the basic principals of art is not just making lines and using colour, it is more to do with light. The way light reacts when it hits a surface creates abstract forms, to which every artist tries to read and interpret in their art, when producing the appearance of the third dimension with colour or in mono-chrome therefore it is the body of all art. When they walk into a gallery and see what is called abstract art, they are under the impression that it’s just about slinging paint around to see what pretty patterns it makes. Creating the “I can do better than that with my eyes closed” (eyes closed being the operative words). But who can blame them with the trend of the avant garde classifying an unmade bed and dismembered body parts as works of art? In the early 14 hundreds up until the turn of the last century they were only seen in freak show at fairs and carnivals, but, now it can be seen in our so-called prestigious galleries and art museums.


Art in a recession
by Kenneth Cadow

I’ve got a question that takes Wall Street into account. Having tried and failed to discover some history about what successful artists did during the depression, during the slump in the late ’80s and in the early ’90s. Short of the WPA, I haven’t found anything. I know people always want original art, and my intent for this coming holiday season will be to focus on smaller, more affordable, but still original pieces instead of pieces someone might purchase for an investment. Do you have any advice?

(RG note) Thanks, Kenneth. While painting through several recessions, I’ve noticed some trends that surprised me. For one thing, people become all the more interested in art as investment when the Stock Market doesn’t work for them. While there may be less money around during bad times, what there is tends to be cagier. While it’s obvious that there’s loose money (including foolish money) floating around in good times, in bad times the low end, decorative (home decoration related) sector can be the hardest hit. In depressions, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. There’s always a small but effective market for Duesenbergs and Packards.


How to be discovered
by Dave Schweitzer


“Red sky”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Dave Schweitzer

I am very much a loner with my art interests. I have confidence in my art work, but few people here in Northern Michigan have much commitment to the arts (to say nothing about the economy stresses). I will continue to paint, and my studio will be even fuller with my endeavors, but unless I can find a convenient outlet, the efforts will go in vain (a few of my farm scenes go quickly, because they are local in nature, and I charge little for framed and matted subjects). Where is there a website that I can go to for showing my work more globally?

(RG note) Thanks, Dave. You’re asking the right question. Broadening your reach is slow to get going at first but can pay off for the right artists in the long run. Premium Artists on our site reaches not just other artists, as you might think, but thousands of other interested people in 115 countries every day of the year — twenty-four hours a day. Northern Michigan is awfully nice, but it isn’t the world.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Seven useful ploys



From: Saundra — Oct 02, 2008

Squinting to look at a work in black and white works but what really works well for me is a digital photo, I can convert the photo to black and white, and I always see the flaws I missed when painting or drawing.

From: Shirley Turchet — Oct 03, 2008

A wonderful recap of VERY useful tactics — I’d add don’t throw out a work that just misses the mark – EDIT it. I’ve found real smaller gems waiting to be liberated from a larger work.

From: Diane — Oct 06, 2008

I was just about to add a comment about a digital camera! Because it’s so easy to manipulate the image, I can see the values by changing to black and white. I reduce the size enough to see how the patterns read. I can also zero in on problem areas to see what is in there and how it might be changed! I can also tell when it’s finished, something I often have a hard time determining!

(in fact I’m one of those painter who will ‘touch up’ as long as it’s in my possession! I have to hide the painting away to prevent that or send it on its way – even better!)

From: Fawa Conradie — Oct 06, 2008

I think that some art (especially water colours) should be spontaneous and left at that. Sometimes the most difficult is not knowing how to edit or add, but knowing when to stop.

From: Russ Hogger — Oct 07, 2008

The other day I came across some old slides of acrylic paintings that I had destroyed a few years ago. It was like looking at the paintings for the first time. It made me wonder why did I dump them in the first place. I thought that maybe I could repaint them from the slides but had second thoughts, the spontaneity would be totally lost. Overshoot and cut in, I often use this method. In an instant a “condemned” painting can turn into gem.





Spirits in the Mountain

acrylic painting
by Lynn Welker, Laguna Beach, 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 Natalie Fleming of St. Charles, MO, USA who wrote: “What do you mean by ‘cut into rather than paint up to.’ Please clarify.”

(RG note) Thanks, Natalie. I apologize that this was not clear. Several asked this. The concept is really “Overshoot and cut in.” This means you set yourself up to bring negative areas around a positive shape by first overshooting the positive. For example, you might paint a tree larger than it needs to be, and then cut the sky back in around it to define the actual tree shape you want to see. You can do this wet into wet for a soft transition, or wet into dry for a harder transition. On the other hand, “painting up to” implies painting from two directions up to a predetermined line — an effect that can look awkward and stiff.

And also Rodney ‘Pygoya’ Chang of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA who wrote, “I always love your fireside chats.”

And also Sandra Artimowich of Winnipeg, MB, Canada who wrote: “It was a pure thrill to open my post box today and find your gift of books. I have not been able to put either of them down.”

And also Randall James who asked, “Are you one person or a group?”

(RG note) Thanks, Randall. I’m the only person who writes the twice-weekly letters, but others help me with the editing, emailing, mailing, bookkeeping, the website and cleaning up the mess I make around the studio. Incidentally, if you want to read a few fun things that artists have written about the twice-weekly letters, please go here.




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