Monday, May 29, 2017


68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures 

Someone recently asked me what music I listen to when I paint and I truthfully answered “None.” In order to get into that space in my head where creative ideas come from, I require total silence: no distractions, no e-mail, phone, ambient noise, people moving around the house etc. Only then can I access that part of my subconscious that creates art. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, some artists I know like to work in tumult, with other artists around them, studio assistants, children, spouses, dogs etc. They thrive on distraction, distraction that allows their subconscious to take over. I’m just the opposite, distraction prevents me from allowing my right brain to go to work and come up with something I’ve never done before.

The early 19th century French painter, Eugene Delacroix famously said that you should “think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction.” He went on to discuss the joys of a life of uninterrupted art “and plenty of it.”  Picasso was once quoted as saying that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Of course, he did some of his greatest artwork in collaboration with the painter Braque, but I suspect that after their collaborating was done, each went back to his studio to work on his own .

68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures

 The brain scientists who study the phenomenon they call “Flow” talk about a euphoric experience that takes place when ideas begin to pour out of the subconscious. To achieve a state of flow takes time, often a long period in which nothing appears to be happening. It’s like pregnancy; it’s hard to see that anything is in the works until it’s pretty far along.

It’s not just artists who suffer from interrupted thoughts, I recently heard a well-known writer say that her idea of heaven would be six months in solitary confinement with a pencil and paper (or word processor). Scientists often do their most creative work before they become well known and are deluged with the distractions of success. And, given the current state of constant interaction with I-phones, e-mails, etc., it’s almost impossible to get time alone to decompress and think creatively.

68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures
I recently read a biography written by his daughter, of one of my favorite mid 20th century artists, Philip Guston. In the 1930s, he was a pretty good Social Realist painter and in the 50s, one of the better Abstract Expressionists, but, after dropping out of the New York art scene, in the 60s, distraught by the politics of the time, (McCarthy era) he became, for want of a better term, a “cartoon expressionist” and ended up doing his best and most original work. His daughter described his need for total and absolute silence while he worked in a studio in his home. His children could not invite anyone over; no one was allowed to call (the phone disrupted his train of thought). There were to be no distractions whatever while “the great one” was painting. While I sympathize with his tyrannized family, I understand completely what he was going through.  And look at what he produced!

As much as I crave solitude and require it to achieve a high level of creativity, I also need companionship – at least part of the time. It’s too bad we don’t have artists’ cafes any more, places like the CafĂ© Voltaire in Paris, or the Cedar Bar in downtown New York. After a glass of wine and a good chat about current politics, or the gallery scene or who was sleeping with whom, I’d be pretty content to go back alone into my studio and paint. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Post #140: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

You all know the famous Yogi Berra quote: ” It ain’t over til it’s over.” Of course he was referring to baseball, a game that has very well defined rules as to when it’s over. If only we artists could have such an easy time! At what point is a painting finished, or, is it never finished? Or is it only finished when all the spaces are colored in? There’s an oft-heard saying in the art world that there are two people involved in the creation of a work of art: the artist who creates it, and the person who takes it away from him.

I briefly alluded to that issue in my last “Dear Reader,” explaining how I was struggling to decide whether my latest paintings were finished or whether I could go to the next level without destroying what I had. It’s not just artists, all creative people face this problem: writers, composers, etc. We all struggle with the decision of when to leave well enough alone. In art, there are no rules the way there are in baseball that tell you when the game is over and you can go home.

A couple of readers responded to my plea for direction by firmly telling me they liked the pair of paintings I showed in my blog and thought I should leave them alone. But how could I be sure? We artists have all had both good and bad experiences, ones when “just a few strokes more” ruined everything. On the other hand, we’ve also experienced the alternative when, by being persistent, we’ve come up with something new and wonderful. Most of the time, however, I hear artists complain about not knowing when to stop..

Here’s some hard-learned points:

1)    Keep your work reversible. I always start with an umber toned canvas, the color of wrapping paper. When the water-based ground is dry, I create a charcoal drawing from my imagination, without a sketch, often working on it for days until it’s “perfect.” When I’m satisfied with the drawing, I spray it with matte charcoal fixative. That way I can always get back to my original image no matter how many layers of paint I apply afterward.
2)    I prefer to work in oil, rather than acrylic even though acrylic is less toxic and easier to clean. I decided that oil was worth the extra trouble because it’s removable and allows you to change your mind. With acrylic, once it’s dry, you can’t paint over it without losing the layers.
3)    This is awfully obvious, but put the piece away and work on something else. Even a few hours of separation can let you know if you are going in the right direction.
4)     I offer this suggestion cautiously because it can easily backfire: Get a friend you trust to look at it. Over my painting lifetime, I have only known two people who could really be of help. Most just try to push me in the direction they are going in themselves and their opinion ended up doing more harm than good. It once took six months to undo damage caused by someone’s well-meaning suggestion. My late husband (a retired child psychologist) became an “Outsider Artist” in his old age (and a remarkably good one). Whenever I would try to give him advice, he would put his hands on my shoulders and give me a gentle shove out the door.
5)     And last but not least: Less IS More. It’s terribly easy to overwork something. You don’t need to spend a long time on a piece for it to be finished.