Art Potion


Dear Artist,

Here in France, potions are in fashion. Miraculous mineral waters, copper bracelets, Thalassotherapy, algae injections, mud activities, the pleasantries of colonic irrigation — there are ways of purging the bad stuff from the lungs, brains and bowels. Going by the number of Boxters and Beamers parked outside the fashionable Miramar in Arzon, Brittany, it would appear that the schemes that sell some of these elixirs are big business. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the perennial French interest in “The Cure.” I overheard one woman say, “Thalassotherapy has better odds than Lourdes.” As an aside, in my opinion, these folks aren’t getting enough roughage.

I’ve often wondered if there was some potion that might clean out all of the bad stuff I have in me in connection with my work. For example, yesterday, attempting a complicated chateau, I caught myself laboriously drawing it out before starting to paint. What led me astray was my insecurity and lack of trust in my ability to paint it with spots, flats, flicks and gradations, as I like to do. It took me back to my grade six art teacher, Miss Ledingham, who was so impressed with one of my efforts that she asked me to remain after school and do yet another. After starting a large wash with a too-small brush — and letting it dry — she screamed so that everyone could hear: “Bobby, don’t draw hard and fast lines.”

But I don’t think it’s the memories of the Miss Ledinghams that extend our creative lives. The potion we need is more like the sense of elan that some of these Bretons have. “I care,” and “I don’t care,” are some of the active ingredients that need to be put into the bottle. And the product has to be manufactured uniquely for each artist. This is not a case of one size fits all — turn your bed north and south, wear this ring, drink this and you’ll be okay sort of thing. In our business we have to write our own prescriptions. We have to write them so they can be read. And, because of the natural human frailty to become fouled up, we have to keep re-reading the darned things until the end of our natural lives. That’s it: A relatively small scroll that takes at least two lifetimes to produce, all rolled up and ready to be taken every morning with a dose of salt. Now where can I find a nice little bottle?

Best regards,


PS: “I had to keep three things always in my mind: the reflection of the sky, the surface of the pond, the depth of the water.” (Claude Monet)

Esoterica: The doctor is in. The doctor is you. She is an excellent diagnostician and a fantastic surgeon. While she is sometimes inclined to be forgetful, she is fully capable of miracles. Only in rare cases does she ask for a second opinion.

If you’re curious, Thalassotherapy is where experts with special equipment rain body-temperature seawater on your horizontal body; backside, frontside, to the accompaniment of specific massage techniques, and the application of other sea-based products.

The following are selected correspondence related to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Germans make potions too
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany

If you think the French are into unusual cures, you should come to Germany, the home of Rudolf Steiner’s homeopathics, Bach’s flower healing and Spagyrik. Now what’s that, I hear you ask. Take any of your body’s fluids or excrements (rubber gloves and a long spoon are probably part of the equipment), burn them to a frazzle, blend them into a potion, presumably using fresh(ish) water, then imbibe the result. It’s good for you, I’m told. And it’s almost medicinal — well sort of. I once asked a pianist friend of mine why he kept taking little sips between cadenzas from a dubious looking little green bottle standing bravely on the baby grand. Oh, that’s my blood and urine tonic, he replied with a completely straight face. Rather you than me!


Detail crucial to artist’s paintings
by J.Baldini, Niagara Falls, Canada


painting by J.Baldini

Last week I found myself on a short painting trip to Quebec City. My companion (unlike Miss Ledingham) was not a painter. After completing six plein air pieces, my brain was fried from detail — because detail was everywhere. I normally would be elated to have finished six in two days but, hard as I tried, I still look at paintings that shout “detail.” My non-painting companion was elated! Maybe I can blame him for all those doors and windows I painted!


French keep link with rural past
by Geoff Cooper, Great Britain

I have a confession to make. In my heart I am a painter, but it’s been a long time since I sat or stood in front of a blank canvas. It’s easy to get grooved into a way of everyday life and forget the joy that creativity brings. My wife and I are planning to move to the Basque country in a couple of years. I was interested in your comments on the French. What I like about them is that they take seriously what they eat and drink — they’re interested in where their cheese comes from, what the provenance is of just about everything they eat. They’ve maintained that essential link with their rural past in a way that we, in Britain, have long discarded. Friends often say to me — what are you going to do when you retire in France? I say — I’m going to paint again.


Rejection and failure can’t stop her
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, B.C., Canada

How delightful to read about the French obsession with La Cure! As far as treatments and one’s own muse, right on, we should be our own doctors. Do I have a bottle for you to store your stuff in! It’s cobalt blue, no stopper or lid and sits on my powder room windowsill. As to the cure for what ails my artwork, well one project would be to take my sketchbook and correct all the errors, especially in some life drawing sketches. The moral is “don’t sit down to draw nudes,” they end up all out of proportion! I cringe when I review some of my old sketchbooks because there are pages of just bad drawing. There are days when my brain has been in kindergarten, making cotton batting clouds and formula Christmas tree conifers. I do know that with every rejection and every failure, I just can’t stop, and stubbornly keep on trying to represent my mental images on paper.


Self-diagnose to self-medicates
by Lesley Humphrey, Texas, USA


painting by Lesley Humphrey

I think that in order to “self medicate,” one’s first job is to “self diagnose.” I ask my students to do it in this manner: In my beginning classes, I explain to people that part of my job as an art teacher is to teach them the craft of painting (every way imaginable to wiggle the brush or palette knife over some surface) and the other part is to be a demolition expert, removing those blocks to creativity that they have around their creative nature. One fun way I demonstrate this is to have a full jar of candy and an empty jar for each student. When they utter groans of despair, they place one from the full jar into the empty jar. If they criticize themselves, visibly or silently, they do the same but they also write down the self-criticism. They’re always astonished at how much is in the once empty jar by the end of the day. Their homework is to take the self-criticism list home and write next to each criticism where they’ve heard it before. It’s often a bullish parent, uncle or aunt, teacher or other would-be mentor. Once recognized, they have to write a letter to each person discussing the criticism, then they throw the letters away (maybe some send them. I don’t know.) The point is, it brings the “judgment” to the light of day, where we can, as adults, choose to own them for the rest of our lives, or lay them down. I’m utterly convinced from 7 years of doing this, that art and lives can be changed in this manner. Sometimes those walls around my students are fortifications built out of safety from unimaginable wounds. When the walls come down, art truly heals. I feel that this may be my most important job as an art teacher, to let art out rather than force it in!


Paint box all artist needs to make a living
by Maureen, North Carolina, USA

I just moved to a new town. In order to buy my bread, I have been hustling up custom furniture painting, murals, accent walls etc. I really like doing work that is a collaboration between customer and artist. It is a leftover from my days as a sign painter, before I gave up oil-based paints. When I painted signs I took comfort in the fact that with a little fishing tackle box I could make a living anywhere in the world almost instantaneously. Let us see how I fare with no network in North Carolina. It is scary. I have to keep telling myself that I can do it.


Spiritual fulfillment reason for painting
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff

I am beginning a career as an artist. During a portfolio review, I was told that paintings of cats would not be chosen by jurors (I have done many of cats), no matter how well they were done, because there was a prejudice against them. Pictures of cats and flowers were thought too sweet or cute. This seemed ridiculous to me. To give my reviewer credit, he did not agree with this either, but he wanted me to know. Although I would like to sell works, I don’t have to do this for a living. I have come to the conclusion that the approval of others is not the reason why I paint. I paint because, when I do, I am deeply within the flow of life. Even when a painting does not work, the activity is a spiritual practice for me. Painting helps me connect to that oneness and I am most happy in the world when I am working. The activity of painting makes me open my awareness to the world in a way that I cannot achieve as easily elsewhere. It gives me great joy.


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