The Timid Test System

Dear Artist, We’ve talked a few times about audacity, which is a totally good thing unless you don’t know what you’re doing. Think of a surgeon giving someone an artificial hip with a load of audacity and no knowledge. It smarts, and besides, it causes you to walk funny. And then there’s the system of “commit and correct,” which is golden when you have something to commit to. Now here’s another: TTS — the “Timid Test System.” When you’re sitting back with a glass, looking at a work in progress, you’re asking, “What could be?” With time and a curious mind, a few ideas pop up. This is when you need to go up to the canvas and lightly touch in your possible maneuvers. Having put something in, however meekly, gives an idea of just how great something might be later. Toward the final stage of the painting, you can put it in with audacity. The “What could be?” question is a personal one. What you ask is your own business and the follow up is in your own sweet time. It’s your ability to make choices that leads to effective, professional and unique work. It goes like this: “In that area, in that place, I wonder what it would look like……. if that light over there really dazzled? if there were an extreme gradation? if darks were really punched in? if that colour were rethought and sophisticated? if that colour were intensified or changed? if curves took precedent over straights? if this were made to line up with that? if there were a further element of depth added? if that place could be better formed? A few years ago, just below the parking lot at Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies, I was painting and scratching my head. A couple in a Lincoln with Utah plates pulled up, and, after watching me from the car for a few minutes, got out and came closer. “Very much in the style of Robert Genn. Did you know him?” said the man. I told him I did a bit and that I thought Robert was probably still alive. I asked the couple if they thought my style might be a little more timid than Robert’s. “Yes,” he said, “yours is really nice, really good, but he had a lot of verve and energy in his, don’t you think?” I told them that like Robert I often put my verve and energy in later on. The couple watched me for a minute or so, then wandered down the beach. “Keep at it,” said the woman as they left. Best regards, Robert PS: “Start with a whisk and end with a broom.” (John Singer Sargent) Esoterica: Creativity means thinking on your feet, making adjustments and sorties as you go along, advancing commitment as well as erasure. Unless you express your wishes, however modestly or timidly, you may never know your power. Your general overall theme may be audacious, even simply audacious, but it is the final, well-planned flourishes that will help your work to fly.   Finishing touches by Stede Barber, Los Alamos, NM, USA  

“After the Storm”
oil painting
by Stede Barber

I just love this message. Seems I am often surrounded with the big and the bold, and I tend to more enjoy the subtle. Where I live, in New Mexico, the subject matter IS big and bold. Yet, also incredibly rich and full of delicacy. I sometimes feel pushed to make a painting “work” and “be dramatic” immediately. Your wise advice is my choice, however, and it’s wonderful to hear someone else share it. As a friend once said, after the painting’s basics are in, it’s time to add the magic. I do, indeed, sit on the couch across from the easel and simply contemplate until something pops out to do. Those touches toward the finish bring it to life and help me express what I was experiencing, as well as seeing.     There is 1 comment for Finishing touches by Stede Barber
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Oct 15, 2010

Absolutely stunning piece here, Stede. The cloud shadow on the mountain says it all.

  Start strong — stay strong by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA  

“Jewel of the Sierras”
oil painting
by Betty Billups

I’ve been at the “fine art field” now for 38 years… and have found that if I start weak, the painting stays weak. Any painting will tell the viewer exactly where the creator was, in their “strength or weakness.” Each brush stroke carries with it, not only the “color,” its delivery carries with it, not only the “texture” and surface quality of what is being “captured” but also the energy of its creator! There is not one successful painting that I have ever created, that started off in a position of “doubt” (weakness)…if I start a painting in this manner, all I do is spin my wheels! I not only waste paint, I also beat up my creative spirit and instill doubt in my soul! And in the end, the piece is usually either scraped (if still wet) or burned, if dried! There is 1 comment for Start strong–stay strong by Betty Billups
From: Gene Martin — Oct 16, 2010

My most often voiced comment? Be bold or don’t bother.

  Audacity and rigid ways by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA  

“Broken Rock”
acrylic painting
by John F. Burk

The audacity you refer to sounds to me like technique exploration. I think I lack the imagination to depart too much from ‘my way of doing it,’ but I think, compensate by taking on subjects that are more and more demanding — beyond what I have taken on before, and finding my way through it. The joy in what we do is in the process. And we accumulate a record of covered canvas to show where we’ve been. If lucky, some of them sell and the rest make our homes more interesting. There is 1 comment for Audacity and rigid ways by John F. Burk
From: jcb — Oct 21, 2010

Broken Rock looks like Pemaquid Point

  Getting away with it by Ivana Janjic, ON, Canada   I’m totally self-taught. I play with techniques — often it drives me nuts and other times I’m so comfortable with it. I work with strides and strokes I know and then dabble in new ways — sometimes just before a show — just for the audacity of it. It’s my 6th show. I’ve always sold at least a piece in each one. But I sometimes feel like a fraud because I seem to “get away with it” because of no formal training. I have an innate “sense” for these things (studied piano and cello, advertising and design, always had a sketchbook and always painted for the love of it since I was 7). So — please tell me — can one work like this? Believing and dis-believing at the same time? I get frustrated when what I want to come out doesn’t, yet I always seem to bring out some pretty cool work when I let my inhibitions go. (RG note) Thanks, Ivana. If art, as Marshall McLuhan says, is “what you can get away with,” then getting away with it is in the mind of the artist, educated or not. Think of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. There are 3 comments for Getting away with it by Ivana Janjic
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 16, 2010

Ivana- this story sounds like me- even to an early study of the piano- and then on to the cello- I’m 57- self-taught- have been hanging shows since 1977- and make sales as often as possible- Installing my current show (which starts today) a couple of days ago I was asked by a visitor from back east who was stunned by the work hanging- and who thought it was by a bunch of different people- “Where did you go to school?” Wonderfully enough- I got to reply- NOWHERE! Made me laugh! Just keep it up!

From: Helen Opie — Oct 24, 2010

No one learns to paint in art school: we all learn to paint (or draw, or dance, or make music) by painting (or other doing). I also felt I was a fraud when I began (1960s) and when people asked if I were an artist, I’d reply that that is what I paid my taxes as…not that I pay much tax! Now I am realising I have walked the walk and am looked upon by others as an artist. It’s something you grow into.

From: Vedrana Ascroft — Oct 24, 2010

Ivana, formal art education credentials certainly look nice on any artist’s CV, but in reality would not mean much without the body of work created. Congratulations to you on staying the course and following your passion. Here you are faced with your 6th show! It’s your paintings that make you an artist, it’s what you have been carrying in your creative and musical heart since childhood. I relate fully to the feelings you express, because I had my own share of frustrations and second guessing myself. I now know that believing and disbelieving at the same time is all part of the creative process, much like the all familiar tug and pull between “controlling” the outcome and “allowing” the creation at play to assume the life and the shape of its own. It’s when you let go and allow that which yearns to express itself through you comes out in all it’s brilliance.

  Never fall in love by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

oil painting, 30 x 24 inches
by Rick Rotante

For me there are two schools of thought at work. There have been many times when I charged in and finished in a hurry with a bang, without any “add-on” touches. Those are the wonderful “in the zone” days when one more brush stroke would have been too much. On the flip side, I had those works that even with extra days and countless multiple strokes, the work still feels unworthy to be labeled art. I’ve often taken work that didn’t sell and after some time sit and think on reworking it. Many times the work improves. I try and never fall in love with my work even when ‘done.’ I try and be open to changes. Of course, you also have to know when enough is enough and call it done. This process takes longer than it takes to learn to paint.     All we’re trying to find out is the price by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA  

“McKay’s Beach”
acrylic painting
by Mark D. Gottsegen

I loved the story about the couple in the Lincoln. Here’s my version, from a trip out west (the US west) in the ’80s. I was painting in a tourist-ish area of The Badlands, in South Dakota — very isolated. A car-load of touristas drove up and watched for a few minutes. Finally, a woman got out of the car and came over. She asked, “How much for one of your paintings?” When I told her, she said, “You must be famous, or something,” and turned and stalked away. I think she wanted to pay WalMart prices. “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle) (RG note) Thanks, Mark. And thanks to everyone who wrote with their own personal stories of confused and confusing identity.   Finish with a needle? by Sue Wheeler, Lasqueti Island, BC, Canada   Your quote from Sargent at the end of this letter is interesting, especially in relation to one I have pinned over my desk, from Delacroix, who reportedly said, “It is necessary to rough cast with a broom, it is necessary to finish off with a needle.” How would you balance these two different approaches? Would it be personal preference, or some inherent betterness of one over the other? (RG note) Thanks, Sue. Starting with the big tools and finishing with the small is indeed the conventional wisdom. Sargent’s concept was if you kept a particularly big flourish until the end it would go a long way to covering up the difficult and struggled-with passages that came before it. Sargent also said, “Mine is the horny hand of toil.” In this sense, sometimes you have to work hard to make things look easy. Big flourishes help with that illusion.   The wisdom of ‘What if’ by John DeCuir, La Crescenta, CA, USA  

restored film
by John DeCuir

Once again your letter got me to scratching my head. I am currently working on an essay whose subject deals with the issue of creative client management. As a film designer I do daily creative combat with a multi-headed client. The list begins with the director (in feature films) or the creative producer (in television) and then the goes on and on down to the craft service boy who brings the pizza. Media driven arts are essentially “creative team sports.” So when I was reading your article mentioning the notion of “What could be” I connected that with my old “What if” selling technique. The “What if” technique (when presenting a new idea to a group of very creatively egocentric folks), is a marvelous way of defusing the “not invented here” disease, prevalent among multi-headed deities. “What if we did… this or that” presented in an open forum will either get adopted or shot down, but the “I think we should…” approach is a sure fire way to kill any idea. As a result, the “What if” technique becomes a very important selling tool. As a combatant in this process my creative frustration is momentarily placated and soothed away by running to my drawing board and beginning to paint or sketch. Here alone I am the master, or so I would like to think. But then an inner brain multi-headed deity raises its head(s), within my head. I am not sure there is any biological validity to the right brain left brain metaphor, but it simplifies things for me. (For those who are not familiar with the concept, the left brain is the pragmatic ontological side of things while the right being the imaginative, intuitive, creative forest that most artists wander in.) The two for the most part are at odds with one another. It then occurred to me that the “What if” (your “What could be”) scenario could be played out (as you suggest) by the individual artist at work, in a right brain left brain narrative. So, as a result I am going to encourage my coquettish right brain to do a little more “What could be — What if-ing” the next time she tries to present a new creative idea to my dogmatic, gate keeper, paint brush manipulating left brain. Perhaps creating a kind of team dialog between these two cranial combatants, similar to what I do in my film work, will spill a good idea out onto my drawing board. “What if” — why not? There is 1 comment for The wisdom of ‘What if’ by John DeCuir
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 16, 2010

Dear John- this is a great story! My suggestion- let the 2 sides of your brain become wedded together. The right side of my brain does the imagining- but it all has to get past the practical left side- who/which has to figure out how to construct the damn image- for the image to be of any value to anybody!

  The Big Draw by Catherine Stock, France  

“Rignac from the prairie”
watercolour painting
by Catherine Stock

I was in London last week and they have launched a fabulous month long drawing campaign called The Big Draw. Their aim is to abolish the phrase “I can’t draw” in every language. I attended a few events at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. All events were free, including materials. At one event for example, chiaroscuro was explained with paintings of Caravaggio projected on a large screen, then we had 45 minutes to draw two costumed models who had been positioned to reflect the characters in one painting using a spotlight. At another, we got to borrow actual artifacts and were taught to draw them analytically, as an archeologist would record them. There were organised events for adults and children. I have registered my Monday night life drawing class in my French village on their website. Do spread the word!    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The Timid Test System

From: Faith — Oct 11, 2010


From: Carole Mayne — Oct 12, 2010

I always heard that the quotation was “Start with a broom and end with a needle.” This to me, has always made sense and is the most commonly advice NOT taken! My favorite psych-out quote for timidity is to approach life (and paintings) with ”balanced recklessness”. I was told to begin the SKETCH with a small brush and no thinner, and for the PAINTING stages, immediately change up to a #12 or #8 for the block-in for values and masses, then refine the smallest shapes in the final minutes with the detail brushes. It’s taken years to cement this habit, as it was in opposition to my own tendencies, too bad I didn’t stick to the advice when I first heard it!

From: Barbara Ettles — Oct 12, 2010

Your story of the Lincoln reminded me of being on Quadra Island. I was sitting on a log, letting the day, the light, the beauty soak in with no apparent end. The quiet was broken only by occasional gulls’ cries and the rush of raven’s wings. The light was honey-like and danced on the water and the clouds went on forever. For me, the perfection of nature was laid out before me. I could have stayed there for the rest of my life, I thought. All of a sudden, the stillness was broken by a large rv with California plates; out stepped two men, dressed in sports clothes. They put their hands on their hips, looked out over the water for almost a full minute. One declared to the other, “Well, there’s nothing here.” And they piled into the rv and took off in a blast of exhaust. I won’t write any more.

From: Kamoos Obomor — Oct 12, 2010

What is ICCF?

From: Kamoos Obomor — Oct 12, 2010

I meant IPCF (see Faith above)?

From: Thierry Talon — Oct 12, 2010

You do nice work, Carole Mayne, but I like Singer Sargent’s stuff a whole lot better: I think I’ll go with his advice. “Start with a whisk and end with a broom.”

From: Lawrence Klepper — Oct 12, 2010

One of my college professors used to say “Do what you do well, do what you do best; the rest will come naturally.” Then he’d approach you later and say “OK, that’s what you do, now add something new, a new twist or idea to it, build on your best.”

From: Tinker Bachant — Oct 12, 2010

LOL! This happened to me once ,with someone commenting on how much my style was like Tinker Bachant’s. But “Her’s was a little more “True to life”. I answered with a straight face that I admired her work and was really trying to do as well as Tinker. Does tend to keep you on you your toes tho’!

From: Ann Webborn. — Oct 12, 2010

I have been working on a trilogy inspired by two teenage dead birds my friend found in a pillar in their front porch. I painted the actual birds with energy and they look good. Sad, in pain, their little claws reaching out..their beaks open. But I am still working on the background. I have taken ferns and dried leaves to add to the background, which is a rich ochre, but I haven’t completed it. Anyway, I was getting discouraged, but you reminded me to keep going, pursue my vision.. complete the trilogy, don’t get worried.

From: Mohamed Razif — Oct 12, 2010

Hi Robert. I have read the Timid Test System and I do agree and have learned something out of it. Thank you.

From: Darren — Oct 12, 2010

IPCF Independent Personal Choice Formula?

From: Helen Buckley — Oct 12, 2010

I Prefer Charging Forward?

From: Lisette Gold — Oct 12, 2010

“Keep at it” was a wise statement of the woman tourist at Robert’s easel. Keeping at it includes thinking through the various problems that eventually and always come up. No matter how strong you start out, there is a period of misgiving, a shallow period, where one might almost give up, but this is where precisely you must forge on — not keep working and overwork the thing, but to think out maneuvers that will enhance your original reason for starting.

From: Anonymous — Oct 12, 2010

I am too timid to do even timid things. Please advise.

From: Faith — Oct 12, 2010

IPCF???? I thought someone might ask!!! After reading that list of ifs the only other one I could think of that might apply to me was: If Pigs Could Fly! I expect that solves the mystery……..but of course, it’s meant TIC!

From: Carole Mayne — Oct 13, 2010

Thank you, Thierry. Anyone, please enlighten me..what is a whisk, then, that I’ve been missing out on? I’ve never painted with one or found one in a an art store. seriously.

From: Thierry — Oct 13, 2010

I think Sargent meant ‘whisk’ as in brushing lightly, Carole. “She whisked the hair from her face” may be an example. It strikes me as a personal choice; what works best is what you go with. I do know that many artists switch to a looser (broom?) style later in their careers. This may get back to the element of fear, discussed not long ago in this forum. I particularly like your ‘Dawn in Yellowstone Park’.

From: Helen Cook — Oct 13, 2010

As usual have enjoyed your letter. You are talking about an area we love – Kootenays and Rockies , and now Moraine Lake which was my fathers favorite lake. He was part of a Pack Train taking supplies into Lake Louise around 1914 time frame and the beauty and color of the water made a permanent memory for him. He would be about 17 at the time and from Orkney so quite a contrast. Nice to know you can paint like Robert Genn. Keep up the good work (and letters)

From: Anonymous — Oct 13, 2010

I am an accomplished artist with many years of experience in my medium and I find myself completely panicked when I pick up my brush right now. Maybe it’s that we simply aren’t making any money from sales or workshops and that has corroded my self confidence. It is really bad. I have taken myself to a counselor. Are other artists feeling this way right now? Any suggestions? From an artist with a perpetual knot in the stomach.

From: Anonymous #2 — Oct 13, 2010

Dear Anonymous…yes, many are feeling it! You are not alone. I will need to resort to other (non-art) fields to make a living…at least for the time being. Don’t quit painting! When things turn around, you (and I) will be prepared.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 14, 2010

A wisk (at least the American version) is a small hand held broom the size of a man’s hand.

From: Gillis — Oct 14, 2010

IPCF Ignorant and Persistent Commitment Frenzy? C’mon Faith, give us some relief here.

From: Randolph Stone — Oct 14, 2010

If you don’t ask “what could be?” you will always be boring, but you won’t find the bedbugs either.

From: Vivian Chamberlin — Oct 14, 2010

This weeks letter made me think of a class I attended where I was told – don’t ever lose the ability to say “what if ” Magic words ! So I have a list , and read it over when I have one of those “blah” days .What if – each item in my drawing is painted in clear water, then colour flooded in ? What if I use many colours on a wet sheet, letting them mingle for an under-painting? What if I limit my palette to three colours , and chose something unusual ? What if I add gold leaf , or ink an outline , or use gouache or pastel.

From: Karen R. Phinney — Oct 15, 2010

Love your work, Nancy Bell Scott! Very cool……………

From: Sheila Minifie — Oct 15, 2010

I’m glad someone mentioned what a whisk was because I was puzzling over how you could use a whisk (metal whisk for beating up eggs to make an omlette or souffle etc) or whisk-like movements in painting! Very odd. :D

From: Carole Mayne — Oct 16, 2010

I finally solved the whisk mystery (as least as far as I care to!) : Perhaps Sargent did a charcoal drawing, then inked it with thinned paint…you then ‘whisk off’ the charcoal before beginning to paint!! Then finish with a big flurry of bold strokes for impact, ie, folds on the satin in the light, etc. That’s my theory and I’m stickin to it, unless someone’s got a better hit on it! (-:

From: Dick Moody — Oct 17, 2010

No, it means start with a smaller brush and end with a larger one.

From: Barb Wallace — Oct 17, 2010

Hilarious story from the Moraine Lake parking lot, love it!

From: Andrew Smythe-Pelly — Oct 18, 2010

In watching other plein air painters work, I’m often left thinking that they need to drop more darks into the pictures. Contrast is one of the weaknesses, particularly among those who can draw well, of many plein air painters. Because I see this, my darks are, well, dark. It’s only when I arrive back at the studio that I realize that I need to punch up my highlights. This happens over and over. You’d think I’d learn. I might have to paint a little sign on my french easel, Remember the highlights, bozo!

From: Barbara — Oct 20, 2010

I had the impression that the whisk and broom concept had more to do with the length of handle than the brush-y part. Start close up (with a little hand whisk) and then stand back (to use a long handled brush). It takes some distance most times to feel that one is progressing in the right direction — to be too close can make the artist miss the construction, the tones and hues, the point of the whole thing. At least that’s what I understood when I read it first. Who knows – we can’t ask him now!!!

From: Carol — Oct 22, 2010

I do not understand how a surgeon can be compared to an artist..ridiculous

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watercolour painting by Alan Morris, Ambridge, PA, USA

  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 Bela Fidel of Scottsdale, AZ, USA, who wrote, “Your letter aligns itself with a book I’ve been reading lately, Cracking Creativity. For a good look at some basics expounded in that book, please check my blog. Look for the one on Creativity.” And also Ken Paul of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “Hah! Reminds me of a little anecdote about composer Philip Glass. As you may know, P.G. presents a very particular physical appearance. A woman came up to him one day in a restaurant or someplace and remarked, “You know, you kinda resemble Philip Glass.” He responded, “Yeah, I get that all the time.”    

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