Random Reference


Dear Artist,

A letter from Keith O’Connor in the last responses started the wheels grinding about the tyranny of reference material. I’m sure you’ve found that some days when you go to your reference you cannot be easily satisfied. Another day you will simply pick up an idea or an image almost at random — and it works just fine.

This “magic” has to do with the merging of openness, opportunity, and desire. Here’s an example: My friend Joe Blodgett and I ran out of gas in front of a perfectly ordinary gas station in a perfectly ordinary California town. While I was getting a can of gas Joe sat in the car and painted a watercolor — of the gas station. He had warned me previously that he had a painting coming on. It turned out to be a good one, too.

This brings me to a recent invention of mine. It’s called the “Velocograph.” The instrument tows behind a car and takes “Velocographic photos.” It has a side-pointing camera mounted on a bicycle wheel that takes a picture with the turn of the wheel — about every five feet — 180 feet to the roll of 36. The photos are all over the place — up, down, over there. It’s amazing how useful they are as reference. I don’t do much planning. Generally I just drive slowly in a tight circle in a place where there’s lots going on. People look at it as if I’m doing a fuel consumption test — a look of curiosity and wonder.


The camera is mounted next to the wheel at the rear. This one is an older camera fitted with an auto-winder. The shutter is triggered with every turn of the wheel. The shutter closure can be electronic, or, in this case, by mechanical trip. This velocograph takes a roll of 36 in about 180 feet of driving. The device can be disconnected and operated by hand. The towing vehicle here is a 1926 Austin 7 Chummy.

When you raise your camera to your eye in order to photograph a picturesque scene — the composition is run through the sieve of everything you know. Nothing wrong with that — but it’s an idea from time to time to avoid the predictability of the sieve. Otherwise we just see things we know we can do.

Best regards,


PS: “The function of art is to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. A writer, for example, shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. (Anais Nin)

Esoterica: “The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual.”(Fairfield Porter) “Any incentive to paint is as good as any other. There is no poor subject.”(Robert Motherwell) “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” (Vincent Van Gogh)

The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.


by Rick Lawrence

This is the stupidest thing I ever heard of.

(RG note) Several artists wrote this. Rick’s was the briefest and most to the point.


“Book” art
by Peter Senesac, Gainesville, Florida, USA

I got a kick out of your photo and great old car. It’d be interesting to see some of the photos taken with this device and the resulting painting. I was at an exhibition last year where someone made a folding “book” by sitting in a moving car and shooting non stop as they drove down the main street of a small town making a continuous photo about 10 feet long.

(RG note) Artists’ “books” refers to works by visual artists that assume some sort of book form. The term is credited to Dianne Vanderlip, who organized an exhibition of Artists Books at Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, in 1973. Other “Book” shows have been produced at The Museum of Modern Art (Clive Philpott) and at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in London, England. Pioneers of the idea include William Blake, Marcel Duchamp, Eadweard Muybridge. A prototype for contemporaries is Ed Ruscha’s fold-out photographic book Every Building on the Sunset Strip.


Avoiding the obvious
by David Stanley, Manchester, UK

Reading your latest letter I am reminded of a quote from Peter Lanyon on the subject of finding “different” compositions. He said we should “look at the world from under our armpits.” And what a difference it makes! In sympathy with the thrust of your letter is the practice of setting traps for oneself, like finding the less obvious composition. Any routine which threatens to become predictable should be stopped and a different strategy employed instead. My chief device is to eradicate (by erasing, sanding, scratching, scraping or whiting out) the offending passage.


“The Lost Rose”
by Kim Wyatt, San Diego, California, USA

Random Reference happens to me all the time. Recently I picked the most splendid array of roses and thought I’d get at least one painting out of it. But nothing. I didn’t even have an urge to paint them. They looked perfect the way they were and I didn’t feel like visually dissecting them. However, I had happened to drop one on the way in and found it later while sweeping. It was perfect. It had form, grace, beauty and a personality all its own — a huge, saucer-sized flower, face down on the concrete pathway, its fading pink petals limp from the sun, its stem askew — pointing skyward. I had to drop everything and work with it.


Sincere art
by Wayne C Shaw

There is some sort of magic going on when we are making a creative choice. The energy to “get going” coincides with some image or idea that our subconscious desires and somehow needs to see realized. A sincere artist gives in to mysterious influences, and the result is sincere art. I’m not talking about those who crank things out for a market. William Burroughs said, “I see painting as an evocative magic, and there must always be a random factor in magic, one which must be constantly changed and renewed.”


In the balance
by Drake Mah, Victoria, Hong Kong

Out of the crazy, the off-the-wall, the absurd, a creative mind is prodded to new levels. Our most difficult job as artists is to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth, viable ego and self esteem, at the same time appreciating the idea that creativity is universal and capable of outrageousness. The following quote comes from the Resource of Art Quotations: “The vast majority of human beings dislike and even dread all notions with which they are not familiar. Hence it comes about that at their first appearance innovators have always been derided as fools and madmen. (Aldous Huxley)

(RG note) The Resource of Art Quotations is the most popular page on The Painter’s Keys” website. Every day more than 50 visitors come to it through one search engine alone: “Google.” We also think many artists must go to it regularly for inspiration or research.


Two clouds
by Albert Chr. Reck, Swaziland

In the Ezulwini Valley, against the background of the historical Ndzimba mountains, while staying with the Swazi Warriors, the king and the dancing and singing, I discovered the sun also dancing with a shady cloud above me. I would not like to have missed it. Staying in between gives me also the opportunity for a new beginning. And as people in Swaziland know, it is also the beginning of the rain. After the rain, everything grows. So the shady cloud goes down to earth and creates manyfolded forms.

At the Forest of Fontainebleau, France, while floating in a skiff on the sun drenched river Seine I had another encounter with a cloud and the sun. I have withdrawn the oars and I am floating on the summery Seine. The midday sun burns my lazy skin. I am taking a vacation from thinking. Overhead a white cloud in blue; beneath me the slow-moving ray-green Seine. My white cloud, my white cloud of white brain. My brain is the white cloud in the blue. I am lying on the embankment and my white cloud is looking at me. It is light and laughs, and it laughs and it is light. My brain rises into the blue of the sky. I understand the white cloud is my intelligence. I am floating on the light and clear water of the Seine. The graceful landscape passes by: The green fields, the dark forest of Fontainebleau, the red roofs of the village. And then the hunting-lodge of my host. Monsieur Fabre-Luce is a writer; he expects me for the midday meal. I put the oar back into the gray-green water of the Seine and steer towards the castle landing. In the dining hall Louis IX joins us at the round table. He speaks to us from the tapestries and from the delicate porcelain on the tablecloth. Monsieur Fabre-Luce relaxes in a comfortable Louis IVX chair and makes conversation. The meal is stimulating; his being manifests in a firework-like display of goodnaturedness. I tell about my cloud, the white one over the Seine, and about the forest of Fontainebleau. The words bantered around the table like ping-pong balls, and I say; “It’s true; the cloud over the Seine is light and white in the blue of the sky. The dark forest, the fields, and the town of Tomery are laughing at me.” “And pong,” says Monsieur Fabre-Luce, “that is the translation; Tomery means everything is laughing at me.” You only heard the king, who, overcome, cried out as he left the forest after a hunt: ‘Everything is laughing at me ‘(tout me rit). You see, there is nothing new under the sun in France.” I leave my intellect between the doorposts, and I steer my skiff towards the mouth of the river. And overhead only the white cloud. My white cloud from the forest of Fontainebleau was, at that time, “wesen-haft” for me, because for the beginner painter it was the source of light. For the contemporary artist both clouds are essential: the shady and the light one. But you will only have these encounters if you are an adventurous character. That means, you must be prepared to cross borders.


Physical effects
by Elizabeth Britton

I try to stay away from “self delusions,” realizing that I have just as much right, talent, & inspiration as anyone to birth my “children” into life. The system of blessing-mentality is surely one of the most important paths that we can follow — once recognizing that our source is deep & endless, loving & totally abundant, we can safely journey along, continually re-aligning ourselves with this source. One of the simple measuring sticks that I have is if I’m not painting, drawing — whatever — my hands become swollen & painful. The damning of that juice & energy manifests itself physically.


Alice in wonderland
by Sara Genn, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Yesterday in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On one floor you could pick up a palm pilot and go through little videos on the artists in question talking about their work. Like how Chuck Close actually does those grid portraits (a video of him starting one — did you know he is in a wheelchair? Nice studio by the way) Also Gerhard Richter saying, “You have to want to do something — motivation is very important,” which I thought was cute.

A funnel type machine hooked up to a laptop. The machine is programmed and timed to spew out great piles of melted blobs of red plastic. The guard has to refill the funnel with plastic beads every once in a while. They make about one blob a day. The finished sculptures go down an assembly line. The artist is never present. The museum sells the sculptures.

An artist’s computer does a 3D scan of her friends. Then she gets a machine to build the scans out of plastic. Scale: 1:10. Then she gets an assistant to paint the little people in the same colours as the clothes they are really wearing and their hair etc. The artist never looks at the work in progress because she doesn’t want to inflict her aesthetic.

An artist is making molded furniture out of plastic. The furniture is part of the floor. A computer determines where you need a stool or a toilet. It’s like it rises right out of the floor and it’s all bright orange.

A Plexiglas box with objects in it. You scan a bar code (any bar code… like your library card or a book you have in your purse) and something in the box will move or a light will come on. My Petcetera card set off a drill that was attached to a chair and it made the chair spin.

A painting that you can only see if you blow a hairdryer on it and the heat makes the picture come up.


You may be interested to know that artists from 85 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Beverly Willis of Fresno, California, who remembers the picturesque qualities of the old gas stations that her father used to sell pumps to.

And Susie von Ammon who says, “The AIREDALE!!! — the heck with the velocograph and the Austin 7 Chummy. Man’s best friend and camera assistant is the story! What a babe; people, picture magnet!”

And Sylvio Gagnon of Ottawa, Ontario, who sent us a 12 minute CD video clip of himself painting. “Just insert in drive. It should run automatically.” It did. Wonders.

And Maneis Tehrani of Iran, who has North American dealers but who would appreciate correspondence with North Americans who might critique his work.



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