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.


Samuel Pierpont Langley’s flying machine plopped unpleasantly into the Potomac.

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.

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.

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.


Escape from bondage
by Debbie Jackson Wagers, Sand Gap, KY, USA


“Creation Series: First Day”
acrylic and ink painting
by Debbie Jackson Wagers

The comments in this letter really grabbed my attention. My series called The Creation Series came about just as you described in the last paragraph. Something magical did happen with this series of small paintings, which I had never experienced before. They were quickly and spontaneously executed in about 30 minutes with a few final additions later. I had previously been working on 3′ x 4′ canvases. These small 6″ x 6″ panels were like being set free from some bondage I can’t quite explain. I have since experimented with other small series and find it freeing and exhilarating.



Exploring each new advance
by Jean Bradley, Kauai, HI, USA


“Rhythm and Light – Papaya”
acrylic painting
by Jean Bradley

When I started painting I heard about the benefits of doing a series, but never quite understood what it meant until I happened on a passionate idea. I developed that idea and my Rhythm and Light series was born. It seems something else takes hold and the painting is flowing so effortlessly and so fast I try to slow it down because I don’t want to finish each painting too fast. It is so much fun exploring each new small advance. Magic happens with a series. It’s wonderful to trust your inner instincts and turn off the brain chatter now and then. As a result of this series I am currently featured in International Artist Magazine (Feb-Mar. 2006) and on the cover.



Accelerate your development
by Paul Foxton, UK


“Self Portrait, 15th January 2006”
by Paul Foxton

My entire current output is a collection of series, in fact, a series of series. A series of small still lifes; a series of self-portraits; a series of drawings of hands. This neatly avoids the ever-present danger of becoming too precious about one’s work. So today’s piece didn’t work out. Tomorrow’s will. You can accelerate your development by giving yourself a fresh set of challenges, or the same set viewed from a different angle, every day. Regarding the ‘internal art director,’ undoubtedly there is value in that, but I think that there is also much value in turning off the internal critic and just going at it hammer and tongs for a while. Explore a different path — if it’s a dead end, explore another.



Freedom of ‘What if?’
by Helen Scott, New Bern, NC, USA

Whether teaching or doing my own work, my mantra is “What if?” This is the key to opening my mind to a new way, a simpler way or, even, a more complex way to approach the production of a new piece. This works exceptionally well with series painting. The initial subjects may be quite simple. But the subjects then become the framework on which all the “What if?” ideas can be hung. There is no end to ideas when one gives oneself this freedom. I am very sure that Orville and Wilbur must have asked themselves this same question hundreds of times as they “tried and tweaked” their flying machine. Just last year we visited Kitty Hawk where they worked. To run and fly by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean is inspiring. The sky truly is the limit, and there is no limit to the sky!


Freedom to flow and have fun
by Sonja Billard, Calgary, AB, Canada

Experimenting, playing and allowing myself the freedom to make ‘messes’ is an essential part of my art authorship. I am addicted to mixed media and collage which lend themselves well to this play with surface and texture. It’s important to allow the freedom to flow with an idea and most of all have fun with it. Surprises often result besides the learning of techniques for future reference. Interesting work engages me much more quickly than a slick style.


Process vs. formula
by Rosemarie Manson, Smithfield, RI, USA

I am a risk-taker and a process learner. I’ve always been a ‘process’ person in my writing. I thought, however, that I needed to be a ‘formula’ person in my painting — following the laws of capturing a subject according to ‘Whomever.’ The best Whomever, however, is me. Now that I know how I operate, I’m getting more relaxed in my approach, and less uptight if things don’t go perfectly the first time.


“Across the bay at seaside 1”


“Across the bay at seaside 2”


Across the bay at seaside 3






Science of creativity
by Daniel Scarbrough, Fayetteville, AR, USA

I’m reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and these thoughts fit right into the premise of that story. Science is not separate from intuition; the object from its form; the part from the whole. When I am painting, writing, playing the guitar, running, cleaning, or building a computer, I am making decisions — minor adjustments in my attitude and thought pattern — as I do my thing. I like what you say about series — a collection of similar work with varying degrees of adjustment in tone, composition, or technique. That’s what I enjoy about art. It is a beautiful science… the science of creativity.


Painting down the road
by Elizabeth Schamehorn, Washago, ON, Canada


“View from my window series”
Elizabeth Schamehorn

I have been painting things in series since I came out of art school. I realized it was a great way to get down to the basics of an image by treating the subject as a given. One of these is a series of paintings of the view from my front window — the same pine tree, the same river, the same rocks. The only thing that changes is the time of day, season, and weather. I completed about fifty of them, all sizes, but mostly small 9″ by 12″ all oil on wood panels. My painting buddy John Presseault in Toronto, Ontario has done the same thing. On a road by the Humber River, he painted a new piece every 50 feet or so down the road — whatever he could see out the front window of the car — trees, river, garbage cans, cement parking barriers and all. It’s a great exercise. It helps break painter’s block. And when shown together the pieces make a cool installation.


Storyteller wins duel
by Michael Lewin, UK

“Near dusk an itinerant storyteller is passing through a village when he notices the dojo of a samurai. In the process of requesting lodging, he challenges the sword master to a duel. At dawn they face off. The storyteller begins: ‘Long ago, in a village far away…’ ‘Stop!’ cries the sword master bowing to his opponent.’ The storyteller has won. I was transported by his words and could have been killed in an instant.’ ” This quote, apropos to your letter, is taken from Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake.


Must get a plan
by Karen Jacobs, Birmingham, AL, USA


“Palm” 1989
original painting
by Karen Jacobs

There was a time… late ’80s, early ’90s, when I knew exactly what I was doing, and exactly what I would have when the painting was finished. I was very adept at copying the photos I took of whatever. It was so easy… like knitting, it was calming and could be done piecemeal or for long stretches. Today, what I try to do is so hard. I have no idea where I’m going or what I will have when I get there… if I get there. I have no plan… I must get a plan!


No plan
by Katherine Trokey, Mableton, GA, USA


“Autumn Sunset”
watercolour painting
by Katherine Trokey

“Winging it” has always been my best mode of creation. Whether it is with public speaking, painting or deciding to get my hair cut. The problem is, if one decides to choose art as a major (or art education in my case) this way of working is often smashed with “C” type grades and the disapproval of the more “work it all in your sketchbook” types. Sketching a “schematic,” as one of my design professors calls it, limits my creativity and makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Maybe it is the pressure of making a mistake by going off my plan that frightens me, or the pressure from others for my final piece to look identical to the plan. Whatever the reason is, I don’t plan now, just let my paint brush tell me what it wants to do in each painting… and we get along just fine.


Tinkering builds too much thickness
by Fay Bohlayer, Dawsonville, GA, USA


Jackson Pollock floor

Trial and error, tinkering and ‘adjusting’ do eventually lead to progress in art. In my case, however, all of the above seems to occur with dogged determination on the same canvas. The final results are approximately what I wanted, if viewed frontally and not too close up (blurring the oddly rippling surface). Viewed from either side, an entirely new category of art appears: the Bas-relief Painting! Especially effective while redoing and correcting is heavy impasto brushwork, better yet palette knife loaded — oh hell yes, bring on the Trowel! (hint: stop adding paint before the whole wad falls off the canvas onto the floor) …say… perhaps another emergent Art Form: the Jackson Pollock Floor Sculpture. Even when it’s bad, this art thing is more fun than anything.


Series idea potentially boring
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany


“Panaxia 1”
silk painting
by Petra Voegtle

I have often thought about creating that kind of series you are probably talking about but I dropped the idea as soon as it arrived. Becoming easily bored is my concern. Abstract painting series (but not only) which end up in 20 works or more, using similar colours, composition, etc. are particularly boring and my feeling often is that the ideas of the artist went off. So in my opinion it is extremely difficult to create a series and not bore the viewer to death. Unless the public only gets to see the two or “best” ones of course. Creating a series just for myself might be a different issue but this is a luxury I currently cannot afford due to time and money. Also for me, it is simply a question of unnecessary waste — something I would request any artist to keep in mind in these days of exploitation.



Criticism need not be personal
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA

In the responses to your piece on The Inner Art Critic, people were often confusing criticism of their work with criticism of themselves as a person — whether they were productive, or risk takers, or competent, or marketable, etc. In any critique of a specific work, it should always be about the work and nothing else, not the creator nor the audience. Save the self-improvement or marketing issues for another time. See nothing but the work and divorce your thinking from the fact that you are its creator — let go of ego (mind) and commune with heart and gut. The question should be how does it make you feel to view it, not how does it feel to have made it, or what will others think.


Trials of framing
by Betty Newcomer, Mt Gilead, OH, USA

I wonder how to educate or inform buyers of my work of the importance of the framing. I try several frames to make sure I enhance the focal point, or emotion of the painting, so I get very upset when I hear the buyer had it re-framed to match the end tables or color of walls in the room. We know that changes the look, and brings out the unimportant parts of the painting. Even though it is their property, with my name on it, it is an important part of possible sales, or reputation. The wrong frame can be detrimental to the whole piece of art. Does anyone know a polite way of informing the buyers that the framers are not trained to enhance the art? They know how to put a painting in a frame and charge big bucks for it. Perhaps I should just let it go.

(RG note) Thanks, Betty, Yep, you should just let it go. Taste in framing is one of the great mysteries, often relative to geographic location, and why some people frame the way they do will make you crazy if you let it. Just realize that when works are out of your hands, frames are out of your control. Having said that, there are many framers who have a wonderful eye and know just what to do without breaking the bank.


Exhibition on Crete
by Laurel Johnson, Delta, BC, Canada


“Clear and Cold”
original painting
by Laurel Johnson

What do you think of the letters we are getting these days from Chania, Crete, Greece — the 4th International Art Festival ‘Chania 2006’ from June 15 until June 30, 2006? They tell us it’s at “the Neoria public exhibition center, a converted 15th century vaulted Venetian shipyard, over 4000 square meters in area. It will be the largest art exhibition ever held in Chania and one of the largest ever held in Greece, and will be covered accordingly by the local and national media. Artists from all over the world can participate. Each artist will participate with two works (no size limit). Fee for artists: 350 Euros. Participation fee for galleries: 1300 Euros (group of 4 artists).”

(RG note) Thanks, Laurel. It’s essentially a low-end art fair with a pretty big fee for exhibiting two of your things among perhaps thousands of others in a picturesque but otherwise deserted shipyard on a touristy Greek island with limited serious traffic. Shipping back and forth is extra. You may get lucky, but the main value of these things is that you can wait for the proper social situation and casually remark: “I currently have an exhibition going on in Greece.” People who like to make this remark can get info by writing curator Despina Tunberg. Ask about number of exhibitors and visitors last year and estimated number of sales.






oil painting
by Suzanne Partridge, Street, Somerset, UK


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Greg Packard of Ranchester, WY who wrote, “Logic and intellect can take an artist to the dance, but intuition and creativity are the dance itself.”

And also Patricia Hollis of Australia who wrote, “I have only one hand and I am in a wheelchair. Any advice?”

And also Nancy Marculewicz of Essex, Massachusetts who wrote, “You should check out Glenn Curtis from Hammondsport, NY. He was another creative spirit who was “messing around” with flying machines at the same time as the Wright brothers.”

And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czechoslovakia who wrote, “Errors are it! My mother said that anyone learning to cook needed a large dog to eat the mistakes. As a sculptor of wood I have always tried to keep a fireplace. My lessons keep me warm.”

And also Carolyn Millard who added to our Books on Artists’ Shelves with Write it down, Make it happen by Henriette Anne Klauser.

And also Enda Bardell who wrote, “I call tinkering ‘thinkering’ — throwing ideas around my mind, visualizing how a painting might work when I’m about to fall asleep. The problem is remembering the process when it’s time to paint. Thomas Edison said, ‘Each time you fail, you have eliminated another wrong option.’ ”




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