Restless brush syndrome


Dear Artist,

Most people have heard about restless leg syndrome. That’s where the legs insist on moving — jiggling, particularly at night when you should be sleeping. Apparently 15% of the population has it — most of them middle-aged women.

Restless brush syndrome is where the brush tends to move too much. It covers more ground than it needs in order to convey its message. This brush is as busy as a bee — going here and there over areas that would often be best stated with a single, effective swipe. We’re not talking about legitimate blending and brushing out — we’re talking about going over the same place. You sometimes notice the condition at workshops and group paint-ins. Men as well as women can be sorely afflicted.

I used to put it down to the need for some people to “give more.” Some inbuilt guilt or tic that makes a person fuss and make movements that are not necessary. More than anything this sort of busyness is an amateur trait — and amateur traits often become habits that can haunt the pros. The tragedy is that restless brush syndrome, when chronic, can waste a lot of your precious time — time you need to grow, learn and flourish. It’s also responsible for some of the great sins of painting — muddifying, overworking and senilizing.

How to take the cure? Unlike leg problems that can be beaten down with iron supplements, vitamin B12, and warm baths, the brush problem has to be cured by rewiring the neural paths. Exercises and test projects taken slowly can lead to an appreciation of economy and paucity in brushwork. Self-diagnosis and an understanding of your personal artistic direction and methodology may give you the prescription you need. But be warned, the disorder is so compulsive that artists often don’t know that they are doing it. Video helps. “What the devil is that person doing?” he asks, on seeing himself in action. I’ve found that it’s alright to go into a dream or a trance while painting, but it’s also important to be aware of your personal kinetics. Also — like the good habit of half-closing our eyes — no brush-busy artist can do better than to repeat the mantra: “Look three times, think twice, paint once.”

Best regards,


PS: “Leave your strokes alone.” (Ted Smuskiewicz)

Esoterica: Exercise: Place your fully loaded brush on the canvas or other support and move your eyes to another spot where you wish the stroke to end. Without looking back at the beginning of the stroke, bring the brush in one direct (perhaps curved) action to the end spot you have chosen. Assess the result. Wipe off if not satisfactory and try again. If satisfactory, do not touch, but rather go on to an adjacent stroke and follow a similar process.


More is more
by Violette Clark


painting by Violette Clark

I believe it’s a personality defect… never wanting to leave things alone. I have restless leg syndrome and I also suffer from the restless brush syndrome. I can’t stop applying colour and putzing around with my brush… then standing back and wondering what the heck is wrong with it. Unlike Martha Stewart, I harbour the belief that ‘more is more’ and not ‘less is more’ as is obvious to anyone who has seen my weird home.





‘Minimalist’ tendency
by Anatholie Alain, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

It was encouraging for me to read about restless brush syndrome. My problem is just the opposite. At workshops I sometimes feel uncomfortable thinking I should do more when in fact, ‘less’ seems to work better. I particularly like line and wash with watercolour and pen. That is when my ‘minimalist’ tendency seems hard at work. I now have confidence that I might be on the right track, and that perhaps I should rejoice in spending less time and energy (and paint) and just be happy with who I am in art.


Sometimes meticulous
by Rose Moon


painting by Rose Moon

Restless Leg Syndrome is a symptom of lack of enough beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium. Restless brush is not a problem that most of my students have. Many students are over influenced by teachers that tell them to minimize their strokes so much that they refuse to finish a piece. Their work just looks messy. I would like to see my students slow down, take more time to finish something, and by all means feel free to use a smaller brush, sometimes! I also tell my students to listen to all teachers and choose what works for them. It is just that the big brush, loose painters are usually the ones that claim that their way is the right way. I seem to be a popular teacher, so is it really wrong to sometimes be meticulous? I love the challenge.



Remedy for restless brush
by Bill Kerr

When I first painted it was with oils. I developed a condition not unlike restless brush, “constant alteration.” Constant alteration is simply never being satisfied with the look and not having a plan to make a specific change or having a half-baked plan that didn’t work. It differs from restless brush in that one returns to the same area of the same work often days later. Sort of slow-motion restless brush. My few oil paintings got heavier and heavier but no better. A decade later I was introduced to watercolour. New watercolourists can’t go over things. Overworked watercolour becomes so grungy so quickly that it must be sent to the dumpster. Quickly you learn not to meddle! Yes, you can learn to alter and correct watercolour with experience… but it isn’t meddling. There are rules and very real limits and you clearly can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.


Stages of progression
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA


painting by Aleta Pippin

I had an outstanding mentor, Alex Shundi, during a two-year period in the mid-1990s, whom I believe helped me to venture into another stage of painting. During this time there was an entire body of work done with a very small brush. Some of the paintings were as large as 3 x 6 feet, mostly painted with a number 6 brush. There was something extremely satisfying about “niggling” away at the painting, taking small space and creating interesting forms. Maybe it did become trance-like or as said in the letter, maybe I felt guilty that I should be giving more. Whatever the reason, the paintings were interesting and busy. I’ve moved away from those forms, finding another method of being in the zone by pouring my paintings.

Maybe the bottom line is that all of us go through stages, hopefully progressing to higher and higher levels of ability. The main focus during this progression is to be aware of what we’re doing and to be fearless in trying new approaches and to catch ourselves in habits that no longer serve us — easier said than done.


Studies get overworked
by Ellen Smith Fagan, Rockville, CT, USA

When developing a new picture idea or doing a picture whose interpretation is new to me, my studies for the final painting sometimes do get overworked, from developing and learning in the project. I used to throw them away, but don’t anymore… just call them what they are, and share them if they are fit to share at all. The images are rarely like the finished painting and often feature some detail of the work that I liked enough to turn into an original art work of its own.


Negative thoughts torment
by Jane Harris

I am happiest when I am painting despite the result; I keep trying, but not enough. I am fired by the very first thought about the painting I’m trying to do or by the thought of starting another and the act of doing both. Negative thoughts of my lack of ability torment constantly yet spur me on to try again. Will I ever gain peace?


Fear of commitment
by Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA


painting by Linda Saccoccio (Radha)

I think the restless brush syndrome can be the outcome of lack of confidence and being afraid to commit. I remember a teacher in grad school questioning the drawings I had done as I began exploring abstraction. He said he wondered why there were so many lines; perhaps what was being said could be said more simply. Perhaps many of the lines were basically redundant, instead of strengthening and supporting the whole. I took his comment in and thought about my love of the rough style of drawing that I admired because it had vigor, guts. I also considered the simplicity in Asian brushwork that captured me through its dynamic boldness and grace, as well as the cave paintings of Lascaux that were soul inspirations. I began working more simply and this also came with a slowing down of my hand. The process was more steady and relied on trust that I could simply evoke something strong, direct and moving with less, but with more specific gestures. Another teacher saw my developing work in relation to language. In essence I began creating my own visual language. Both in written and visual language we need to trust that the reader or viewer has the capacity to get the point without us overstating it. Overstatement can be tedious, insulting and killing to the mystery of the work which gives it its power. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” Mystery can be conveyed profoundly through simplicity. Fewer lines means choosing a direction whether consciously or unconsciously and believing in it for at least as long as it takes to see it through. If it is successful it sings vibrantly without a doubt. If not there is always the next painting.


More RBS rather than less
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany

Assuming there is no medical cause (Parkinson’s, for example), compulsive repetition of brush-strokes (Restless Brush Syndrome or RBS) may be a sign of insecurity (self-disbelief), dissatisfaction with life (in general) and the painting itself (in particular). It could be a form of doodling, automatic writing (Is anyone there?), or even an advanced form of that game we used to play as kids, blindfoldedly having to attach the tail to the pig or some other domestic animal, suffering devastating humiliation from the paralytic laughter of the onlookers when we got it wrong, which we usually did, having been pirouetted to dizziness beforehand.

Depending on your zodiac sign, RBS could be subversiveness, indecisiveness, self-negation or humbug. If you are into Feng-Shui, it might be a subconscious desire for a new order of things, a way of tidying up your life (finding inner meanings via outer balance?). A New Age fan might be exploring esoteric concepts for self-fulfillment, and people like me, terminally middle-aged and usually in too much of a hurry to think more carefully about what to do next, could be merely covering up the last set of brush-strokes which failed to have the desired effect.

Another consideration: How many really famous artists have had RBS? I would say Seurat had it in quite an advanced form, Monet and Pollock were also afflicted. But the admirers of these and countless other artists cannot all be wrong. Maybe we should have more of RBS rather than less of it!


Backing up digital files
by Nyla Witmore


painting by Nyla Witmore

I purchased a Sony Mavica because it has a CD disk rather than a memory card. I felt more comfortable knowing I could pick up a CD disk, pop in into a computer and not have to worry about whether or not I had remembered to periodically save all these images to a separate disc. While friends left and right were going the “Smart Card route” and getting higher resolution with their cameras I was so relieved when, with recent virus attacks, I found some friends saying they had lost everything because they had not backed up their photo resources. I can’t take chances. Sony now makes a smaller Mavica camera with higher resolution, and it uses Mini-sized CDs.


Drawing aids
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, Northumberland, UK

I am an enthusiastic amateur artist who has not had an art school education and is still, at the age of 53, a little in awe of all those “masters” who make the rules for artists. When I was at school, our art teacher taught that we must never use rulers and erasers. Later, a commercial artist told me that “anything goes.” As time went on, I began to draw in pen & ink scenes of my hometown as it was a hundred years ago, from old photos (of course). As those who purchased prints of my work demanded accuracy, I eventually started using a system I haven’t known anyone else use. I would hold the photo up against the drawing, about six inches off it, and then site as with a rifle and make a couple of pencil marks on the paper to indicate the width or height of a specific object in the photo. After a while I began to feel guilty about this practice and tried to limit it as much as I could.

For the last year I have been using only my eye. Okay, the results aren’t as accurate, but the paintings are maybe a little looser and more spontaneous. I often read in art magazines of artists projecting onto the paper/canvas, and using tracing paper. Are “aids” cheating, or should we use whatever makes for an accurate painting?

(RG note) Thanks for the guilt Dave. I’m sure there are purists out there who never take shortcuts — and you might hear from them. In our business expediency and efficiency are the norm. Projectors, pantographs, tracing from computer screens, etc. Michelangelo used a pounce pattern. The only concern we have about shortcuts is that they may diminish creativity. Don’t forget it’s your wonkyness of drawing that gives your work its distinct character. There’s no guilt in the Age of Aquarius.






Maria Vargas (con traje burdeos)

painting by Christian Gaillard, Paris, France


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, 2003.

That includes Louise Shotton who wrote, “I have painted in oils for 35-plus years. When I see myself getting slower and slower at a painting, which includes playing with the paint on the work, I stop completely. The next day, I choose a totally different subject from landscape and paint a watercolour.”

And Gale who wrote, “So true! It also applies to charcoal, and basic sketching.”

And also Gail Griffiths who wrote, “Gerti Hilfert expressed exactly how I feel about your letters. I have my queries and my enlightenments as I read them, but always, I open and read it like a found treasure of unknown origin. Like a shiny trinket box found in the woods amongst the wet fallen leaves and toadstools way off the beaten path.”


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