Winging it


Dear Artist,

On Dec. 8, 1903, with government funding, countless advisors and great ballyhoo, Samuel Pierpont Langley’s flying machine plopped unpleasantly into the Potomac. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got their Flyer off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Langley’s plans were mostly theoretical and his machine was produced from blueprint and built by others. But by studying the Wright brothers’ working notes, you see that their insight and their execution are woven together. By trial and error and over a period of time they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping. Each adjustment was a small spark of insight that led to others. Along the way they found it necessary to build a wind tunnel and other devices to test the lift and controllability of their ever-changing designs.


“Snow Storm – Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps” oil painting
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)

Applying the Wright metaphor to the artistic creative process, we can see that success might come with a succession of adjustments in a series production. In Keith Sawyer’s controversial new book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, he explains that these adjustments need not be world-shaking. One does not necessarily have a sense of revelation. Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, uses the Wright brothers’ “tinkering” as an example. Indeed, it’s the minor nature of changes that leads to progress. To bring this line of thought closer to our easel experience — a progressive process of working from one quasi-experimental work to the next might lead to artistic character. On this path, errors are inevitable, even vital. Failures become the stepping stones to success. By carefully watching and managing a personal progression, a creator stealthily finds his muse.


“The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834”
oil on canvas
by J.M.W. Turner

In these letters I’ve often talked about series production as an aid to creativity. With small works in series there is greater freedom to experiment and err. Combinations and variations abound within each small work and within the greater series. A feeling of letting go, of “winging it,” brings out our innate inventiveness. Instead of a theoretical blueprint-based slavery, one feels the magic of automatic flow. The interest and attention of the creator is held by this process and the results often have a sort of celestial inevitability — the look of natural beauty and persistent magic. Works thus produced might even “fly.”

Applying the Wright metaphor to the artistic creative process, we can see that success might come with a succession of adjustments in a series production.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

“Peace – Burial at Sea”
oil on canvas
by J. M. W. Turner

Best regards,


PS: “While in the process of executing an idea, creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks.” (R. Keith Sawyer)

Esoterica: In 1988, another Keith — a Canadian diplomat named Keith Spicer — wrote a book on public speaking called Winging It. He explained a simple system of speaking with minimal notes that took advantage of natural thought progression based on logical point-to-point or story-to-story presentation. Timing, disclosure, invention, visualization and on-the-spot improvisation follow. Material is given out in what seems to be an effortless flow. With the use of very few key words to keep me on track, my best public speaking has been done using Spicer’s method. When I’m up there doing it, I often feel it’s much like painting a series.

This letter was originally published as “Winging it” on January 17, 2006.

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water exhibited 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.” (J. M. W. Turner)

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