From time to time I’ve noticed that it’s possible to will a work to be better than average. While normally dependent on the serendipitous flow of the muse — there are occasions when intensity and direction are an asset. I’ve always said that an artist requires an iron will and a butterfly mind. That “will” often takes the sheer concentration of energy in order to pull off a minor gem, a major masterpiece, or an entire career.
Setting yourself up is important. Get the reference, if there is any, ready and laid out handily. Consciously plan — or do not plan — what you will do. Anticipate the materials and colors needed. Do the mental preparation for the intense activity which will follow. Avoid lazy tendencies. Pay no attention to the phoning dealer or the burning house next door. Work with intensity and be prepared to take extra pains. For many creators that means getting as much down as freshly and quickly as possible. It’s been my observation that a lot of us have ruined more potentially good things by dawdling. That’s not to say you don’t need to take some passages slowly. At the beginning of any new project it’s a good idea to work circumspectly. But like a competent surgeon performing an appendectomy, once the scalpel is out it’s straight to the goods, slicing with confidence and elan. An artist, like a surgeon, must have the will to complete — in the surgeon’s case a life depends on it. The desired result is literally willed into being. Robert Henri told artists, “Do whatever you do intensely.” Here at my easel an artist friend just phoned and told me she can tell the success she is having by the condition of her armpits.
PS: “The artist should have a powerful will. He should be powerfully possessed by one idea. He should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express. If his will is not strong he will see all kinds of unessential things. A picture should be the expression of the will of the painter.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: A useful system for intensification is to think in terms of event. Abstract painter Jack Shadbolt called it “The Act of Art.” For him it was a matter of entering an altered state of frantic energy where an unexplainable phantasm interacted with the lay of the brush.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Beyond regular abilities
by Chris Pfouts, aka Automatic Slim
I’m a writer who paints. My stuff is good enough for galleries and even inclusion in the occasional book. In either endeavor, you have to be prepared for the rare moments when it’s your turn to really shine. I write a great deal; it pays the bills. Most of it is competent journeyman work, no more, no less. Occasionally a situation comes along where I realize I have to write better than I can write to make it work. I have to work beyond my abilities. And I do it. It works because I’m prepared and fit and flexible in the same way an athlete is fit to play for a superstar moment beyond his regular abilities. It happens more often in painting because I paint less. More time for the wind up, and so the pitches are more concentrated. I have to paint beyond my abilities frequently. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes.
Armpits the best indicator
by Sam Jessop, Queensland, Australia
As a matter of fact if I’m not wet I’m not operating properly. For me moisture is the best indicator of arousal — and if I’m not being aroused there’s no great desire or interest to continue. Excitement is the main game — more important than anything else. There has to be something in this for me.
by Li Wang, Hong Kong
Please add these quotes to the volunteer’s remarkable production of the Resource of Art Quotations. To me they confirm and add to what was written about “will.”
“Take something. Do something with it. Do something else with it.” (Jasper Johns)
“Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave.” (Constantin Brancusi)
“Know the male, but keep the female.” (Lao Tsu)
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
I recently had a conversation about teaching art with an artist/teacher friend of mine. I told her that one of the most difficult “instructions” I have heard or read about (repeatedly) regarding creating art is the “Just figure out what it is you want to say, and say it.”
I am not sure that I know what I want to say. This confusion made me feel boring and kind of stupid. I certainly have opinions, but… how? what? Anyway, in looking over my work in the last several years, I discovered that there is a look that is me. I have heard from others that they can definitely pick out my work from others. There is a composition that is totally me. So I have determined that “What I want to say” really means “Share what I see” or “Share the WAY I see.” This makes so much sense for a visual artist! I suggested to my friend that it would have been so much more helpful for the teachers to have instructed; “Just DO something that interests you. What you have to say will come out of the work naturally. If you lose interest in something, move on to something else that pulls you. And don’t try too hard.”
For someone as literal-minded as I, such clarification would have saved me some grief. This may also be the reason it’s sometimes difficult to write Artist’s Statements. Sometimes the writing seems contrived to have to explain your own visual aesthetics.
Comes back tenfold
by Charlene Ediger, Canton, Georgia, USA
I have learned so much by teaching and demonstrating paintings in my classes. The saying I teach by is — “What you share comes back tenfold.” At times a student has a request about a subject or technique that I don’t know of or feel confident with, however, I often will say, “I’ll make an attempt at trying to demonstrate the solution.” As an instructor, the confident approach is a lot of solving the problem, which I amaze myself at how I have discovered a new technique and/or interest as the students are listening and watching. I have also learned how to be a strong critic of my flops and laugh at myself . We all laugh and I may try again and say I would have never done this if I hadn’t failed. The goofs add to the successes and to the laughter.
P.S. I am not the creator of this knowledge in my teaching. I share what I’ve learned in other art classes. Self-confidence and sharing was one of the lessons. Feel good, laugh, cry, get it all out and enjoy.
Altogether a good idea
by Nat Eisman, New York, USA
An excellent aid to high-powered creativity is to remove your clothes during the act of creation. This brings out the worker’s primal nature and a primitive energy manifests itself. Picasso was a practitioner of this, as were some of the abstract expressionists.
(RG note) It would have the advantage that one might tend to work quickly, too — particularly in Canada. The idea may be a more serious contender than would appear. Last November 21st I wrote a letter titled Nude, about painting the undraped figure. Looking at the statistical results which we get for the Painter’s Keys website we notice that all kinds of people find that particular letter by going to search engines and typing in nude dancing, nude yoga, nude skiing, nude golf, and yes, nude painting.
by Elzire Namaste, Princeton, Massachusetts, USA
Oftentimes, after working on a painting, I “come to” and look with great surprise at the canvas before me. “Did I do that?” totally amazed that I painted it. This is how painting is for me and I cannot believe why I do not paint constantly, as I feel that is the only time I am really “me.” The “will” part comes into play for me in the starting of it. It is just so hard to start most times, but once the brush is loaded… I’m GONE!
Time not a consideration
by Heidi Greuze, Dusseldorf, Germany
If I thought I had to work like a surgeon, quickly and expertly, or my painting will die… I might not be able to begin. Many of my starts are shots in the dark. Accidents are welcomed and then weeded for value. Time is not usually a consideration. In this way I’m able to give up some of the responsibility. An intense moment is when a jewel of an accident becomes endangered by the process of elimination.
by Linda Timbs, Coquitlam, BC, Canada
Must meet publisher’s deadline…too soon..no ideas. What to do? Beethoven blasting in my ears has been a distraction, rather than a help… notice the horns are a tad slow… did not hear this before… make a note of same! Time… marching… now 9 PM… aware of tightness in swallowing reflex. Phone friend… get her dog. Run like a deer being pursued by a hungry wolf pack. One hour later… home… tired, still no ideas!! Bed… dream… Suddenly, wide awake with idea that fits!! Tackle computer at 0200… keep up pace ’til 0400… send to editor. Sit back… sense of exhilaration… relief floods me. ‘Dreamscape’ works well… Drills beneath the here and now, to the untapped extensions of self. I do my best work, after sleep,…jarred awake during darkness, to find the light… WILL to press on… ’til completed in my own way.
You may be interested to know that artists from 78 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Shirley Hatfield of Oklahoma who collects copies of The Art Spirit by Robert Henri to give to her creative friends.
And sculptor Arye Shapiro of Austin, Texas who also knows about the armpit thing. And Linda Vi Vona of Long Island, New York, who uses quotations for fuel.
Lisa Strand of Hotmailland wants to know if anyone will help her with her Grad project. She writes, “Being in Mother Nature’s world can sometimes provoke strong emotion or feeling. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced this for a brief moment when our own reality seems somewhat surreal. For my Grad project, I’m asking people to explain this feeling in one word. My interest is in how each one of us will express this. Please tell me your one word that best describes this moment or feeling, and briefly explain the landscape you were part of that made you feel this way. Thanks, Lisa Strand.”
(RG note) My contribution to Lisa’s request. Porcupine. Painting in the shadow of Mt Shasta in California, a porcupine entered the field directly ahead. The animal proceeded slowly but steadily in a straight line directly toward my easel. When it came to me it made a circle around, not very wide, just out of touch. Then it continued on in the line it had begun. “Dedicated,” I thought.