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.
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.
by Stede Barber, Los Alamos, NM, USA
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.
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Start strong — stay strong
by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA
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!
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Audacity and rigid ways
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
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.
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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.
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Never fall in love
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
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
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
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?
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The Big Draw
by Catherine Stock, France
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!
Enjoy the past comments below for The Timid Test System…
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.”