Thinking and not thinking


Dear Artist,

Just for a minute, don’t think of right- and left-brain thinking — think simply of thinking and not thinking. At your easel or workstation, think of “thinking-it-out” and “not-thinking-it-out.” Glimpse into your own brain while in the act of art — when you’re actually moving a brush or some other tool. Try to analyze this brain activity systematically at the start, in the middle, and towards the end of a piece of work. Every one of us manifests a different percentage of thinking and not thinking. It’s this percentage — and the changes of percentages — that makes our work interesting both to our selves and to others.


“Broadway Boogie Woogie”
oil on canvas, 1942-43
50 x 50 inches
by Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944)

Before you start thinking that I’m drinking, you have to understand that all art, in its nature, ranges from cerebral to emotive, from mentally contrived to intellectually vacant, from thoughtful to thoughtless. Also, you may have noticed that a weighty, intellectual subject can be rendered as a no-brainer, while a potentially emotional subject can be rendered by intellectual power alone.

It’s my opinion that the better work is the result of understanding our own tendencies and at the same time expanding ourselves to a personal balance. Here are a few ideas to think about:

Understood and contrived motifs deftly applied.
Calculated planning and anticipation of problem areas.
Facility for order and reverse-order ordering.
Refinement of stylistic modes through self-training.
Repeated asking of the “what could be?” question.


“The Still Life with Gingerpot II”
oil on canvas, 1912
by Piet Mondrian

Not thinking:
Unconscious, “automatic writing” through fantasy or drift.
Carefree and casual rendering through distraction or music.
Confident handling due to trust and experience.
Surrendering to the flow of the “great dreamer within.”

When you understand the nature of the two states, you can begin to control and utilize them in the processing of your work. The more proficient you become, the more you are able to trust the virtues and limitations of both states — and the more you are able to train yourself to slip from one to the other.


“The Blue Tree”
oil on canvas, c.1909
by Piet Mondrian

Best regards,


“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates) “The apprehension of values is intuitive; but it is not a built-in intuition, not something with which one is born. Intuition in art is actually the result of prolonged tuition.” (Ben Shahn)

Esoterica: Twentieth Century modernist Piet Mondrian noted, “Intellect confuses intuition.” This is indeed the conventional wisdom and to a great degree true. With experience, however, you begin to see that the job of the intellect is to give permission to the intuition, and it’s the job of intuition to know when intellect is once again appropriate. While thinking can be dangerous and detrimental to your art, it’s not as dangerous and detrimental as not thinking.

This letter was originally published as “Thinking and not thinking” on November 3, 2006.



    • I so agree with this approach. I often walk away from a painting when I feel I’m getting to analytical and come back to it at some later date to see the finished painting in a whole new way.
      I love it when I get to a kind of zen state while painting, where my hands seem to have their own mind and the painting creates itself. Good article

      • Grant Strange on

        I like when you talk about your mind and hands take over your creativity of your paintings. I also get caught with my mind drifting in a dream like worlds. I’m mostly satisfy with my results of my finished paintings! Grant S.

  1. Loved this article.

    Per a discussion I had recently with another artist, when I was telling her how I was re-discovering Berthe Morisot, (and viewed her many more paintings than I ever knew she had done, on Bing Images) I said, Morisot didn’t really spend much on the drafting, yet somehow her paintings touched me so and I came to realize she was a true artist. “It was her soul,” replied my friend.

  2. this letter made me think . I get into “a zone ” when painting . I mean that every now and then I realize that I don’t consciously remember chunks of painting a certain subject . I don’t want to say it is automatic , as I don’t paint the same thing all the time . I suppose I unconsciously switch back and forth . sometimes there are some nice surprises that were not foreseen , riding creative energy . spontaneity , I think it helps to subconsciously keep an element of freshness . just my take

    • Sara, thank you for posting a truly valuable “dad” essay as you often do. Once I saw a small show, kind of a “little” retrospective of Mondrian’s work. The early trees have often inspired me. Making a hard copy of this to post in the studio, final paragraph highlighted. And wow, the quotations are right on!

  3. I’m thinking I think too much… then I find myself thinking about not/thinking- and not thinking about all the other things going on! Should we think more- or less? Less IS more! I think… I need a break from thinking! But thinking is conceptual- required- yet best abandoned. So while not/thinking may be DOING- and it may even have progressed to BEING- Right Doing requires thought- or it metamorphs into Wrong Doing! Right? Wrong? Right about now I start thinking about my writing! Am I crazy- or just insane? I do so love the utterly ridiculous english language. I think I may- I think I might- get the wish I wish tonight? But it’s early morning? So- I think I can- I think I can- I think I can! I know I can. Think again! No- get out of your head and go to work. Work? Yes. You know- that thing you think about all the time so when you go do it- it doesn’t require you to think about it- because it’s become both habit and magic. Magically delicious! Mmmm… now I’m thinking about eating! Eat THIS! No- I gotta paint! I just painted the 2 restrooms at 9th and Santa Fe Blvd (because what I paint are rooms). Here in Denver it’s the building that houses the co-ops Spark Gallery and CORE New Art Space. I used to belong to CORE- right now I have work hanging in Spark! CORE and Spark! It’s almost a Joni Mitchell album!

    Is there any way to stop thinking this cacophony of word-play? Yesterday- a friend posted this question about a zen mindfulness practice on FB: How do you stop the mind’s chatter? I responded: Shoot yourself in the head! Thinking can get you into trouble. And out of it too! I think- therefore I AM. Right! Still with me? Laughing yet? Don’t think too much about it too much- it’ll go to your head. Sorry. I really do apologize for my brain rant- or fart- or whatever. It’s autistic- I’m sure. Autistic? Artistic? BOTH. Obviously. Only one difference. U R. No I’m not. Where do you think this absurdity comes from- anyway? Pluto? Did you see that damn planet on the edge of our solar system with a frozen heart on it? Wha-da-ya-think about that! I think I’ll do some extemporaneous thinking. Or maybe have a few random thoughts instead. Or maybe I should just give it all up for Lent. I lent a friend some thoughts I had- he never gave them back. Damn! Rodin sculpted The Thinker. Isn’t that enough? Enough for now! Not/thinking rules!

    • Did you think or did you not think when you were writing this essay? Maybe you think a bit or maybe not thinking at all? It sounds like stream of consciousness writing, which I do a lot, and love it. I don’t think, just flow with my thoughts, and often I surprised myself. This topic is very right for this rambling, it made me LOL! and not think too much. Very good! :-)

      • Frankly- it’s just the way my brain works… I read this post- 2006 was about the time I got hooked up to the painter’s keys- and I know I’ve read it before. So I got to the bottom- stepped away for a bit while I contemplated it and did a couple of other things- then I just sat down and wrote. And out it flowed…

    • Damn! Is that your internal conversation all the time? LOL! And for the heck of it, . . .I don’t think you are crazy, just insane!!! Think of that last song on Joni Mitchell’s court & SPARK! and Mondrian’s progression in those years are so very interesting.

      • I left out: To think- or not to think- that is the question! And yes- my internal dialogue is nuts. I keep telling myself to go be a stand-up comic. I’ve not heard Court and Spark for a long time- but that crazy song I remember!

  4. Jeanean Slamen on

    Very provocative post! On the Myers Briggs personality test I’m consistently identified as an INTP within the 16 types. The strongest emphasis is the “NT” part: iNtuitive Thinker. My paintings to this point are heavily influenced by the “thinker” part, mostly (I’m guessing) because I’m early in my education/practice and the analytical approach feels safer/more likely to lead to “success.” It’s the parts of those paintings, though, that are most intuitive that give me that exhilaration that makes it all worthwhile and prompts me to keep on striving for more satisfying paintings.

    This letter from Robert is going up on my studio wall.

  5. Dear Sara,
    Sometimes you do not know how to create something. Suddently out of the blue , by using the planotic version, memories from the past appear in front of you. Furthermore, your consciousness and your subconsciousness will dictate you how to put your memories on the canvass. It gives you momentarily the greatest happiness (Aristoteles) .


  6. Everyone’s comments force a smile to my somewhat serious face. Think and not to think. Right now I find myself intrigued with rocks. I collect, photograph,,plein aire paint and converse with large,small colourful and colourless rocks. My joy in discovering rock beds by the lake,river, mountains seem to take up all my painting time. Is there some long lost passion exploding in my head, heart and jumping into my art? If I question and think too deeply about this do I have rocks in my head? This obsession has finally been realized in a 4×5 ft oil painting. The discovery happened when out of nowhere the words appeared ” Rocks Roots and Ancesters” without realizing the why we open ourselves to discoveries that flow into words and complete our work. Trusting mainly in positive and negative shapes of objects and allowing it to take us on a journey of discovery without questioning is very exciting. What if I had thought too much with my head and missed this opportunity to dicover what my heart yearned for.

  7. As a young American (military) teenager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany in the 60’s, my art teacher arranged a field trip to see the most amazing exhibit of Mondrian’s Trees, displayed chronologically from the first tree to the early color block abstractions They filled the walls of a large room. Until that moment, I didn’t understand “modern art” or abstraction. I thought art was a process to be learned, not a glorious exploration. Until I read this posting, I didn’t realize that I frequently think “what would Mondrian do?”, and I stretch to go beyond representational to try to capture the essence of the subject.

  8. This is a very intreguing posting. I tend to regard my own path as an artist, and that of many other artists I have observed, as having a progression of, initially thought intensive leanings, then evolving to more non-thought processes that cycle over and over. It seems to me that in the early stages of any artist’s career there often is, and ought to be, quite a bit of thought. This is to manifest many of the crucial formative lessons that become the foundation of one’s work, career, or experience making or appreciating art. As time goes on this information usually works it’s way deeper into the subconscious to the point where one doesn’t have to think about it in order for it to work. Then, as one becomes proficient, or saturated with certain information, they can then start again, initially becoming more specifically thoughful at exploring new territory, then cycling towards the non-thought mode. Some of this has come to me through having entwined art teaching throughout my career and observing the thought processes of many, and variously aged and proficient, students. I think an example of this process can be seen in the overall work of Picasso. His early, student work, shows a thought oriented commitment to seeing and capturing subjects in realistic form. Then, as he became more skilled at that process and it became more subconscious, he was able to think less about it and wander and dream his subjects into a more non-thought realm that eventually became his familiar style. And, yet, he continued to re-enter the thinking mode when he became saturated and started again. This isn’t to say that it is or should be the only way this should work. Human nature really is not linear or predictable so variations abound and should be celebrated. At least I think so…

  9. In Genitron you find mental chants of ironie as fresh as finely sins in the dish you serve you well, for the icy arrhythmia tangible siphons synaptic waves, brain tissue without the wire (in fifteen reel, but you can always choose your own reasons), a piece taken sporadically on the endless song.

    For the ironic subject, the given actuality has lost its validity entirely; it has become for him an imperfect form that is a hindrance everywhere.  But on the other hand, he does not possess the new. . . . He is the one who must pass judgment.  In one sense the ironist is certainly prophetic, because he is continually pointing to something impending, but what it is he does not know.  He is prophetic, but his position and situation are the reverse of the prophet’s. The prophet walks arm in arm with his age, and from this position he glimpses what is coming. . . . The ironist, however, has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it.  That which is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze (261). « The concept of irony has consistently reported socrate », S. Kierkegaard.

    Chipped the skull so that the weaver wool bathed in tears for joy as they germinate trees, the Périgord origin of laughter as certified bell by a competent board, the farthest beginning of the Near East, a subcutaneous pocket ear, also known commonly, eyelid and the alphabet that goes into it, a hollow cube and sphere, scanner of madness has the rough for see the full set of spontaneous movement sparks, hooves of consciousness on the run, a series of shots on the flow of his certainty in metamorphosis, of the wonder of the invisible nothing, has sold for gold you seem perfect perched on a bottle of scotch, because it takes to mend the cake when collapse two of the three pillars, clock hands and bell dripping hole in it, a lack of will as a flint hard that the seller will not advise you, for strictly personal reasons.

    One may ask a question for the purpose of obtaining an answer containing the desired content, so that the more on questions, the deeper and more meaningful becomes the answer; or one may ask a question, not in the interest of obtaining an answer, but to suck out the apparent content with a question and leave only an emptiness remaining.  The first method naturally presupposes a content, the second emptiness; the first is speculative, the second ironic. « The concept of irony has consistently reported socrate », S. Kierkegaard.

    Phrases toc, voices no way insignificant street names, notary defined impasses and a flower bed, a weather report ontological hygiene, a without facing stack dust cleared under the eyes, a ray of all kinds of pamphlets and almanacs tides and changes brought has become the unity of being, the heights and depths of circé ring makes apparent the immutability of the choice, an absolute decision on the empty shelves awaiting the renewal of the stock of life, the option of permanence that underlies all presuppositions even stupid, the sarcophagus of irony, finger breaking free choice unconsciousness, a cargo of laughter has two balls, the lips of the survivor cardiologist waterways, non telegram sent from a sinking ship in the North Sea, the sea of ​​paper, wall paper for printing anagram, a conception of the impalpable, the seven octopus brains of life, a scientific account of the conduct of greenhouse spheres (limited edition), an entire breeding bees preliminary symphony of specimens The complete coil of contrast (with his index finger and his inputs in), anemia of tubes an eye on the desert and lightning, an inventory of semantic pulse, a complete library of heart in smoke crises, works written for the carnival lights by Archbishop Cardinal, tooth brushes has kerosene lucid doubts of the presence of pigments, two dozen last hours, three sublime moments, two major root of measures in their white sand bag, end costumes stained decaffeinated fatty acids to abrade the float sensory battery model Ford Focus 1963 a zero driving power and scissors games has yet nerve bathing bathing in their pulsation but what you will not find here is the body that is yours, the brilliant move of your life, love and his painting Unified distinction, in short … Your unit different from the Absolute who is Your.

  10. sorry my english is very bad, but yes, it’s like a porosity of transparency, lucidity embodied…a dialectical sense , an understanding of the incomprehensible….

  11. Kimberly in Dallas on

    THANK YOU a hundred times for removing the SUBSCRIBE BOX on the letters, so I could print without a black blob in the middle of the letter. AND…..THANK YOU, ALSO, for making the letters available to print WITHOUT the replies – so I can read them over and over, and also share and discuss the great ones over wine (which I have done many times with friends). And that, also, allows me to save each letter in a notebook. If you recall, I did NOT want the replies attached when printing because sometimes I was printing 20-30 sheets of chit-chat per letter!!! But now, I am also MAD at myself, because I love that I can print the letters, but SOMETIMES, just SOMETIMES…….the replies are so informative and such interesting conversation, that SOMETIMES, I would like to print the replies, as well. Apparently, when I click on the lower portion TO PRINT the replies, it will not accept that lower portion at all, and only gives me the letter again to print.

    I AM SO SORRY, but is it, in any way, possible for you to ask your web guru to separate them out and be able to print the letter only, AND the replies only, too?? I am so sorry that I am a pain in the you-know-what, but, upon occasion, I have LOVED listening to the chatter AFTER the letters and wanted to hold on to them, also. Just asking. OK if you can’t. I am so happy that I do get to print just the letter, and would not want to screw that part up, so just wondering…..

    I so enjoy your dad’s AND your thoughtful writings, Sara. THANK YOU, again, for continuing this warm and wonderful forum! AND I always learn so much, or, at the least, feel that I have found a group of people that I really really like, and can relate to. Quirky Strong Individuals like myself! Few and Far Between – believe me!

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