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.

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.

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.”


“New York City I”
oil painting on canvas
by Piet Mondrian

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.

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.


Caught up in the dance
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Still Waters”
oil painting on panel
5 x 6.5 inches
by Mary Moquin

Irving Kriesberg, in Working with Color, says, “Real paintings come into existence while the artist is not consciously thinking about rules and principles, just as in the art of dance the true dancer is not thinking about the steps to be executed during a performance, but is moved by emotion. Yet surely the dancer could not perform superbly without having very consciously developed a disciplined and capable body by means of exercises.” While painting, I think there are definitely times we are all caught up in the dance – that is when the moments of pure genius happen. But, as painters instead of performers, we are given the extra gift of being able to take time out now and then and think about what we have done, and perhaps make a conscious shift.


Clear direction after break
by Anna West, Beacon, NY, USA


“East River at South 5th Street”
original painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Anna West

My painting improves when I stop thinking. It is really hard and usually requires me to stop in mid brushstroke and leave the room. Make coffee, check the e-mail or go out and rake the leaves. When I return a half an hour later, my mistakes and clear idea of my direction are sitting waiting for me. Sometimes I set the travel alarm clock to remind me to stop because I do have the bad habit of going too far and losing my way. Thanks again for all your insights.


Keep the flow going
by Olie Sylvester, Auburn, GA, USA


original artwork
by Olie Sylvester

Whenever I make art, I work with thinking vs. not thinking. Keeping myself and my personal prejudices out of the picture plane is not easy. Allowing the dance to occur is what I try to do. My job is to provide the space for the dance to happen and then stop activity to keep down the crowding. Stopping the activity, however, only means grabbing another sheet of lovely white paper to allow the dance to begin again. I’ve found that the more I’m in the studio (a fancy name for a small portion of my garage), the more relaxed I can become and the more my intuition can take over. If I have a hiatus from my work, there seems to be an adjustment period until things feel free again. I often make many pieces in an evening due to how I work. Once the flow starts, it’s best to allow it to keep going and going and going as long as it will.


Intellectual preparation
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA


oil on canvas
by Ron Elstad

I found I do much better work, freer, looser… not so stiff, when I don’t bring my intellect to the easel. I do all my intellectualizing before I ever begin to paint. Before I begin I work out the composition design. For I believe the design is the foundation of every painting. I do thumb nails, rearranging shapes, making them smaller or larger and remove or add elements. I spend about an hour looking at art work of my favorite artists for inspiration. These are artists of the past, never contemporary artists. I’m looking for ideas for color mixing and for density and value of various elements. I look for ways to bring drama and excitement into play. I do this every time before I paint. It may sound like a lot of wasted time, but in the long run it saves time. Moreover, the work is better. When I get to the easel and begin to paint, all this intellectual preparation turns to pure creative energy. I let go and the painting just happens, I’m in the groove. It works for me and it’s great.


Let the music flow
by Leanne Cadden, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Dragonfly Hill Vineyard”
original painting
by Leanne Cadden

I have been experimenting with different genres of music with each of my 13 new pieces and watching how the different energies influence my work. I remember that you had written about the effects of music in one of your letters some time ago (classical was the focus I believe) and perhaps a lot of these principles are age old wisdoms but it’s fun to be a young painter and all of a sudden begin the process of “awakening” and awareness that comes with the wisdom of age and experience. Like a child constantly discovering with opened, excited eyes, I feel I am a child in the unfolding of the mysteries of the world and discovering the privilege of being able to paint.


Success visualized
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA


“Sun Shower”
original painting
by Nikki Coulombe

The process, including its conception before the birth of the first mark, is what makes a painting more than the sum of its parts, and cheers to you (even though neither of us is drinking!) for putting words to the subjective part of “structure” that’s as valid as every logical, paintable stroke. Logic already has the advantage of easily found terms. These moments of pause to switch sides of the brain back and forth, studying, and making sense of disorder on a canvas can only be experienced or demonstrated as “proof” rather than discussed very easily. It’s the success that’s visualized along the way before becoming a reality. ‘Sun Shower’ still in progress as I write, plus the choice of a detail from it.


A teacher of attitude and approach
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada


pastel painting
by Jenny Arntzen

Choices are made, lines of inquiry followed. I’ve been trying to figure out where I fit, what I can teach (if anything) and how in the world I am going to turn my practice into a viable artistic, creative and financial prospect. As these converging strands of effort merged, realized that I am a teacher of attitude and approach. I am not an ‘expert,’ nor do I aspire to be. My students are not novices, they are mavericks on a quest. If I am lucky, I get to walk for a while with them, puzzling out, together, what we encounter on the way.




Balance of mind at creative stages
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada


Lynn Harrison at Winterfolk

As a songwriter and performer, I notice that the “thinking/not thinking” balance comes into play at both the initial creative stage, when the song is being written, and when it is presented in performance. As I have become more aware of these states-of-mind, I’ve gained a better understanding of what I may think of as “mistakes” or flaws in my performance. “Thinking” on stage when “not-thinking” is called for can have unfortunate/hilarious results. (And of course it happens all the time and is immediately related to the “judging/not judging” see-saw.)



Intellect and intuition
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“A Pink Experience”
36 x 48 x 6 inches
by Helena Tianinen

What we tend to call intellect is very often a learned process. Unfortunately some of us have lost touch with intuition due to overemphasis on intellect. Ideally intellect would not blind the eyes of intuition but the two would work together to create a greater whole. The dilemma humanity suffers from is a reflection of the out of balance between intellect and intuition. We are technologically so advanced which speaks well for the intellect — but emotionally we are not very evolved. Most of us still don’t feel responsible for our own feelings and life experience. Masculine values still overpower the feminine values. Globally we still make more war than love. It is my strong desire that those in power positions everywhere see that what they do to another they truly do to themselves and the world at large.


Managing energy level
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“A Boy’s World”
pastel painting
by Paul Demarrais

I am in complete agreement with your blend of tuition and intuition. I believe also that it takes a lot more energy to start a painting and the energy is very different from the sort I use as I am “finishing” up. Pastel is a fast medium and I take advantage of the energy and intuition to get out of the gate fast. Most of the work and design is done in this rather frantic push. As the painting develops I begin to slow down. Fatigue is also a factor. The initial burst of energy lasts about an hour and a half. I try to take a break then. If I persist when tired, bad things happen rapidly. Artists need to learn to manage their energy level. We are not machines. I was watching the baseball playoffs and World Series and marveled at the incredible fielding plays. These bursts of wonderful creativity have to be produced by much training. I believe a fielder must have envisioned his response to a certain difficult play in order to “spontaneously” respond in a pressure situation. One manager talked about a young player thinking too much and that it was a disaster for a pitcher to “aim” the pitch rather than just throwing it. Clearly there are pro’s and con’s to thinking or simply acting. Personally we need to both exercise ‘self control’ but also need to ‘ let go.’ It is a tough balance in both life and art.


Artist goes on display
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK


“Swan Lake”
oil on canvas, 73 x 57 cm
by Richard Barber

Here in China, which is a hard market, I have just managed to close a deal with a very up-market furniture shop which is in a very large furnishing mall. The owner also wishes me to do my art work on site and has proposed that I use a very prime area of his space to do my work. Which is located in the basement area over looked by five other floors (it will look like I’m working in a theater) plus my work will be on display in various room settings with his furniture. Maybe this is something that other artists should be considering, for the owner it brings in customers via the interest factor, for the artist it gives them exposure and possible sales. Like they say there is more than one way to crack a nut.


Gallery owner turns full-time artist
by Susan Geddes, Hantsport, NS, Canada

I am now on the other side of the coin having sold my art gallery in 1999 and started to paint full-time. I am now taking the steps that I recommended to hundreds of artists over the years. I am beginning to build my resume and make the inroads that create a successful career. I think that many artists distrust galleries and I think we need to respect and trust the people we deal with. Gallery owners work extremely hard and do not make a lot of money. It is important to have a good rapport with your dealers and to expect the best from them – to me it is all about attitude, hard work and belief.





Storm Over Canola

acrylic painting on canvas
by Alice S. Helwig, AB, 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 W. Larry Tinch of Denver CO, USA who wrote, “Ah, to empty the mind of the world and the weight of the flesh on the soul is reserved for the few.”

And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “Darn! Now, while I’m not thinking, I’ll be thinking of you thinking that I should be thinking! And when I’m thinking, I’ll be thinking of you thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking.”

And also Carolyn Megill who wrote, “My motto these days for myself is ‘Just get out of your own way.’ For many years, I kept ‘getting into my own way’ and I would struggle and obsess.”

And also Raimond Domino who wrote, “Your letter really helps me visualize more clearly as I stroke from the side of my brush until I end the stroke as well as transcending into a new set of qualities in my life I’ve never thought of.”

And also Howard Weingarden who wrote, “The paradox is that when we ‘get out of our own way’ we find ourselves. The state of a quiet mind allows inspiration to manifest. For me, the intellectual process arises more in the final stages of detail and refinements. The spiritual downflow of inspiration comes first.”

And also Peter Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “My art sold so well for eight years at Gump’s that I almost quit my day job. Then the store was sold, and the gallery closed. I walked around San Francisco with my book of sales. No gallery showed any interest in selling my art. I paint for myself, period.”

And also Jeffrey Hessing of France who wrote, “I paint with my heart. My mind goes blank and becomes like a mirror. There is plenty of time before to consider what to paint, how to paint it, and all the rest – and after, what worked, what didn’t, and why? In fact what I love most about painting is that it is one of the few things in life during which you can turn off your mind and come fully present.”

And also Joby Ravindran of India who wrote, “I’m glad to thanks u for giving the great ideas and knowledge of art galleries and artists, etc.” (RG note) Thanks Joby, and thanks to all who wrote in appreciation of our writers and to say that the last clickback (about dealing with galleries) contained truly valuable and refreshing info.



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