Slow down to speed up

Dear Artist, It’s warm and muggy beside this froggy pond. I’m the shiny guy wearing the Deep Forest Off. Nearby, an Oregon towhee rummages in the undergrowth. In the distance, a barred owl is being harassed by resident robins. With no immediate obligations and practically no guilt, I’m moving slower than a spotted slug. After years of jumping directly into painting, these days I’ve been casually drawing things out with a soft pencil. Also, trying to please myself, I’m judiciously glazing work in progress with red oxide — a colour I’ve previously found unpleasant. Funnily, Irene Feeney of Roscommon, Ireland, just wrote, “I’m one who struggles to be pleased. I’m also speedy; I complete a painting in a day where another person might take weeks. It may be that my attention to detail is not so accurate, but I like to work fast. I find it hard to work at one section; I look at the whole painting as I work. Maybe this is something I need to harness. Do you think this may be my downfall?” Thanks, Irene. I’m not going to comment on your downfall, but I do have a few thoughts on fast and slow. The virtue of a painting may not be accuracy, but feeling. Further, taking your time to feel what you’re painting is more important than speedy delivery. In both feeling and execution, some folks are naturally faster than others. That you have identified yourself as one of the speedy is just great. Speedy painters tend to do fresher work than pokey ones. On the other hand, they are also responsible for a lot of the messy stuff you see out there. Just for the sake of change, you might try forcibly slowing down. It’s the “extra time” concept. It has something to do with gently living in the present and focusing on the potential of the work at hand. It can be done at the edge of a froggy pond or in a studio sanctuary. One needs to become aware of the relative time between stroking and contemplating. “Look three times, think twice, paint once,” is a time-honoured shibboleth. Here’s the ploy: Make a work of art that looks like it was done freshly and quickly — but take a long time to do it. Best regards, Robert PS: “Hasten slowly.” (Augustus Caesar) “Wait for that wisest of all counselors; Time.” (Pericles) “Be here now.” (Ram Dass) Esoterica: Many painters feel they have to work furiously to catch the passion. The Russian-American Impressionist Sergei Bongart used to say, “I have to get it out quick or I cool off.” But this came after a lifetime of polishing his craft. Who knows how he was when he started out. Fact is, many mature artists re-adopt the hesitant approach of their youth. Composer Igor Stravinsky said, “Hurry? I never hurry. I have no time to hurry.” Watching that spotted slug streak down the pathway I’m thinking of Lao Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”   Going slow in the age of ‘fast’ by Anna Schoolderman, New Zealand  

pastel painting
by Anna Schoolderman

Maybe it’s because I came to painting at a more mature age, or maybe I just have a love for detail, but I derive the greatest satisfaction from labouring over each painting, caressing the support with the medium and getting lost in the process. Yes I can produce fast work, but for me this holds no appeal. How satisfying to know that in this age of “instant everything” there are others of like mind.       There is 1 comment for Going slow in the age of ‘fast’ by Anna Schoolderman
From: Anna H. — Aug 06, 2012

I totally agree, and I love how you say “caressing the support with the medium”. I always feel like I’m in love with the subject I’m painting, feeling each curve, angle, shadow and light as the paint touches the canvas. Love your painting.

  Sargent’s method by David Sharpe, Stratford, ON, Canada  

“Clearing over the courthouse”
oil painting, 10 x 8 inches
by David Sharpe

Slow can look to be fast. In fact John Singer Sargent worked very hard at having his work look fast and loose. In 2009 I posted a transcript of his painting methods from a student and as I recall there’s a description of how he worked a long time to make his paintings look spontaneous. In fact, he would paint the same amazing descriptive lick of light stroke on, say, a glass or piece of jewelry over and over and over until he was satisfied. And the art of painting doesn’t get much better than Sargent.       The illusive ‘fresh eye’ by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA  

oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Kristine Fretheim

After reading your posts for several years now, I wonder if you would tell Caravaggio, “Lighten up, Dude! You’re too tight, too detailed.” So I question this idea of “freshness” that apparently is born of speed. I can see freshness as a painterly stroke, a loose, impressionistic style that is one style among many. In that sense though, a “fresh” style is rather generic. I prefer to focus on the content of an artwork where freshness is the result of a uniquely personal viewpoint. In other words, truly fresh artwork is imbued with personal flavor that bespeaks one artist’s vision unlike anything else. That freshness of personal expression includes not only skillful painting technique, but a fresh eye on the world, a unique very personal perspective. Technique can be learned and honed, but that “fresh eye” is an elusive, slippery critter. You “know” when you see it. The artwork comes to meet you. It gets inside of you. The other works hang quietly on the wall, where people gather to talk about the lovely colors and techniques. There are 4 comments for The illusive ‘fresh eye’ by Kristine Fretheim
From: Anonymous — Aug 06, 2012

Absolutely beautiful! She looks just like my bad-tempered Cassy, who I always wish I had painted.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 07, 2012

Now that is a nice cat painting, I was surprised to see the size…it comes across as much larger. Its presence overcomes the details…so strong.

From: Anonymous — Aug 07, 2012

Superb painting, exemplifying a high level of skill. While I’m not a cat lover, I do love this.

From: Jan — Aug 07, 2012

Beautiful painting, your love shines through.

  Lost paintings by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA  

original painting, 48 x 48 inches
by Susan Burns

I paint a lot and have 30 paintings at one gallery. I have had up to 100 at this gallery, counting the paper ones. While taking inventory recently, there were 6 missing works. I found 3 at home in the studio. The other 3 are not in the studio, nor have they been to other galleries, or sold. Should I shoulder the responsibility of all of the missing items? My records show that these paintings were consigned to the gallery in 2010. I realize I have not been perfect in my record keeping and am working every day to make this easier, clearer and more accurate. I have asked the gallery for suggestions about handling this, but there is no response. The business of art can exhaust my creative energy. I’m going to paint. (RG note) Thanks, Susan. Proper inventory management starts with the artist. Unfortunately, with dealers who often have fifty or more artists, it’s easy for them to get things misplaced. I wish I could say my system was perfect. It’s not. There are rare times when things go missing and we would like to think that no nasty business took place and we have to forget about it. Just to clarify, however, I have had dealers who sold stuff and forgot to pay. In those cases I had clear and irrefutable evidence of their sleight of hand before dismissing them. There are 2 comments for Lost paintings by Susan Burns
From: Suzette Fram — Aug 07, 2012

If you prepare a list and get a signature every time you deliver work to the gallery, and if you sign off for every painting you take back, then clearly any missing work is the responsibility of the gallery. But you need to be very consistent with this, because if you’re not, things will slip by and you can never be sure whether you, or the gallery, are responsible for the ‘misplacing’ of the work. And the problem then is that you may lose trust in your gallery and that will ruin the working relationship. Good luck to you in handling this.

From: Tatjana — Aug 07, 2012

One of my dealers just recently apologetically reported a missing painting found behind a bed in their home. Maybe the missing works will still turn up.

  Repeating titles by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA  

“Fawn’s Leap”
oil painting, 36 x 24 inches
by Carolyn Edlund

A problem with my paintings is that titles overlap. There may be several iterations and sizes of Sunset at Tall Mountain, Moon over River X, Meditation, etc. There will come a time when one cannot be sure which painting is being referenced by client or gallery. What do you do about this? (RG note) Thanks, Carolyn. Yes, it does happen to me that paintings get issued with the same titles — often three or four times. When my assistant notices this we add I, II, III, IV, etc., to the end of the title. While the works are also almost always distinguishable by size as well, the Roman Numeral clears up any potential confusion. You don’t want to let things get out of hand, though. Meditation XXIVI sounds like you’re doing far too much meditating.   Asking for feedback by Hannah Pazderka, Edmonton, AB, Canada   I am currently designing a jewelry piece, but something about it looks ‘off.’ I was tempted to post it (e.g., to Facebook) and ask my friends/associates for feedback and input, but then I thought, “maybe that’s a bad idea”… Do you ever ask outside opinions when something in a piece of art doesn’t sit well with you? Or is that a risk? (RG note) Thanks, Hannah. One of my golden tips is to become your own best critic. This is easier said than done, particularly early on in your career. If you’re really stuck, you might get an opinion from someone who is in a position to suggest possible fixes or could be trusted with an illuminating insight. If you can’t find this person, the opinions of several lesser persons might be consulted. But it’s a dangerous business because it can destroy the individuality which is the basis of your potential genius. There are 2 comments for Asking for feedback by Hannah Pazderka
From: Anonymous — Aug 07, 2012

“several lesser persons” LOL!

From: susan burns — Aug 10, 2012

If asking for help, I find I must be very specific in what I’m asking. Some people are only able to give a gut response(I like it, or I don’t like it) Others can speak of balance, color. line, contrast etc. This would be very specific in your career. If I were you, I might find some other artists that do what you do and ask for a monthly critique. It can be done in person, or online. This benefits all.

  New identifiers for ‘high art’ needed by Jean Sonmor, Wolseley, SK, Canada  

“Tree life”
multi media painting
by Jean Sonmor

High art shares those qualities which the old masters in every era possess. It speaks clearly to many people about the artists’ deeply held philosophic beliefs and unique methods of expression. It speaks to the mind, heart and soul of the onlooker. This category needs effective identifiers to set it apart for those striving to produce masterworks not mere paintings or sculptures. The professionals and the students who would stand among them deserve a vocabulary of their own, not one that has been co-opted by the commercial world and the amateur hobbyists.   There is 1 comment for New identifiers for ‘high art’ needed by Jean Sonmor
From: Anonymous — Aug 07, 2012

‘High Art’ Yes what a concept. Why not form the ‘Society of Highly Intentioned and Trained Souls’ (S.H.I.T.S. for short) then all those amateur hobbyists wouldn’t be mistaken for artists all the time. Yeah, for sure.

  Slowing down by Irene Feeney, Roscommon, Ireland   Thank you, Robert, for your refreshing insight. Yes, it comes down to living in the present while painting. As I said to you before, your emails can be adapted to all aspects of life in general, living in the moment. I will consciously slow down and enjoy the journey more. I am re-creating The Angelus by Millet at the moment. I have just completed the drawing in charcoal, so on with the oils!    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Slow down to speed up

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 03, 2012
From: Celeste Varley — Aug 03, 2012

Would you put up a sample of your work where you glazed in red oxide? I’m most curious to see this. Over 30 years I’ve been a quick artist, but lately trying something involving head and heart in equal parts, the necessary slowing down has revealed lots of surprises…best of all added self confidence.

From: Melissa E. Keyes — Aug 03, 2012

Hmm, I’ve gone from too slow and utterly meticulous to a fast scribble, 45 minutes?? and now I don’t paint at all. Hum.

From: Inga Poslitur — Aug 03, 2012

Red oxide: you mean you would glaze work in progress and continue painting? It would definitely unify the painting. That should be very interesting. Unusual color choice.

From: Lillian Pellegrino — Aug 03, 2012

I have gotten a lot of enjoyment from John Cleese piece thanks for posting it.

From: Helen Horn Musser — Aug 03, 2012

I’m with you on the sluggishness; part of getting older but, also have found myself thinking more about the thought that goes in to the painting than I have in the past. We seem to have considerable problems in our country with values that are going in the wrong direction. We have dived into many traps of illusion of grandeur of government. You on the other hand are in a very sweet spot with yours. I congratulate Canada. You are on a great path to succeed. My thoughts are about our values, thus, also, my work. Slowing down has been a comfort and so thankful for the change. Robert, you are the one I continually turn to for new inspiration. Thank you.

From: Joanne Thomson — Aug 03, 2012

For me, landscape painting is a spiritual practice, a way of being in the now, of connection and meditation. I seem to be getting slower as I age rather than faster. I am efficient and I think that is the elusive aspect for beginning painters. As our skills are established there is accuracy where there used to be frustration and exploration, confidence where there used to be nervous insecurity and surrender to and acceptance of our own limitations rather than fighting against them. I have put your little newsletter in a file for my course “Artmaking as Spiritual Practice” and you may very well be quoted during one of my lectures.

From: Jill Charuk — Aug 03, 2012

At the time that I was decorating for clients I had a little saying on my wall. Paradox – the most simple looking, effortless, “I just collected this stuff” designed rooms took the most work to achieve. Kind of like wearing an “all natural” makeup. Tricky.

From: Catherine Stock — Aug 03, 2012

I tell my watercolour students to plan like a tortoise and to paint like a hare.

From: Paula Timpson — Aug 03, 2012

holding on a while one doesn’t lose the passion one fulfills its destiny~

From: Gins V.O. Doolittle — Aug 03, 2012
From: Nancy — Aug 03, 2012

I do 80% in my head, so often I do work fast…maybe not fast but deliberate….Rothko said the the Broadway show a few years ago “RED, when his assistant asked why he works so fast” Thanks you for your thoughts…I so enjoy your letters….it slows me down to read them and think!

From: Jane Hanley — Aug 03, 2012

Oh Robert, dear Robert! How fast, pray tell, does a spotted slug streak? Surely we need this information to get the full import of your message. There are no slugs, spotted or otherwise on my path, so I cannot deduce for myself. Love your ‘letters’,

From: Dora Gourley — Aug 03, 2012

I hope your visit to Orygun was a great one Robert. We have such lovely things to draw and paint here. It’s hard to decide just what to paint next, eh ? Enjoy your weekly letters. thanks for doing what you do.

From: Elle Fagan — Aug 04, 2012

Do not fault speed – the fine motor skills involved in painting need the workout that comes only from going fast and accurate at it, deliberately for the skill….then if you are in the forest you can relax and go as slowly as you please and it all goes well.

From: Arnold Washington — Aug 04, 2012

Yes, thoughtful time between strokes is a major key. If you watch amateurs you often see them continuing to stroke away as if they were sweeping a floor, without looking at what they’re doing!

From: John — Aug 04, 2012

I am intrigued by your reference to glazing with red oxide. My main medium is graphite and I glaze with both it and stumpage.The kneaded rubber eraser also comes into play in order to gain a true layer in which to manipulate my darks.With watercolor I glaze often with just clear water in order to sink the pigment deep

From: Karen Watland — Aug 04, 2012

I love this and will now try to apply it. I love to speed through things, yet other things I am a slow poke where others demand speed of me. It isn’t so much about time, but what we are truly experiencing. Slowing down is what my mind and body request of me, and sometimes I just have to give in, however at the same time I fear I won’t be able to do what I want to or always wished to do. Then I think of the yogis spending hours upon hours sitting around meditating and that also seems appealing as the peace is the best of all.

From: Jill Musser — Aug 04, 2012

Slowing Down to Speed Up can take all day! A wonderful teacher I had once said “Sometimes I take hours to make a certain part of a painting look like I painted it in 2 minutes.”

From: Marvin Humphrey — Aug 04, 2012

My next graphic “work” will be a Sharpie on 3×5 card: “Look 3X, think twice, paint once”. Thanks.

From: Arno Hansen — Aug 06, 2012

We live in a time of instant gratification where we need to get thrills and see results fast. Painting is an art that, by its nature, makes us slow down and contemplate. Painting gains it’s great value for both art and soul when it is taken in measured exhalations of joy.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Aug 07, 2012

Thank goodness for Google. I found out what an Oregon towhee is. But Deep Forest Off has me totally stumped. It seems to refer to a dark green colour? Please elucidate for a non-North American! Thanking you in anticipation! ;-)

From: Sherry P. — Aug 07, 2012

Unless I am mistaken, Robert is referring to (another way to say it) Deep Woods Off, which is a bug repellent, especially for mosquitos that love the moist cool places we love to delve in to.

From: Tatjana — Aug 07, 2012

Venetian Red and Light Red watercolor pigments are both similar to Red Oxide – someone asked about this.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Aug 11, 2012

Thank you, Sherry. What an odd name for anything, never mind a bug repellent! ;-)

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 14, 2012

The speed with which one works is not the important factor. I work fast. I work this way to achieve a certain effect. But were I to take hours, the end results should still look like I took but a minute or two to complete the work. I love a work that has a fresh look. One where the piece doesn’t look overworked and over thought. I look back on my earlier work; which didn’t take as long as my current crop of artwork, and see that even though they are rough, they have a spontaneity that can only be achieved with rapid brush work. A good painting for me should never look like the artist slaved over it; struggled in endless turmoil. It makes me nervous to look a work like this. The end result is that a work of art should please and comfort the viewer even if the work has turmoil as its underlying subject.

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The Three Bears – Cariboo

watercolor painting, 13 x 19 inches by Bill Hogue, BC, Canada

  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 Marti Adrian of Lethbridge, AB, Canada, who wrote, “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get!” And also Lillian Wu who asked, “What is the equivalent of red oxide color in watercolor? Is it vermillion?” (RG note) Red oxide is a bright brown-red with large opaque granules. In watercolour you don’t want to miss the beauty of Burnt sienna. This colour combined with Cadmium red medium will give a similar hue to Red oxide, though it won’t be quite as grainy.”