Returning to a cold easel


Dear Artist,

Lee Hulcher from Clarkston Valley, Montana wrote, “I love to paint but being self-employed doesn’t leave much time, except in blocks of hours, sometimes days or months apart. Here lies the issue: When I step away from a painting that is going well, I dread the return, due to severe anxiety of messing it up and ruining the started painting. Of course, by the time I actually get to paint I am so stressed that I ruin the painting. I have found myself actually making excuses as to why I can’t paint. Do you have any suggestions, as I have a lot of unfinished paintings I would love to finish.”


“The Viaduct at L’Estaque” 1907-8
oil on canvas, 65.1 x 80.6 cm
by Georges Braque (1882-1963)

Thanks, Lee. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” wrote Virginia Woolf, when reconciling ideal creative conditions. Neglected, incomplete work tends to go stale after awhile. And, like taking a deep breath and postponing an exhale, a promising beginning can morph into a terrifying condition. Cold Easel Syndrome, or CES, threatens confidence, flow and a slick palette — the symptoms so off-putting they can paralyze a once joyful brush-pusher. Here are a few remedies:

Set up your work so that it’s waiting for you. Devote a room or space in your home to no other purpose but painting, and keep your tools at the ready.

Position your paintings in various stages of completion within eyeshot of other areas — like your bed and dinner table. Your process is one of multiple tracks, simultaneity and exploration, with less emphasis on a chronological series of would-be masterpieces.


“Harbour in Normandy” 1909
oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm
by Georges Braque

Temper your aspirations for beginnings and middles. Realize nothing can be ruined — you have only a set of waiting possibilities. You could warm up with another start. Do it quickly and keep it fresh.

On the whole, speed up. “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. Like the shadow moving across the glacier, paint it fast — catch the joy of your stolen moments. Lay in your overall vision with unattached gusto. Stay loose. Get to 80% or 90% complete in the arc of time allotted. Think of your painting as a record of this event.

Now, it’s contemplation period. And when you return to the easel, avoid approaching your “second act” with the same thinking as your first. Instead, consider this next pass as a refreshed, relaxed and special kind of pleasure — stay cool. Those last flourishes, a glaze or two, coming to light, titling and signing will prime the pump for your next beginning.


“Road near L’Estaque” 1908
oil on canvas, 50.2 x 60.3 cm
by Georges Braque



PS: “The painting is finished when the idea has disappeared.” (Georges Braque)

Esoterica: Life portions us our allotted hours — it’s up to us to protect the creative ones. Start with understanding your own personal commitment and desire to go all the way. Know that an endless, uninterrupted lifetime to dream, plan, prepare, squeeze out, lay in, linger, languish, triumph and finish can be condensed into the time it takes for another to dry on the secondary easel. “Work expands to the time allotted.” (Parkinson’s Law)


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“It is the unforeseeable that creates the event.” (Georges Braque)

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