Dear Artist, Among the responses to my recent “Distractions” letter, more than 150 artists named the telephone as a major excuse for not working. Marcie wrote, “The phone is my biggest distraction. Intending to go to the studio or outdoors to paint, the phone rings and, like Pavlov’s dog, I have to answer. I don’t seem to have a choice. If I don’t start painting by late morning, I give up.”

604 538 9197

Thanks, Marcie. Yesterday, a spandexed-chap zipped down our quiet road on a bicycle while drinking from a plastic bottle and texting. Are we transforming into animals that do more than one thing at a time? Some years ago, after doing a few demos, I decided to try and teach myself to talk and paint at the same time. The secret, I found, was not to talk about what I was actually doing, but to run a parallel or divergent dialogue. Back in the studio I rejected the use of a speakerphone as neither private nor intimate. An “ear-thing” with the receiver in my pocket did the trick. The results surprised me. Rather than interfering with the flow of the work, telephone conversations complement the act of painting. The paintbrush moves more automatically, often with more flourish. Work unfolds in a thoughtful, pleasant way. Phone calls come and go, and the work is completed. According to psychologists, speech uses an area of the brain that helps some people release another area to heightened creativity. On the other hand, when serious thinking and planning are required in creative work, speech can dwindle. My telephone friends don’t seem to mind temporary mumbling or silent periods. They also do it to me. Even for introverted folks, regular contact with family and friends gives positive points to the day and makes it all worthwhile. Fellow artists swap anecdotes, share ideas, suggest topics or discuss problems. There’s an unmistakable feeling of élan when I know the Brotherhood and Sisterhood is alive and well. The nice thing about the phone is that you don’t need to show people the door when you’ve had enough. Sometimes, another call comes in. Among fellow artists and others, it’s amazing how callers respect, “Hey, gotta go, my easel’s on fire!”

‘Ear thing.’ Several different brands of these units are available. Lightweight, they can be worn all day without thinking about them. They’re better than a headset in that they don’t close out all other sounds and they don’t tend to heat up the ear after long use. The remote receiver goes into a pocket.

Best regards, Robert PS: “The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink.” (Fran Lebowitz) Esoterica: My grandmother, Grace Genn, was a child of the telephone age. On the cutting edge of technology, “Nana and Pappa” apparently had a phone by 1910. Nana loved nature, sewing, Jane Austen and Mozart. On Monday mornings she made a list and called the butcher, baker, grocer, and launderer. In those days they all delivered. My dad told me she never went inside a store. She died in 1957. I remember her talking quietly on the phone to her friends between blasts of pedalling her Singer.   Talking to your work by Dave Robinson, Seattle, WA, USA  

original illustration
by Dave Robinson

This one regarding phone interruptions reminded me that I don’t like being interrupted by the phone but I do talk to my work. I find that it has always had quite a bit to say to me. I found that conversing with inanimate objects often resulted in solutions that I might not have thought of on my own. It worked as a commercial photographer and it works now as a fine art photo illustrator.         There are 2 comments for Talking to your work by Dave Robinson
From: Rose — Aug 09, 2013

Good idea….

From: Eric — Aug 09, 2013

Wonderful piece of work Dave, how is it done?

  Listening to audio books by Judith D’Agostino, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“High desert light”
oil painting, 22 x 44 inches
by Judith D’Agostino

I love to listen to audio books when painting. Just as you have suggested, it relaxes me, puts me in the “zone” and is a great companion. I feel like I am getting a double benefit. I am painting and listening to a good book at the same time. Many people use music this way but for some reason, the audio books work best for me.   There are 2 comments for Listening to audio books by Judith D’Agostino
From: Michael McDevitt — Aug 09, 2013
From: Anonymous — Aug 09, 2013

Beautiful landscape Judith!

  Discovering the balm of the telephone by Marie Harold, ON, Canada  

“Somebody’s farm”
original painting
by Marie Harold

I usually put my art aside when the phone rings, but a year or so ago the phone rang and I answered but managed to continue with my work. It was a good friend who has since passed away. We chatted for a good while and not until sometime later did I realize that I had probably accomplished more while not really concentrating than I usually did when agonizing! Last summer this particular piece sold at a juried show which I enter each year. I was doubly blessed!   There are 2 comments for Discovering the balm of the telephone by Marie Harold
From: Anonymous — Aug 09, 2013

Beautiful! Love the strong composition that keeps the eye roving, finding, seeing, feeling more and more!

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Aug 13, 2013

Very colorful and serene!

  Mastering left and right brain technique by Carenie Little, Whitefish, ON, Canada  

“No privacy”
acrylic painting, 26 x 34 inches
by Carenie Little

In this wild country painting is a solitary profession. Using the phone became, for me, a necessity to communicate with my friends. I put on my headset, tuck the phone into my apron and phone someone. For me what happens is the left side of my brain goes ahead and talks to friends, but the right, creative side just swings into action and paints without any comments from the left (peanut gallery) If I get stuck in an area where I don’t have any clear ideas of where to go, I phone someone and let my brain just flow. For me this method works very well so I get to chat and paint, and the uninhibited side of me works very well without the constant, are you sure, oh, maybe not. This method takes out the negatives and I get a more free flow process going. The downside is sometimes I forget what my friends have said but at this point in my life they know I am painting so they are willing to, repeat themselves. I also like to experiment with cooking and use the same method in the kitchen.   Irritating talk in class by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA  

original painting
by Julie Eliason

I just started teaching art ten months ago in my home studio. Recently I have been struggling with the challenge of having some big talkers in my art class. I could see that some talkers seem to be able to concentrate on their art work even while talking. My concern is that the talkers will interfere with the concentration of the quieter artists. I am going to read your letter to them tomorrow and then ask for a group discussion to get everyone’s feedback. Maybe it is only a problem to me because I find the noise level very irritating. On the other hand I have talked on the phone and painted just as you described. In fact when I’m painting alone I find myself hoping someone will call. If any of you teachers have any suggestions for me, I would be very grateful. There are 4 comments for Irritating talk in class by Julie Eliason
From: Kadira Jennings — Aug 09, 2013

I have been teaching art for many years now and I also have some big talkers in some of my classes. I neither discourage or encourage it, it just seems to ebb and flow. I think it serves a grat purpose in letting people socialize in an environment outside their usual circle with people who have a common interest in art. For many of them their peers and spouses dont ‘get it’ when it comes to art so they enjoy the connection and feed back. Interestingly, we take a 5-10 min tea/coffee break in the middle and I find that after this they often work better, they are more focuse after a chat over tea. So I would gently suggest that perhaps this is more about you than them, and getting to the bottom of why it irritates you might be the key. It may be something totally unrealated to art in actual fact. I often find that if I have an emotion like that coming up and I just let myself really feel into it that pretty soon – 1 of 2 things happens – either it goes away pretty quickly or a deeper stronger feeling will come up and I then feel into that. The key with it is not to project that emotion onto anyone else, but just allow yourself to experience it and let it pass through you. YOu will be amazed at what happens when you do this. It loses its power. Pretty soon you’ll look back and go – ‘I can’t even understand why that used to bother me so much!’ Good luck with it :)

From: Diane Overmyer — Aug 09, 2013

Talking in class has not been that much of an issue in the classes I teach, but I normally work with a different combinations of students and often teach from each student’s progress during our painting time. What did irritate me was when I was in college studying with a professor who spoke Italian to another student who knew Italian. I felt like I missed out learning about the concepts she was teaching that student. Remember it is your class, you can make the rules. I have been in many classes where teachers made it very clear that talking was not compatable with creating art. I was glad to read Robert’s letter, because I have had this same occurance happen, I think the key is talking about something other than what you are doing.

From: Rebecca Skelton — Aug 09, 2013

While talking in class seems to be fine in painting, it is usually a distraction in a drawing class. It seems that the kind of work, observation, is the issue. If it is an open painting, with the students working individually from their own inspiration/reference, talking is OK, but if they are working from a still life that requires non-verbal thinking, talking interferes. In design class, talking helps with idea generation, so it depends on what kind of class.

From: Sarah Atkins — Aug 09, 2013

The worst workshops I’ve ever taken were those in which the instructor allowed inane talkers to take up everyone’s valuable time by asking irrelevant questions in which the instructor then participated; i.e., “Have you been to the big sale at Dillards?” And, “Do people bother you when you paint outdoors?” “What do people ask you when you’re painting outdoors?” “Would anyone like to hear about my vacation?” Talking does interfere with productivity in workshops – especially when the talk has nothing to do with the subject matter for which the workshop attendees have paid. I can tune it out when it is among fellow artists but it bothers me greatly when the talk robs the class of learning time for which I’ve paid or when it is directed to me while I’m trying to focus on my painting. One workshop teacher allowed so much talk that she hadn’t gotten to her initial demo by 4:00 p.m. of the first day at which time I loudly said, “Would all of you rather talk or would you rather see the demo we’ve paid for?” Needless to say, we finally saw the demo.

  Planning in silence, then drama by Carole Raschella, Northridge, CA, USA  

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”
graphite on paper, 10 x 13 inches
by Carole Raschella

Planning and composition, the “serious thinking,” takes up about a third of the total time to finish a project, and that part requires total silence, no TV, no music, and no interruptions! But once all that is laid out, the actual “doing” of the artwork is when I play episodes of various TV dramas on my computer. Shows like “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” and most recently, for a nice contrast, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” I go through the entire series of a show beginning to end. But it has to be good drama, not just because I prefer it, but because I rarely look at the screen, so action stuff would be useless. These shows definitely complement the act of drawing (I don’t paint), and, as you said, and it’s even easier to stop when you’ve had enough! There is 1 comment for Planning in silence, then drama by Carole Raschella
From: Peter Brown — Aug 09, 2013

Books on CD are likely available at your local library. Hearing words seems to occupy some part of my brain, that only gets in the way when I paint.

  Obsessive, compulsive multi-tasking by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA  

“through the pain she was enlightened”
by Antoinette Ledzian

Reading your comment about the “spandexed-chap zipping down your quiet road on a bicycle while drinking from a plastic bottle and texting” really rang my bicycle bell. I am seriously concerned about this sort of dangerous, obsessive/compulsive activity. Has anyone given any thought to the multi-tasking generation that is now piloting planes and conducting trains? Not to mention doctoring in operating rooms? The horrific ‘texting-related’ accidents seem to be increasingly reported in the news. We need to spend more time discussing these distractions that are now occurring in our lives. Robert, I’m sure you’re petting your pooch, sipping on a scotch and beginning a new painting as you read this! I think, as artists, we’re safe, as long as we’re in our studios, multi-tasking!    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Telephonitis

From: Joan Graybeal Menard — Aug 06, 2013

I always keep a sketch that need working on next to the phone. I mastered Talking while working when at my past Studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria Va, I had work to do and tourist would drop in and want to talk.. it always took them awhile to realize eye contact while talking with me was not necessary. Now that I am alone in a rural community, the phone works great, it makes my brain go on auto-mode and the work actually looks less labored then when it gets my total brain attention.

From: Armand Gillis — Aug 06, 2013

Even long silent periods on the phone are valuable.The imagination grinds away just in the “presence” of another copacetic person. But not every person is suitable for this sort of seance. Some minds are too busy, babbling, lightweight, pointless.

From: Victor Dolmage — Aug 06, 2013

We spend altogether too much time busy with impedimenta these days, and the phone can be one of the worst axis of busyness. But the type of phone call you talk about is different. A connected and open space between two close friends, with no expectations, is simply great for the soul and the self confidence.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 06, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Aug 06, 2013

Maybe for those with intact hearing random phone calls might be engaging. But for the rest of us even necessary business calls are a chore. After asking my caller to please speak louder and more slowly we usually agree to “email me.” It takes concentration to hear and anything that takes that much effort isn’t worth the bother. It is so distracting it takes me away from whatever I’m doing, not just painting. A misheard comment leads to misunderstanding. In contrast, I enjoy Skype immensely. Seeing my expat loved ones speak combined with sound on full volume is enjoyable. Also, be careful of leaving any device in your ear for prolonged periods. It can create problems as well; keep your ear pieces clean. Beyond all that, blessed silence is a treasure.

From: Aggie Stretch — Aug 06, 2013

My relationship with my mom deepened when I began painting in 2007. She lives 4 hours away by car and at 87 she is less mobile. I put her on speaker phone and we talk away while I paint. Ever interested she asks about my latest work along with the mundane of every day life. It relieves the loneliness of the studio and hers too. I also text my painting progress to far away relatives. Another way of bringing my loved ones into my studio and life.

From: Taylor Ikin — Aug 06, 2013

I could not agree with you more about sound and voice being a stimulant rather than a distraction when painting. I often spend hours painting in the evening with the TV on or frequently in the company of a friend via the phone. Rather than distractions, I see both as a way of reducing the tension of trying to create a perfect painting and allowing the mind to have a romp on its own. These “distractions” (I see them as a support team) allow me to enjoy a random fling of the brush with a foot tap or two to the music. It gives me a sense of freedom and yet keeps my mind open for the more thoughtful parts of the work. The phone call, the radio or TV make good company in my studio.

From: Marie Morgan — Aug 06, 2013

There seems to be mounting evidence that having a cell phone against your body (i.e., in your pocket) can stimulate cellular changes that can turn cancerous. Apparently even a couple of inches away, such as a belt ‘holster,’ is preferable. Attached to the easel for long periods would no doubt be better, assuming the cord is long enough. The ear piece you show, of course, is far preferable to holding the phone itself against your ear…especially if you have long conversations. A precaution probably worth the trouble.

From: Carolynn Wagler — Aug 06, 2013

Telephonitis? Not a problem for me, but I totally distracted myself by trying to read EVERY person’s distractions!

From: Karen von Felten — Aug 06, 2013

I definitely agree with your response concerning working while talking on the telephone. Sometimes the drawings or paintings or monotypes just “take off” while talking on the phone. A large drawing that might have been a struggle for days will suddenly complete itself! I notice the effect is better when talking with some friends than others. I just need to watch out for tripping over things while backing up from the work to assess progress, or losing balance on my stool.

From: Sharon Vinson — Aug 06, 2013

I can let the phone ring and not answer it but it drives my husband nuts.

From: Janie Koch — Aug 06, 2013

If I am lying in bed looking at my IPhone and reading my email I always wait to open yours till I get on the big computer so I can savor every word. You make me think about things in a different way. I’m not as prolific a painter as you are. I have distractions too but I think my biggest problem is me. I paint a lot for poster contest. My motto is “If you don’t enter you can’t win.” I enjoy the challenge and if I win, which I have won several, I bask in the glory but only to my self. Actually I am always surprised when I do win. I also feel luck has a lot to do with it. If the same people win time after time I feel some resentment but I’m sure they feel the same about me. When someone says they love my art that is my affirmation as an artist. When something comes out well I am surprised and thankful. I hate to through something out because I messed up. Fortunately I haven’t had to do that much but on the other hand I guess I don’t take many chances which could have turned out better.

From: Judy Stephens — Aug 06, 2013

How can you not have noticed that women have always been animals that do more than one thing at a time? Currently I’m emailing, sorting a fabric collage in my lap, while wondering what time my son will get up and considering lunch.

From: Marjorie Ewell — Aug 06, 2013

Might this be another way to get into right brain? It does appear to mimic playing music as a way to distract the “monkey mind” and allow creativity to just flow. Is it a hearing thing vs a doing thing? I bet it is.

From: Lourdes Page — Aug 06, 2013

I generally groan when I get a weekly email – but truly look forward to your thoughtful prose. Thanks for the nudges, anecdotes and encouragement. I somehow feel bonded to a bigger group through you.

From: Lorraine Kwan — Aug 06, 2013

When you see a finished painting, does a conversation you were having while you were in the process of painting come to mind? I often “hear” what was happening in the background, it becomes part of what I was working on.

From: Rachael Ikins — Aug 06, 2013

Totally agree with today’s letter about the telephone. I often MUST have an auditory distraction to be able to paint freely. It makes such a difference it is almost like turning a switch on. I did a whole painting while talking to a friend on the phone about nothing to do with art.

From: Terrie Christian — Aug 06, 2013

Your teachings on our brains is something I especially like. I don’t seem to manage painting when I am on the phone, but my best painting days are with other artists. Your description of the importance of relationships I think is spot on.

From: Annette Kirby — Aug 06, 2013

I am a new subscriber to your painting tips and another artist friend told me about you. I am very much a beginner in all of this in the world of painting and am not very good. In terms of the phone, my studio does not have one except my cell phone and I try to keep that in the car. I much prefer music and then I can sing and paint!…. as long as no one walks in! Maybe when I get to the point that I’m selling my work I’ll have a phone and laptop but not now. Its all I can do to get a website!!

From: Martha Corkrin — Aug 06, 2013

I learned long ago to ignore the phone — isn’t that why they invented answering machines? Now, I am the only “kid” on my block with land line and answering machine, and NO CELL PHONE! Also, my hearing is not what it used to be, so I miss a lot of calls just because I cannot hear the ringer (even at loudest level). If the message is important (doctor’s office, or family member in a good mood), I will return the call on my cordless phone so I can walk around and chat at the same time.

From: Diane Hardouin — Aug 06, 2013

My phone rarely rings anymore — texting is my way now!!! I have grand kids!!!! Phones — really?????

From: Alana Dill — Aug 06, 2013

I went through a long, sad period where the only art I did was doodling while on the phone. I have some hearing loss and avoid the phone because I haven’t found really comfortable technology. I really need to try one of those blue teeth things. I think it might be interesting to try painting and talking at the same time. When I face paint, I do some talking but generally am fairly quiet. I tailor this to the person I”m painting though. Some are chatterboxes, and I’ll joke/tease them a little. Some give very deep, personal, and interesting revelations, tell me their problems or their secret hopes. It’s an honor to hear.

From: Elmer Hoffmann — Aug 07, 2013

The telephone is the work of the devil. God never wanted us to talk over great distances like that. He wants us to meet with one another, do things together and be peaceful.

From: Joseph P. Alonzo — Aug 07, 2013

My Grandma never phones any of those stores you mentioned in your letter. She phones us and gets us to go get things for her. She is badly broken down, (arthuritis) so no matter what we are doing we boys drop our tools and go get stuff for her. Too bad those two grannies never met!!!

From: Julian Good — Aug 07, 2013

Actually, many people are a lot smarter and better off now because of multitasking. It turns out that the human brain can take in, dish out, learn and archive at the same time. In a way we have been up to now, underutilized. Thank you Robert for these letters. I read every one.

From: Carrie Jacobson — Aug 07, 2013

I talk on the phone while I am painting, and find it is not a problem for me, but often enhances the painting. And I always listen to either books on CD, or sports talk radio while I am painting. I have always felt that listening to voices somehow helps me paint better – like it engages a part of my brain that, if not engaged, disrupts and tightens my painting. So I am heartened to hear that this feeling of mine is supported by science!

From: Robyn Eastgate-Manning — Aug 07, 2013

My distraction is just gazing at my studio!!! From the living room of my house I look down on the roof of my studio in the garden below. The lights are on and they glow through the clear panels inserted in the roof,making it look light-filled and exciting, I can hear the music playing, and the gas heater is keeping it warm. So whats the problem? Its all too easy…..I could go in there and stay for hours, BUT I need a challenge, a time restraint, a deadline , a big push!!!!! So I wait till I have to go in and prepare work for the next days class, then stay up half the night to get it done!!!Somehow I never seem to get my own personal work started……there is never enough time, I say!!!! What contrary creatures we are.

From: Gil Giroux — Aug 07, 2013

Doing demos and explaining things as you go along is a real art that a lot of demonstrators have not taken the time to learn. Some demonstrators should just shut up and let the viewer’s minds go where they will, take notes, or write out questions for after. The worst thing is when they stop painting to answer a question and go on and on.

From: Betsy Glass — Aug 09, 2013

Speaking and hearing are separate brain functions. For me, to speak while in the zone is impossible. And then there is listening…which involves immersion in what is being heard. But music takes me places, and I can enter into a conversation with what I’m hearing. My response is only in the painting.

From: Daphne Blistinski — Aug 09, 2013
From: Sarah Atkins — Aug 09, 2013

My second comment of the day but I can’t let it pass! I agree with Gil Giroux about demonstrators who can’t talk and paint at the same time and the people who are completely oblivious that their questions are delaying the demonstrations. I can’t resist adding an example: A one-hour program demo where the demonstrator got so little done that he had to come back and finish it in a second program. He lived in a different state so it was several months before he could come back to complete the one-hour demo he had started. No questions were allowed this time until after the demo was completed but there were still several people who just didn’t get it and had to be reminded.

From: Lori Hight — Aug 09, 2013

My friends and family have to tolerate more than mumbles and periods of silence during phone calls to me while I’m working! Brief responses offer a clue that I’m painting, and after important information is exchanged, the call is ended. I used to scowl towards the ringing annoyance and sometimes not even pick up, but then realized that the brief interruption of a phone call has a way of re-setting my brain. I now make an effort to bring myself out of deep concentration and answer the phone! It’s good for me!

From: Jamet Powers — Aug 09, 2013

So it’s been understood that listening to non verbal or instrumental music while painting puts one in connection with the right side of the brain, this being a good thing. Is the verbal part of music different from the verbal speech? Interesting thought!

From: Donna C. Veeder — Aug 09, 2013

Hi, Robert, I am one who cannot do two things at once. I tried teaching a class last week, talking and painting a demo portrait and the painting did not come out well. I have to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. Either I do This or That. Not both. Single-minded, Donna C. Veeder

From: Donna C. Veeder — Aug 09, 2013

Another comment: I love the hands in Schiele’s paintings and also Sargent’s paintings. I once believed all those people really had those graceful hands Sargent did. ! Now I know better.

From: Val Norberry VanOrden — Aug 12, 2013

“Leave a message at the shack and we’ll call you back” by putting the telephone in a remote location or outside the house, in the garage or a shack, and using voicemail, one can get much more work done. Personally, I listen to the message machine sometimes when I am “indisposed”. This is how the Amish get work done. They have their phones outside the house.

From: Tammie Hesse — Aug 14, 2013

I too enjoy painting and flapping my jaw. I do well with that kind of distraction, along with some good music in the background. I think I am ADD! My WORST distraction is doing my online banking/laundry/cleaning.

    Featured Workshop: Robert Genn, Sara Genn, Liz Wiltzen 080913_robert-genn Robert Genn, Sara Genn, Liz Wiltzen workshops Helipainting in the Bugaboos, BC, Canada.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa


photograph by Ira Bordo, Russia

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