As an artist, at least for me, it’s hard to know whether there is ever a real method to my madness. With the little time I have, I often challenge myself to try out a new painting technique – last week was chiaroscuro! - and it’s goes okay for a while and then suddenly I draw a blank and my momentary creative genius is lost in me. How does one combat artists block? Particularly when time between work and life is slim… Consult the masters!
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. A quick review of some of the prose put forward by this collection of master artists yields some invaluable reminders. Why fumble through your artist’s journey alone when plenty have come before you? You are a part of a much larger tribe of creative folks and thus a long tradition of wisdom to call upon.
But don’t take my advice. Forage below from these quotes said by the master artists themselves:
Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.
(Image: Seated Bather (1930), Pablo Picasso)
Ugh… as an artist, writing is something I wish I did more. I used to journal quite a bit as a pre-teen, to a maddening degree, actually and often unintelligibly. But all the same, many a hot-pink satin diaries have been filled and filed away under tiny lockets and keys. I don’t know exactly how I maintained such a textbook-therapeutic routine for so long but these days, it seems impossible to find the time and motivation to get back to this basic. Now, when I do make the time, I’m often so out of practice that what comes out is a professionalistic legalese of sorts. I’m so used to crafting correspondence for my day job that I’m finding it hard to locate words big enough to embody how I’m feeling on a deeper level.
Needless to say, coming across this quote by Pablo Picasso was quite encouraging. What it reminds me is that there is, of course, more than one way to express one’s self. Let’s choose to track time passing, creatively.
Consider the current craze of adult coloring books. I totally get what the hype is all about. I was and still am the one who asks the restaurant waiter for another box of crayons so I can lean over my younger cousins and color in their pre-stenciled kids’ menus. It has always soothed me and felt low-risk: like I didn’t have much to prove and I didn’t need to have a finished product at the end of it. Borrowing this, I challenge you to craft your own pre-outlined activity pages.
Here we go!
- Use a page in a flimsy, thin and (ideally) pocketable notebook as well as some type of writing implement. It can be a pen, pencil, marker or the like.
- Start sketching. You can do so with words (bubble letters anyone?), full sentences (perhaps song lyrics or memorized quotes). Whatever is on your heart and head to share will do. You can also stick to shapes. Just try filling up most of the page. Perhaps do all of the above without lifting your pen off your surface…
- When you’ve done all you can or all that time will allow, close your book and leave it for your next allotted creative session. Wait until your back in your “studio” and return to the page with your paint brush and color palette, ready to do nothing more than fill in the spaces just as you would a coloring book.
Do you see how low-stakes it all can be? Allow these in-between moments (while waiting in a doctor’s office, for your food at a restaurant, or for your kid to finished breakfast in the morning) to be building blocks in your artist journey. Suddenly workplace to-do or household grocery lists can continue to serve you in your creative space. Use these scribbled lists as the first layer of a painting that will immediately take on incredible dimensionality each time you return to it.
Don’t worry about making something interpretable. In fact, painting as a form of journaling might even prove safer and more fulfilling when left encrypted. So much can be lost when we try to be straight forward in a fantastically roundabout world.
I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.
(Image: Deer’s Skull with Pedernal (1936), Georgia O’Keefe)
This is so important to hear from someone classified as a great. For me, terror is very much a frequent flier that sits at the front plane of my mind, especially at times when I’m trying to be creative. I’ve always thought that part of the key to successfully reaching the next level of my artistry was to do away with terror/fear/imposter-syndrome entirely. Here Georgia reassures me to do otherwise: be afraid and do it anyhow.
In fact, this guidance reminds me of another artist that I’ve looked to for advice: a contemporary writer named Elizabeth Gilbert, who is best known for her travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In her manifesto on being a creative, Big Magic, she discusses her relationship to Fear, personified. And I paraphrase from memory: Fear is someone who comes with you on a road trip. But fear sits in the back seat. It can’t touch the radio, comment on your driving and surely has no control over navigating to where you are going.
Essentially, if fear must be present - because apparently, it is here to stay! - then let us, at least, come into a mutual arrangement with it.
We’ve all done this with difficult colleagues, friends, or family members, right? And we’ve learned, even from childhood that what you focus on is what you get. So, when cantankerous colleagues of ours are being obnoxious, one must be careful in how we approach them. Flat out ignoring them might encourage them, just as focusing on them might rev up their flailing need for negative attention. But occasionally, with some strategy in your approach and some thought behind how you address them, there’s comes an opportunity to neutralize the effect that they have on you. My WebMD/self-therapist would say, we are talking about boundaries here.
So, following the inspiration of Master O’Keefe, and in line with the self-help section of any library, I challenge you to outline what your boundaries will be with our new friend/colleague/family member in-law, Terror. I’m going to call Terror, “Tee”. Here are some questions to get you started:
- When are you accepting and responding to calls/emails/any correspondence from Tee? (ie: during business hours only, according to availability, Sunday evenings or weekday mornings, etc…)
- What kinds of topics are off limits/ not up for negotiation between you and Tee? (ie: your kids, your partner, you as a child, your freedom as a creative being, etc…)
- How do you expect to be spoken to by Tee? (ie: with what tone or intentions will you entertain conversation with Tee?)
It may sound silly, but I promise that managing this “problem child” is better than letting it continue to wreak havoc on your creative genius. Let’s utilize the same approach that we use with our human bullies and redirect it internally, to our internal critics, with kindness at the core of our being. Set up some boundaries (a confined play pin of sorts) to allow Terror “Tee” to have its space such that your creative mind can run wild, on the rest of the plain unapologetically.
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.
(Image: Untitled (1932) Salvador Dalí)
(Image: The Key (1946) - Jackson Pollack)
Easy for this guy to say as his work, to me, is some of the most original stuff I’ve seen! With that said, I’m completely in agreement, that you cannot allow other people’s successes to keep you from trying your hand at their strategy or technique.
We are snowflakes, right? With unique fingerprints and teeth. We can’t help but be original and provide a fresh take on what we are seeing.
Perhaps it was the implanted fear of being charged with plagiarism by high school English and History teachers that left me with a squeamish feeling about borrowing styles from others.
But what one ultimately learns, of course, is of the great paradox: that all thoughts have already been thought before. There is no such thing as a new idea. Just as my science teacher read aloud from our text books: matter can be neither created nor destroyed. We are always and have always only been working with what we’ve got. And that includes the master artists in question here.
Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were inspired by masks from the Dan people of Africa. Jackson Pollack took after his art teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, and later, showed influences to Native American symbolism. Or take Jean-Michel Basquiat who, after a bad car accident led to the removal of his spleen, his mother gifted him a Greys Anatomy textbook which he subsequently memorized. Surveying any pieces of his art shows you the degree to which those lessons penetrated his creative works.
I think what Dali is reminding us is that we should want to engage with the work that comes before and is among us. Consuming various genres of other people’s art will only add further body to what comes out of yours. This April, identify who will be your artist(s) to study over the spring. Flood yourselves with their work and read up to see how they might have re-interpreted what it is they created. Challenge yourself to recreate what you most like about their work and be mindful of how the process allows and rejects your creative expression. Stick with the techniques that offer you a deeper window into your lived experience. Then try again with a new batch of artists next season.
I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child.
(Image: Back of the Neck (1983) Jean-Michel Basquiat)
As we all have likely realized, growing up can be overrated. Once children become adults the stakes seem to quadruple in measure. Mistakes made as a child can be laughed about but for grownups, can be chopped up to irrefutable character flaws.
I love the way Basquiat encourages us to choose the lower stakes. For me, it is when I’m trying to create something good, advanced or even relatable to others that I get stuck.
Basquiat is heartening me to adjust my intentions. And what I’m hearing is this: Don’t set out to build something substantive. What you create doesn’t have to be good, pretty to look at or even complete. Just put something on a page. That alone is all you need.
Here's an exercise:
- Put on your favorite song, ideally one that is at least 5+ minutes long.
- Prepare yourself to paint. Grab your surface and brushes and water and paint pallet.
- Press play on your player and let the music serve as both a timer and a string of content from which to draw inspiration from. Music (especially when it’s beloved) has the power to bring certain emotions out of you. Funnel that emotion through your brush and onto the page.
- When the song goes off, you can choose to replay it, you can put on another song or even go for the full album if you’ve got the time.
- Or maybe when the song goes off, just leave what you have to dry. Come back to that painting at a later date and repeat steps 1 through 4 to produce an additional layer.
Remember, we are going for kids’ stuff. Think macaroni necklace level. That will boost your ego and disorient your internal critic into silence for a bit :)
My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.
(Image: Parasol (1977), Joan Mitchell)
We end on a more expanded quote that I feel captures the whole sentiment of this blog post.
We don’t, and we can’t know where we are going, what we are doing, what we are creating when we paint (and most definitely in life). We cannot know the title, the core themes, what the reaction to our paintings will be, even once we’ve completed them. And that’s more than alright.
Let that part go. The need to control for beauty, accuracy, accessibility in your creating. Think of the many first-time writers who often say that they did not know that they were writing a book (or what it was principally about) until it was done and received by readers. Don’t mistake any brush stroke as one done in vain. Each is a tally, a blade of grass, a grain of sand that colors the landscapes around us.
I know as an artist operating in a largely logically-oriented society, we can be pushed to make our work interpretable to a mainstream audience. Often, we reward the individuals/professions that immediately make sense (and cents!) as opposed to those that require more time and attention. But we must remember that as creatives, that’s not our purpose. It is the artists in society that are meant to experiment; they are meant to think ahead, backwards, and in every other direction.
What Joan discusses is the lived, human experience. Our bodies are full of memories. Unlike autobiographies, particularly in this age of constant fact-checking, the memories that we translate onto a page are not, cannot, and will not ever be exact replicas of the real thing. As we know, many people can be present for the real thing and walk away with varied interpretations of what took place. Don’t set yourself up with the impossible (and boring) task of trying to craft something to mathematically perfect proportions. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me, Mitchell says in closing. How about you do the same? Give us, your audience, the reward of seeing what it is in this sensational life that has impressed itself most firmly upon you.
By: Camylle Fleming