What to paint?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday’s inbox included the short and sweet: “I’ve been painting seriously for the last fifteen years, and I now have trouble deciding what to paint. How do I decide?” The email was signed “Diane W. Reitz, BFA.”

Thanks, Diane. Maybe the BFA after your name gives us a clue. Maybe you know too much. But don’t worry, it’s a common problem, BFA or not.

The creative life requires a steady progression of experimentation and discovery. While acquired wisdom is useful, your knowledge must work in tandem with the daily exercise of your curiosity. A life in art is more a working event than the application of prior knowledge. Further, as you paint, you are able to decide what to paint. Paintings come out of themselves. Prime your pump — your work goes viral.

There’s a pile of tricks you can pull to prime the pump. Go to your earlier inspiration — drawings, reference photos, field notes. Recall the direction this material took you in the past, and then go looking for a new angle. Don’t waste time. Commit yourself to the most humble application of paint. Get it through your system and out onto your reviewing easel. Perhaps reward it with a quick framing. Consider again the possibilities and commit once more, perhaps to a larger size. Don’t be precious. Try to think like Edison when he was trying different stuff that might do for filaments in light bulbs.

First thing you know you’ll feel refreshed and renewed rather than burdened with making a decision. Further, you will see a need for further refinement. Personal refinement of vision makes creativity worthwhile. What you do may not be unique in the greater world of art, but it’s the sweet ignorance of outcome that drives you on.

When artists see themselves inching forward with minor improvements, they begin a natural flow that becomes unstoppable. I formerly told artists who were unable to decide what to paint that they might not be cut out for the game. Then I realized that our very existence is based on ignorance of where we’re going. What’s important is having the fortitude and patience to dig around and try to find out. Actually, “having trouble deciding” is a good part of the fun. Accept the fun.

Best regards,


PS: “Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.” (Dr. Wayne Dyer)

Esoterica: Poverty of excitement and weakness of creative opportunism can develop from a poverty of observation. Opportunities appear meager to those who are not habitually open. Part of our job as creators is to develop the faculty of being impressed with our environment. “Motivation is in the world around us. We have an infinite amount of material at our disposal, in the lives of those we meet, in what we see, feel and discuss.” (Pablo Picasso)


Revving up
by Chris Bolmeier, Omaha, ME, USA


oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Chris Bolmeier

What to paint? This is such a common issue that it is laughable when I think of the excuses surrounding that monster thought. Really, anything will do, it’s just that I always want to create a masterpiece every time. Is this possible? Noooo. So why do I wonder what to paint? Do I enjoy driving myself crazy and making myself nervous thinking about this? Not really, but maybe I am getting some artistic drama out of the deal. Then I tell myself, “You’re just having an artistic identity crisis.” It’s possible you need to move your aching body around more, which in turn will churn the creative juices and get the blood moving to your brain, which in turn may get a creative thought to occur and wake up the synapses. The next thought is usually a very paranoid “Well if I don’t know what to paint, I’m afraid I can’t paint anymore.” It’s always there, but if it weren’t I might get lost in the sea of mediocrity. Then I remember, I must suffer, I must struggle, I must pout and moan and create a mess, not put caps back on tubes, its one excuse after another. Can’t find this or that brush, I’m out of Cad Yellow. Actually this is part of the revving up mode, after which I dig in and paint. I become a painting machine, the ideas flow in fast and I remember I can paint and all is well with the world.


Check-list for getting inspired
by Karen Gillmore, Victoria, BC, Canada

I often get the same question from students, so often that I have written up a list (which of course I find helpful too) of my personal “tricks to prime the pump.” It doesn’t exactly answer the question of what to paint, but usually when we ask ourselves that question, it is because we are stuck, in our thoughts or energy, and can’t move beyond the mud of stuck-ness to the clear waters of choice. So here are some of the things I do to stir up the blocked streams of creativity so that they can flow freely again. Things to do when you are stuck:


acrylic painting, 24 x 24 inches
by Karen Gillmore

Clean the house/studio
Throw paint at paper.
Take a walk and notice everything.
Stretch canvas, or some other boring studio task that never seems to get done.
Read an art book.
Go gallery-hopping.
Sort your paints; make a list of ones you are low on for the next time there’s a sale.
Make a collage with old sketches or magazines; paint over it.
Take a “ruined” painting and find part of it that you like and crop it – some paintings have several lovely miniatures within!
Go on a photo expedition, composing with the camera.
Paint an abstract to music.
Play, play, play.
Take a class in something new and daring.
Write a poem; paint it.
Go to the library and look at picture books: kids’ books, travel books, science books…

Above all, if you’re stuck don’t force it; distract your conscious mind and let your subconscious do its thing. Go have a cup of tea, pet the cat, and come back with fresh eyes.


Inward inspiration
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


“Bright Lake”
acrylic on canvas, 33 x 44 inches
by Jack Dickerson

The MOST important source of inspiration for painting ideas is our own lives… And what we like most. You have mentioned the child in us several times, and while most “men” would laugh at that, it is one of the keys. Not all of the keys, but one of the most important. But this can be daunting, because if you analyze it and over think it you kill the ideas. I find that I am painting scenes in the woods, marshes, catboats, and seascapes. For the life of me I was wondering where these images were coming from — a few years back — these paintings that seemed to just flow out of my head and hands. Then I realized it was so obvious. All my walks in the woods when I was a child (before teen hood), and my forays into the marshes with my best buddy, learning how to walk on a catboat, all my sailing experiences in and out of harbors AND ocean racing where one cannot see land… These are places where I have felt inner peace and comfort. And my clients tell me this comes through clearly in my work — as a matter of fact, it is what they like best about it. Well, enough said.


Adjusting your focus
by Glynis Doorbar, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Here are a few extra thoughts on not knowing what to paint anymore. Something as simple as new glasses can help. Whenever I don’t know what to paint it is usually because I’m not focused (in more ways than one). It is amazing how even the slightest lack of clarity in vision can block the total absorption of information needed to transpose it to canvas. Also, dealing with the distractions that can depress one is important. Avoiding depressing people, and clearing out some clutter from the studio or place where I’m working helps. It seems the artistic nature tends to hoard interesting articles, shapes and objects. In Ontario it can also mean getting away from the snow to a more colourful place for a while. When doing the same creative pursuit for many years, one can get jaded. It is a good idea to switch to some new creative hobby for a while, or use a different medium. Try going abstract, just to get the creative juices flowing. The joy of expressing emotion through colour and texture, without having to be detailed or correct is extremely freeing and regenerating. One of the greatest tools for unlocking a fused imagination is the camera. If it is digital, all the better. By putting your images on the computer you can manipulate and zoom in on the most interesting angles, and choose or create great and inspiring compositions. By flipping through my photos I can often find inspiration when my imagination can’t.


Expanding your horizons
by Rod Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada


“Schooner At Dusk St. Andrews New Brunswick”
acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
by Rod Mackay

I am surprised to find anyone suffering from painter’s block after fifteen years at the easel, but it is completely understandable at the beginning of a career in art. After a bit of derivative painting, these first models should be shelved. Copying is not a bad beginning, but it cannot remain as the underpinning for serious fun and games. I am surprised by the tendency of many painters to look for a niche in terms of subject matter, and remain there because it is unprofitable to do otherwise. Leonardo said, “It reflects no great honour on a painter to be able to execute one thing well.” My advice is, “Get over it!” There are sales for all kinds of subject matter: florals, landscapes, seascapes, figure studies, portraits, wildlife; the list is endless. Choose an untouched category and a really big canvas and have fun rather than a restrictive commercial moment. In four decades of painting, I have found that every painting has an eventual home. If it doesn’t deserve one, destroy it! At the end of a long career, I am plagued by the idea that I am not going to have the time to complete all those partially filled canvases. Subject matter proliferates once it becomes less of a concern; but for me that has meant working consistently almost every day.


Finding your voice
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA


“Lake Sunset”
original painting
by Paul Allen Taylor

Back around 1990 I began to paint more after completing my studies. I had decided to enter an outdoor show near home. At that time, I had no trouble knowing what to paint. For much of my childhood, summers were spent on the St. Lawrence Seaway, bounded by the northern shore of New York and Canada. It’s also the life line to our Great Lakes from the Atlantic. I decided that there’s nothing I know better, or have more motivation to paint than this river. I had experienced it every summer from infancy to adulthood and still do. My father was a teacher with summers free. I hate to think how different my life would have been if we were constrained to 1-2 weeks a summer and weekends. But, that’s how it is for me now, as I pass this rich tradition onto my son today. More than not, I paint the river, as it’s in me, I understand it, fish it, sail it and swim it. We should paint what we love and know best. Singers are known for Opera, Ballads, Country, etc. Rarely, if ever, do you find an Opera singer belting out Rock and Roll. There’s a reason for that. Jack White says we have to have a “voice” of our own. That voice comes in three parts. First, our medium, second, “style or technique” and third, the subject matter, be it landscape, flowers, what have you. One may also work on a small subset of a subject, as in Fly-fishing for landscape. Commissions of course, give us few choices. Many times I feel as though I have one hand tied behind my back. For that reason, I alternate between those and my river. Ever read the book, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow? Another twist may be Paint What You Love, and the Rest Will Follow.


New take on old topics
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Girl swimming”
orginal artwork
by Brigitte Nowak

Change focus. If you usually do landscape vistas, try focusing on a single tree; if you do figurative work, try working on a hand; if you work in colour, try black and white. It is an exercise, but it may well get the creative juices flowing again. Perhaps Ms. Reitz needs a “fallow” period: if her recent “serious” work has been intellectually and emotionally draining, perhaps her mind is telling her she needs some down time to regenerate (may I suggest she go on some long walks — and yes, she would likely do well to leave her BFA behind!). Another technique I use when I am between ideas is to clean my studio: I am still in the space, fulfilling my time, and surrounded by my tools, and since making art is more pleasant than cleaning up, it usually isn’t long before an idea will appear that demands to be executed.


Ways to get fired up
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA


“Dangerous Dan”
oil painting, 8 x 12 inches
by Jim Connelly

Maybe you have been painting things you like but have not found new ways to paint them and you have gotten bored. I worked for years as an illustrator. I was told what to paint or had to come up with an idea that fit strict perimeters. The stupidest project could be made exciting by finding one thing to get excited about. Maybe an object in the composition, a new technique to use or just using color in a way I had never done before. Now as a fine artist, the same applies. In order to make marketing easier, I have chosen a specific subject. Though my subject is rather limited, I find new things all the time to get fired up about. As a painter there is a lot I know but there is even more that I don’t know. With each painting I look for at least one new thing to learn or try. So in some ways the subject is incidental (even though it is something I love to paint). So my point is, paint the things you love but beyond that, look for the little things you have not tried before. Maybe it is just a color combination you saw on someone’s shirt and you try to use it in a painting. Maybe it is trying to convey an emotion or an altruistic value. It could be a challenge that would produce creative passion.


Filling your tank
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada


acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Sandy McMullen

For years I painted watercolour landscapes and florals. I often had the thought of “what to paint.” At that time I was also heavily influenced by what other people thought about my work. Then several years ago, when I was studying a motivational profile called the Reiss Desire Profile, I got very excited about bringing the 16 core desires to life through images. This resulted in a show of 24 paintings. It became like theatre in that people came in and spent time interacting with the work. I have since done a show of 33 paintings based on the Myers Briggs, a personality typology. This show also had the buzz created by people getting involved in discussion of what the work meant for them. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about filling your tank. For some that might mean a visit to a gallery or a walk in nature. While these things occasionally work for me too, what really gets me excited is the world of ideas and finding a way to spark engagement with others. When my subject matter is linked to my interests and motivation, I can’t wait to get to the next painting. Sometimes I paint my way through the night in my dreams. Occasionally landscapes and florals recapture my interest when I have something fresh to say. As for the grip of other people’s opinions — it is still there as a source of doubt and hesitation when I am forcing something and not following what genuinely excites me.


Looking at the bright side
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA


original artwork
by Jamie Lavin

Joe Bucher is an extraordinary wildlife artist living in Louisburg, Kansas, who creates hand carved and laser-etched duck calls for the bulk of his business; collectible and able to be used in the field. You will find Joe’s work on eBay as one of the most collected and “re-collected” artists in the duck call market, and we have always painted together, or painted via the telephone. He paints each one ad nauseam, for he may have many of the same on order at once. After air-brushing and hand painting each one (some orders may call for the same painting on 80-100 calls at a time), he still details each one, tunes each one, makes each one as if it’s the last he’ll ever make! One prospective dealer, who had never seen one of his calls up close, did not believe Joe carefully painted each call and that it was just he and his wife that ran the business! He is in such demand, that he rarely gets a chance to work on his oil paintings on linen. He longs to paint and build his experience on the canvas, while I long for his steady and wonderful demand! We both always conclude: “At least we’re painting!”


Looking back
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada


“Flatt’s Bridge”
watercolour on paper, 11 x 15 inches
by Bill Kerr

While I am never at a complete loss with respect to what to paint, I sometimes have to grope about a bit. I often tuck away “idea material,” sketches, my photos or clippings from publications and the like. Thinking about something to paint I may go to these piles. When I turn up some, one of my first thought is often “What on earth was I thinking?” The items are not really pictures but simply the basis of an idea and sometimes, just like my handwriting, I simply can’t play it back. Accordingly, I don’t chuck the item until I have visited it a few times, as on the next viewing I may be inclined to proceed. The item will be the basis of a new painting. I sometimes wonder how close the result is to whatever I had in mind when I stashed it away.


In the thrall of a goddess
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


“Li Po”
oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
by Warren Criswell

I suppose it’s a decision. But it feels more like a submission to me. Something comes out of the world and grabs me and forces me to paint it. Recently I heard for the first time Shoenberg’s Die Gleukiche Hand, a short music drama which begins with a winged hyena chewing on the neck of a man lying on the stage. The image had a compelling resonance… but I resisted painting such a gruesome thing. I bought the CD and listened, and eventually started trying to paint it. From there on totally unpremeditated and unanticipated things happened on the canvas. I suppose I decided to do these things, but it felt more like submitting to the paint. A few months ago I was grabbed by my white coffee cup on a white paper towel. I ended up doing four watercolors of this cup, from different angles, different lighting. I would never have DECIDED to paint a coffee cup! I feel more like the art slave of some demon — or goddess!? — who forces these bizarre images upon me. I’ve had plenty of dry spells, and I agree that looking at your earlier work can help — but then I just end up recycling the old stuff. Usually I just sit and brood, waiting for the demon. I think creativity is a combination of conscious, unconscious and purely accidental forces, all coming together in something that always feels like an epiphany — a discovery rather than a decision.


The ever-lengthening list
by Erika Schulz, Red Deer, AB, Canada


“How Sweet the Song”
acrylic on canvas, 15 x 15 inches
by Erika Schulz

I have always kept a list going with ideas for future works. Being a list person in pretty much every part of my life, my creative side is no exception. When I take photos, listen to music, or I am just driving around and get an idea, I often add it to the “pile.” My list is so long now that I could never run out of projects. In fact the list has become a book, and I love revisiting all the ideas or subjects that struck me at some point. I find that now the creation of the list is just as satisfying as the art itself. I have lots of really great things to look forward to working on.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for What to paint?



From: Janet Sellers — Apr 01, 2008

Hi. Wow. And I thought it was just me stuck this week. It’s supposed to be springtime, but it’s a whopping 19 degrees f outside right now, not exactly walking weather for me, and so I’ll go back in time for a stroll down memory lane – or not! I’m hoping I’ll see some of my old stuff in a new way from “today’s mind”. Or just get off the dime and put on the paint.

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 01, 2008

I can’t believe that comment by Ms Reitz !!!! I’m not poking fun here. How on earth can a painter make such a statement. I don’t have time in the day to paint all I want to paint. There is a whole world out there waiting to be interpreted. Start with one object that strikes your fancy and don’t try to create a work of genius, just paint it more than once in different light. Paint it until you’ve said all you want to say, then move to another object. Paint an egg, a tomato, a carrot for crying-out-loud. So much can be learned from this process. You need to re-learn to see life around you again. I believe there is more going on with your life that is interfering with your painting – but to say you don’t know what to paint is ridiculous.

From: Claire DeLong Taylor — Apr 03, 2008

Wow! I have just the opposite problem. I am always finding that when I paint something, it leads me to want to explore about a thousand aspects regarding the image. I think I could paint a hundred pictures experimenting with the surface texture of a painting alone. Then there’s the fascination with one shape meeting another- sharp edge or soft fuzziness? Don’t even get me started on color.

From: Paul de Marrais — Apr 03, 2008

When I feel a blockage in my painting, I look at paintings. I’ll start looking through my favorite art magazine, International Artist, for starters. Invariably, I am attracted to paintings there and I will start to feel some excitement begin to build. Painting is about problem solving and as I look and read on, I begin to feel what attracts me to painting in the first place. It is the ‘process’! In the end the painter must be excited by the process. Too often artists are really more interested in the trappings of the artist game….sales, ego nourishment, socializing with other artists etc. These trappings will never sustain interest over the long haul. Other tricks that might stimulate creativity for me would be to switch or mix mediums or subject matter. In the end, you need to push on and fight through these frustrating periods in order to get back into a productive mode. There is no easy way out. All artists must face this challenge over and over again.

From: Michele Rushworth — Apr 03, 2008

I think an artist who finds themselves in a rut or running out of ideas can break out of it by getting exposure to new experiences, things they may never have thought of before, and things that have nothing to do with painting: go to the ballet, visit a factory, watch a wrestling match, hang out in a small town diner, go to a fishing port, ride a tractor, climb a mountain…. These things have been known to inspire many artists of the past and caused them to create their greatest work. I expect that something in having new experiences will light a spark and the artist who “can’t decide what to paint” will find a whole new stream of creativity that must be expressed.

From: B.J. Adams — Apr 03, 2008

Diane should have my problem. Over the many years of working in several mediums I have found too many subjects, too many avenues I want to explore, too little time and maybe ability to capture all the images that are going around in my mind. While working on one piece (textile art is often very slow) a whole series can be developed and I can see it in my mind. Often I have spent so much time seeing this series that I do not need to create it. Thinking of images/subjects and ideas, writing them on scraps of paper, and then finding them, long after the fact, is another area of found challenges. Deciding what to paint is not a problem, but getting into the swing of it often is. All I have to do, then, is go to a museum or pick up an art book or magazine and the need to paint, stitch and develop an idea rushes back.

From: Loretta West — Apr 03, 2008

I enjoyed your comments on overcoming the lack of new ideas and would like to offer this suggestion to other artists. We’ve had a long winter here in North East Washington State and I am tired of working in the studio, but the fussy spring weather has kept me indoors. Just when I think I will venture outside, it starts to snow, hail or blow a cold wind from the northwest. I was tiring of painting from photos and sketches and couldn’t think about doing another painting involving snow! When I was in dire need of inspiration and the refreshing but frigid walk did not work; I received an email containing an article about a woman named Debbie Tenzer, who started a website called: www.doonenicething.com . If you go to the site and click on Cards you will come to Operation Feel Better which is a program to send get well cards to kids in hospital. Hey, I thought, I can do that and it would be a great way to try out new techniques as well as cheering someone up. So now when I have a lull in creativity or am waiting for paint to dry, I whip out a blank card and dash off a tiny, fun painting to send on. I would encourage other artists to do the same, it has given me new ideas and makes one feel just darn good. The address to send the cards to is on their website. Please pass this information on to anyone who might be interested.

From: Susan Connelly — Apr 03, 2008

I have found at various times when I have hit a “block” ( brick wall) that changing my medium helps a lot. I get so involved with the fresh application of paint…even if it is re-doing a past painting that was successful with the old medium. Also, switching from brushes to palette knives is a good change. At least it keeps the creativity going. It is fun to experiment and see where a new path will take you. Actually, it is not what you paint but HOW you paint it that is important.

From: Lorelle A. Miller — Apr 03, 2008

A group of painters were asked to come and paint at our new community college campus. Everything about the landscape was very new, very manicured, and newly planted. The biggest challenge was subject matter. When the group first got there it seemed that there was nothing to paint, but as each artist took time to soak up the surroundings they each found a point of view worth painting. Funny how no matter where you stand, your point of view can supply countless opportunities.

From: Karin Wells — Apr 03, 2008

For me, it is no longer “how to paint” but “WHAT to paint” that keeps me awake nights. Last month I got the idea that I should set portraiture aside and do some little still life – endless variations on a narrow theme. Limited choice makes it more fun and creative for me. It gives me endless possibilities of “what” to paint. Also, I’ve become hooked on blogging. After sitting in my studio watching paint dry throughout this long cold winter, I “discovered” how to blog. Although nobody knows that I’m there, it satisfies my nearly overwhelming need to talk about art & teach. Surely painting can be the loneliest profession.

From: Jan Bennicoff — Apr 03, 2008

I laughed uproariously when I read your comment “maybe you know too much”. I just can’t imagine knowing too much- well maybe in a couple hundred lifetimes- that is whether I remember. <Grin>

Seriously, my BA in drawing and painting just opened the door to possibilities. The degree was only the appetizer to a joyous life of painting. After 22 years, I’m still working on the entree. Dessert may never come as I am thoroughly enjoying the meal.

When I get stalled (not that it happens often) I do something different like sew and paint on tyvek, then melt it into a thoroughly abstract piece of work. Make stamps out of various materials and stamp on fabric or make tyvek beads. Sometimes I make a collage with old fabric patterns and acrylics. My advice is know when you are in a rut, do something different to spark your creativity.

I’ll never forget what one of my art professors told me when I was in a rut. “Get a stick and draw with it”. He handed me one of his – just happened to have it, he replied. So I dipped it in ink and had at it. It was fun and a mind-opening way to further creations.

And, it still works!

From: Judy Wray — Apr 03, 2008

What to paint… what even to do… I haven’t painted much. Been busy levitating various projects where I live as far as I can reach. So here I am in Mexico, wondering at times, what am I doing and not failing to notice the beauty everywhere. What I have been doing insidiously comes with me to the limits available. This trip I have Photoshop installed and a wireless connection. Making advances.

Last visit here to a Mexican home I spent some weeks slowly painting flowers on a wall at the entrance to the gardens. Slow going but thoroughly enjoyable. Nothing to bring the house down but passersby sometimes were drawn in!

This visit I began to use photos from the last visit and this one to cut and paste via Photoshop on the adobe walls here in the Pueblo where I am.

…and as soon as I begin to do that the tide begins to swell with good electricity and I know this will be another good one.

Seize the day, relax into it… love the ones you’re with with what you are good at.

From: Janee Ward — Apr 03, 2008

After one of the worst artist blocks I ever had, lasting for almost a year, my Muse came to me in a dream (as a coyote) and told me to “sleep on my hands”. The next night I slept on my hands and the next day the block was completely gone and I went into the studio and just couldn’t stop making art. Ever since then I have totally believed in and trusted my Muse.

To access my Muse, I have to allow my mind to become completely still. As Eckhart Tolle says, “True creativity flows only from stillness. When stillness becomes conscious, the spiritual dimension enters your life and you begin to be guided by an intelligence far greater than the human mind.”

I’m not too good at meditating and I find that taking a walk helps me to find this stillness and to get in touch with my Muse. As I walk, I practice “exquisite noticing”, really seeing what is there, and exercise my sense of wonder. I talk with/ to my Muse as we walk together, She gives me guidance and inspiration for the art that I want to create and sometimes if I’m stuck, I ask her to show me an image that closely represents the essence of what I want to express. I find that her advice and this image may appear any time during my walk or it may come later. I just relax and make no attempt to control what unfolds, I just let everything develop in its own way. I continue to remain in a receptive state after I return to the studio, take care of other tasks, and remain relaxed and open.

She has never failed to inspire me but sometimes it takes a little longer as it has to penetrate all the layers of gunk that can build up on my “doors of perception.” I find that taking the time to commune with my Muse regularly, helps to keep them clean and helps me to stay in the creative flow.

From: Joy Gush — Apr 03, 2008

To those who wonder what to paint, I would like to add that finding out what is wanted in helping others, in this troubled world, I have found a rewarding exercise in the use of my talent.

From: Kim Van Riper — Apr 03, 2008

I have found that while sketches and idea journals are very beneficial, sometimes an artist needs a ‘head piece.’ This is a piece that is done for no reason, with no intended end or result. It is purely and simply whatever wants to come out. No planning or preconcieved notions about what is going to be done. No expectations of a beautiful piece, or a new innovation. No worries, stress, or contemplation about it. It is just for the head. Let the whole body get involved if it wants to. The wrists, the elbows, the calves, the quads, the spine. Let the expression be a dance of sorts that stimulates and releases any hindrances. Sometimes drawing or painting with your non dominant hand can stimulate the brain, and make the ease of sketching with your dominant hand much easier. I have also found that the preparation process can be quite fruitful by way of manifesting ideas. Build a wood panel by hand, glue it, sand it, gesso it, and take great care in craftsmanship. By the time the lengthy, and satisfying process is done with, the mind should be more relaxed and prepared to address the subject.

From: Mona Youssef — Apr 03, 2008

I have never had troubles finding subjects to paint. In fact, I have many of them that have no time to paint them all. The reason is almost that everything I see, my brain turns it to a painting. My problems is to create a new composition for each away from merely copying a photograph. To get inspiration, I have to live the subject and not to worry about time or speed the finishing part. Quality comes before quantity and meaningful subject is before just painting a painting and add to my studio.

From: Olana Carol Clark — Apr 03, 2008

I love to paint, one the the reasons being that I paint what I love — for me, it’s as simple as that. Carl Jung said … “the creative mind plays with the objects it loves” … that thought has always resonated for me.

From: Bret Ratner — Apr 03, 2008

A lot of artists get so caught up in the mechanics of things, they forget to just look at the world around them. And the “knowing too much” bit was hilarious.

From: Christine Ritchie — Apr 03, 2008

I am insulted at your suggestion that having a degree in Art somehow handicaps a person (artist) …by that insinuation someone with an MFA must be paralyzed… Ignorance and artists’ blocks abound in the self educated as well as the “educated” but apparently you have a prejudice…

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 03, 2008

Little “flashes” of image ideas pop up in my head frequently. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I quickly scribble these ideas onto a scrap of paper, then throw them into my “Idea Box” when I return to the studio. These little “Sparks of Spontaneity” will stay preserved until I sift through them later. Picking up a few of them at random, one of them is bound to give that little jolt of enthusiasm I’m looking for. And that’s enough motivation to get started.

From: Sandy Bonney — Apr 03, 2008

Taking a workshop is a great way of rekindling the creative fires. No matter what your credentials are, you can always learn something new. Just emmersing yourself in a group of artists for a few days is an inspiring experience, especially if you are experimenting with a new medium or genre. At a workshop, nobody expects you to create a masterpiece, although occasionally it does happen!

From: Hibberd — Apr 03, 2008

Creating art is such a freeing experience. When completing a painting or a series I love the realization that I have a clean slate, I can create anything I want. This is my favourite stage of the process. Shall I continue in the direction of my recent work? Maybe I will, or perhaps I’ll be affected by music, the children playing across the street, a book I’m reading or the daily news. If you are blocked remember that you are gifted to bless others with your art. The rest of humankind actually need to see what your next piece is. So, get to it, Diane. We are all waiting.

From: Lorraine Whellams — Apr 03, 2008

I have people that want me to paint the same thing over and over again, but I don’t want to paint the same thing over and over again, but, maybe I can paint the same thing, just in a different way.

From: Sharon Will — Apr 03, 2008

After painting for over 25 years now, I feel like I’m just starting to explore painting. However, now I seem to require the subject to move me more now & I ask the question early on, “what do I want to say here”. I’m challenged to paint a mood or light condition I haven’t done before, to push myself out of my comfort zone, rather than just recording an object. As a representational painter, with a background in commercial art, I am constantly fighting the temptation to render the “life” out of a subject. So, I’m concerned now with what I say, but also how to say it.

From: Roscoe E. Wallace — Apr 03, 2008

I enjoy different styles, different techniques, and different subjects. The thrill of painting representational, traditional, impressionistic or abstract is a planned process… I also have four rules I apply to my paintings:

1) Do something un-expected

2) Value is more important than color

3) Eliminate! Eliminate! Eliminate!

4) Quit, when you are three-quarters done.

From: Tony Kampwerth — Apr 03, 2008

To add to Diane Reitz’s comments about what to paint, I guess we all have additional questions about: (1) Should I paint to sell or paint to satisfy my own self imposed challenges? (2) Am I being influenced by observing someone else’s work? and (3) If anyone else can paint this subject, is there a need to create another work like it? I know that these topics have been covered in past Twice Weekly Letters, but the concerns are ever present.

Recently I have started attending some group sessions on life drawing and portraiture and it does help to associate with other artists and practice some quick gesture drawings. It’s a nice change of scene and seems to create a new spark of interest.

From: Rene Seigh — Apr 03, 2008

Tell Diane to put out the opposite hand from the one she paints with, and do a self-portrait of her hand! We always have our hands with us, and since they can be difficult to paint, anyone can use practice. They can be placed in innumerable positions and one need never be bored. Wasn’t it you that said, “Just begin…?” Smiles!

From: Martine — Apr 03, 2008

Using previous paintings as reference works like a charm when in need of and idea. There is always room for improvement and investigation. Starting from an existing painting, one can explore the possibilities of a different palette, drawing the thing in black and white, painting its reflection in a mirror, upside down, going more and more abstract, changing the cropping, altering the emphasis of certain elements in the painting, using a different size brush, technique, medium, support, size or proportions. Some wonderful surprises may come of it and new ideas may emerge out of the process. At least, this can do till the “REAL” thing comes along.

From: Leslie Tejada — Apr 03, 2008

“What do I want to see?” This question became imperative for me after an intense experience I had in a painting class taught by Tom Wudl at the College of Creative Studies at UCSB in Santa Barbara, California. After several years of raising a family and helping to run a business, I had reentered the world of art, taking classes, studying with various mentors, traveling to see art. I was crammed full of so many images of “art” that I was blocked into a real corner of total confusion. Tom’s class was an open one and the 12 of us were each painting in our own direction and style. My (unfortunate) project was basically copying a Corot painting I liked in a book. We had our first critique, and after many wise words and encouragement for the other students, Tom finally directed his attention on me. He became all fired up and started pacing about, waving his arms. “What am I going to do with you? Every now and then I get a student who is so f____ing afraid of her own power!!!” He went on: “You have a BIG vision. You should be working on big canvases.” I was absolutely shocked, extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable. In my whole life I can’t remember anyone ever shouting at me like that. I mumbled that I did have a big canvas at home, and he said “So go and get it NOW.” I borrowed my friend’s van and drove back to town, put the canvas in the van, and began the drive back to the university. By then I was in tears, and I asked myself: “WHAT am I going to paint? What do I want to see?” And as I drove along the freeway, in the back of my mind upon the inward eye I started to see an image. I saw what looked like trees, with light behind them coming through the leaves and trunks. When I got back to the class, I put the canvas on the easel and immediately began to develop this image. After awhile, Tom came around to where I was working and said, “That’s better!” I count Tom as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and am continually grateful for his help in yanking away the blocks in front of my vision.

From: Ben Ullman — Apr 03, 2008

I was so excited to see this post. It wasn’t even the “what to paint” question that interested me — it was the “knowing too much”.

I have been working on a presentation around the concept of the benefits of knowing less. I recently learned of a zen meditation concept called “Shoshin” – or “Beginner’s Mind”, which sums up the situation beautifully. The saying goes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Forget what you know, and leave your preconceived notions behind. Let curiosity be your guide and discover the world with new eyes.

From: Frank Armistead — Apr 03, 2008

I get a creative idea. I share it with another artist, it becomes twenty ideas, I share it with a few more and it becomes a wildly unattainable project. Then I tackle a small part. Or another artist shares an idea with me and …

From: Brigitte Nowak — Apr 04, 2008

Regarding the diminished value of art on paper vs. art on canvas (Apr. 4), this may also be due to the fact that art on paper is perceived as being less permanent: in the past, if an artist wanted to leave a permanent record, the work would be done in oils on canvas, preparatory work or studies likely on paper. In today’s world, with new media, methods and techniques, permanence may be less of an issue. In our increasingly “throwaway” society, permanence itself may lose its cachet, but we’ll probably have to wait 100 years to see if this transpires. In the meantime, yes, let’s celebrate joy, achievement and excellence in all that we do.

From: Karen R. Phinney — Apr 04, 2008

I am intrigued at how many times the same themes come up, when it comes to being “stuck” as to what to paint! Go for a walk, clean the studio, and paint an abstract, getting out of the comfort zone, perhaps. Great suggestions, all.

From: Jack Dickerson — Apr 04, 2008
From: Clare Cross — Apr 04, 2008

I am amazed by the number of readers who rushed to judge Ms. Reitz without regard to what she actually wrote. She said only that she can’t decide what to paint. That might mean she doesn’t have enough ideas. It could also mean she has too many.

From: Tim Ade — Apr 04, 2008

I have to agree with Clare – I have many, many ideas, but sometimes I still can’t decide what to paint.

For me, because I prefer to do detailed realistic images, it is often because I’m afraid my passion for the subject will fade before I can get the painting finished.

That’s when I know I need to lighten up, and just “play” – as many above have said – not all paintings need to be masterpieces.

From: Yaroslaw — Apr 04, 2008

The World is not too rich for high art masterpieces. So any additional copy of famous painter masterpiece is great business for future generations. Except, the good copy has good price. It is not worthy to do if only artist says himself: “I am not artist while, I am not able to copy Ayvazovsky, Zurbaran and Buguero”.

From: Leslie Stones — Apr 04, 2008

It could be Diane, that your own state of mind is allowing the ’empty canvas’ to reflect back all your previous ideas and work, resulting in your feeling trapped, robbing you of the confidence to make any decision. Instead of ‘losing’ concentration, you need to ‘let loose’ your concentration – let your mind play!

From: Annette Bates — Apr 04, 2008

My advice would be to give up all those commitments that make life too hectic. Up until a year ago I had trouble deciding what to paint or create as I am a textile artist first, and most of my efforts were rewarded with uninteresting (to me) or a look of being ‘forced’. Since then I’ve been invited to exhibit in an art space in my hometown and in my efforts towards achieving this, I’ve given up the commitments I had, such as membership of committees, etc. I freed up my time so that I could spend it instead on perusing galleries, books, photographs, walk in the forest with my friends, or just have an afternoon siesta! All good for rejuvenating oneself!

From: Patti Cliffton — Apr 04, 2008

Paint what you love! I go out to the beach and many paintings unfold before me. Friends send me pictures of their granchildren, children, dogs, even birds, and the paintings emerge.

From: Regina Weston — Apr 04, 2008

I find that when I get a “block,” sometimes it is good to go back to the good ol’ basics….contour drawings, value drawings, good ol’ black and white drawings…my favorite tool being pencil. It keeps you “moving” and I find that a lot of times with pencil , I slip into the realistic representation of what I am doing and makes me feel like ‘hey, I can draw!’

From: Mary Kilbreath — Apr 04, 2008

I think a good way to call up the next one is to follow the advice of the last one. While painting, see what it is your eyes and brush are learning. Understand the direction your work is going. There is a natural progression. Ask yourself questions about why a certain thing looks the way it does. Relate the things you see to the basic tenants of shape, light, atmosphere. In answering these questions you realize where you can explore a subject further. Don’t think of the present work as The One. Think of it as a study, an exploration, a lesson. Taking the pressure off yourself with regards to what importance the piece will have will liberate your mind to go where it will. If you are stuck at a certain size, change it. Go BIG…..go tiny. Variety, and forcing yourself to think in different boundaries will energize your idea stores. What makes you happy? Excited? Sad? Paint it. Go out for a day and take pictures. With digital media you can take as many as you want. Crop the photos. Find design. See patterns. Breathe. Paint. Grow.

From: Agnes Tucker — Apr 04, 2008

Good advice and it might include attending a one or two day experimental workshop in a different medium. A workshop in a different medium can be fun and might relieve some of the pressure of “what to paint.” Put the onus on the instructor.

From: Jacques Derge — Apr 04, 2008

I started out as a copier of famous paintings on the sidewalk in Spain, mainly to survive as an American in Europe, but then I discovered how inspiring copying was for me and also that´s how I LEARNED HOW TO PAINT (after years of doing it)…Now I do alot of original things but whenever I run out of new ideas I just copy one of my favorite painters again…it works, it keeps me painting, learning, until the next new original idea hits, which it always eventually does.

From: Jeannine — Apr 04, 2008

Pick something, like a pear. Then paint pears. Pretty soon you will either enjoy it or you will think of something else to paint!!! If there’s more than one thing that comes to mind, make a list. Enjoy.

From: Tatjana m-p — Apr 04, 2008

It is said that no matter what we paint, we paint ourselves. My painting dwindles in times of personal crisis from whatever reason. If I am blocked with my art, that is always just a symptom of something else, unrelated to art, that requires attention. As an artist I take refuse in my art, but that something else keeps knocking on my shoulder and saying – you have to take care of me first before I let you paint!

From: James Connelly — Apr 04, 2008

Whenever I can’t think of anything to paint, I merely need to hang onto a few books–sometimes only one. These are picture books of artists I love and admire. Just holding onto them helps me to feel the weight and integrity of artistic history, and the triumph of creativity over dullness, and I am soon able to think of something I want to do.

From: Wayne Deutz — Apr 06, 2008

Looking back, Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) gave me mostly an understanding of what was acceptable as art and what was not. I realize these attitudes and opinions were fashions of the times (90s) and since I’m now on my own and successful at what I do I’m not quite so rigid.

From: D. G. Govern — Apr 06, 2008

I know I was totally turned on by the wide ranging knowledge of my instructors, both conservative and liberal, and feel I was well prepared to be informed and literate about art. While I do not practice art for a living, I feel I was deeply enriched and stimulated by my three happy years of art college.

From: Marylyn Ohlmann — Apr 06, 2008

All the letters and comments are very interesting. As a fairly new, elderly, person who loves painting…my problem is a “block” in understanding perspective…one does need buildings to look believable. Also, dealing with unending illness in the family seems to put a damper on ideas. Any good ideas on the perspective block? thanks.

From: Anonymous — Apr 09, 2008

Marylyn – Without seeing how you paint and what level you are, my response to your query is “who says you have to put perspective into your work. You might see things differently if you let your imagination soar. There are countless books on perspective but you need to learn to trust your instincts first and let that guide you. If you are a realist, then perspective is important but being a “new” painter, paint your vision and see what happens and let perspective come later. Perspective didn’t trouble Picasso or Miro or Brack or many other wonderful painters.

Trust yourself and paint what “YOU” see in your minds eye and let perspective be d–ned. Good luck

From: Bob Ragland — Apr 14, 2008

I often work in series, that is I paint the same subject 5-7 times. That way I always have some sujbect to paint. The artist Hunt Slonem will paint something fifty times. Just a thought.

From: Martha Griffith — Apr 26, 2008

What a shame! If persons have to ask what to paint, it’s time to quit, and go on to doing something else – knit etc. Have drawers full and cabinet full of ideas – will never get it all done in my lifetime! So don’t ask – just do or give up! We all have days where we don’t feel like it – but then there are other jobs need doing etc. Martha.

From: Kris Love — May 14, 2008

Tatjana, my friend: I believe you meant to say you take “refuge” in painting. Sadly, “refuse” is often how my paintings turn out (unintentionally, of course!). I keep painting anyway. (grin) I completely agree that we paint ourselves – how can we not? Some of my most powerful paintings come from those times when life is challenging.

From: sal — Jan 02, 2010

wow lots of coments these paintings are cool

From: N — Nov 19, 2011


I am not at all good in painting… but then also love to paint… after reading this… just wanna draw again… lovely paintings…

From: Manney — Mar 18, 2013

that was good that was fine now lets do it one more time.







oil painting on canvas, 18 x 15 inches
by Ventura Diaz, Spain


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 Elisabeth Nitteberg of Lillesand, Norway who wrote, “Sometimes I feel a lack of inspiration. What I do is paint backgrounds of colors chosen by the spur of the moment. I take my time and often meditate when making the brush strokes.”

And also Valerie Kent who wrote, “And the corollary… how is it that there never seems to be enough time to paint everything that I have lined up to paint. The ideas crowd in like the folks in the line-up at Tim Horton’s for morning coffee.”

And also Rene Wojcik of Midland, TX, USA who wrote, “My ideas come from a moleskin book of Mind Maps that I keep next to me on my work table. I believe it was Tony Buzan who wrote several books on Mind Maps and this is an excellent approach to creativity.”

And also David A. Lucht who wrote, “I recently took a workshop from Lew Lehrman of Scottsdale… he talked about how to decide what to paint. He described the English way and the French way. He favors the French way. The English spend days searching for the perfect view. Then, if they have to, they will lash themselves to a tree, enduring an onslaught of wind and pelting rain to paint that view. The French go to their favorite outdoor café, order a bottle of wine and paint whatever happens to be in view. Lehrman teaches art journaling, which is very helpful in learning to find interesting things to paint everywhere you go.”

And also Alicia Chimento who wrote, “Piggybacking a bit on your last letter, The Thought Walk, this week’s What To Paint, also serves to inspire and reflect. Walking 3 miles 5 times a week not only clears my head, and keeps my weight down, but opens my mind to the endless possibilities that abound in nature.”

And also Paul Massing of Amelia Island, FL, USA who wrote, “The Atlantic Ocean, barrier island where I live and do art has many and various changing dimensions in color and form largely due to the effect of the seasons. It provides me a never ending visual experience to inspire my work.”

And also Nikki Coulombe of Lewisville, TX, USA who wrote, “I wonder if the source behind the question, ‘What should I paint?’ is having expectations that every painting is going to be pretty, should be finished quickly, and that it has to sell. Allowing for the options of experimentation, mystery, even vulnerability to failure opens up a world of potential.”




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