Spontaneity verses Deliberation


It’s gawky and somewhat incoherent, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. I painted it years ago.  I had set the blue and white, China creamer on the steps in front of the house, filled it with clover flowers from the yard, and painted it quickly in raking light.  It was an impulsive thing to do and involved painting skills I did not possess. (There’s no interior differentiation of light in the shadow, for instance, little sense of space or dimension.)  I worked quickly, put in everything I knew how to put there and stopped painting when I ran out of ideas.  (No doubt the light had changed dramatically as well.)

I wouldn’t change anything about it.  I wouldn’t sell it either.  And since I doubt that people will ever be clamoring to buy it, the not selling isn’t really an especially remarkable gesture.

Bonnard three women
Bonnard, unfinished painting


I note that artists are often asking if they should continue working on something or whether they should leave it alone.  And on the whole, I have to say, that if you’re asking the question you should keep working.  The very fact that you’re asking the question demonstrates that you’re aware of defects in the work that you don’t know how to fix (or are reluctant to fix) but you’re seeking a kind of societal absolution from having to go forward.  Isn’t it good enough as it is?

It’s true that there’s a kind of beauty that is spontaneous even when unfinished — or especially because of its being unfinished — something that is poetically evocative because it leaves much to the imagination.  However, if you are always hoping to get lucky with happy accidents you never really learn the deliberate skills that can bring something to refinement.

One way of learning skill and to compensate for the disappointment that’s intrinsic to this problem is to redo the same thing several times. Essentially, you take Degas’s advice. When the fear consists in worrying that you’ll screw the picture up, then simply make several of them and spread the risk around among them.  One of them ought to turn out decent enough.

You practice the riff just as a musician practices music.  You don’t have to do it exactly the same way each time.  It can be a theme and variations like Monet haystacks.  But the point is that you set yourself a goal and then strive to meet it, rather than setting yourself no goal and hoping that somehow you’ll accidentally fall into a successful painting.  As with other things in life, if you have no goal (none, at all) how will you know if you have succeeded?  And even if you don’t know what you want, you do at least know of artists whose work you admire, who set some kind of standard into your mind of what good art looks like. You can emulate something even if your own goals are hazy. These exemplars might be as varied as Matisse or Andrew Wyeth, but you do have goals. The question is can you dare to seek your real goals?

If the real goals are too hard, you have to break them down into some sort of constituent parts.  Maybe you work on drawing one day, on color some other occasion –on composition, on tonality, or texture, or proportion — or whatever — whenever.  You can proceed in baby steps.

That said, I don’t know what goals I had when I painted the still life above.  I’m not sure I did have any that were specific, that I could articulate, nor even ones that I could locate in the works of artists I admire. In that instance I ran out of time and happened afterwards to feel a mother’s love for my imperfect off-spring.  But in other works, I set myself goals (they are somewhat shadowy but they still exist).  The goals do not inhibit spontaneity.  Quite the contrary they make it possible. And I work very deliberately toward accurate drawing, deliberate color effects, and I often find that a path toward invention opens up precisely because I am reaching for something high.

A variety among the works of the Old Masters, an unfinished painting: Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara.


Art is expression but it can be discipline too.  I’m not talking about the (to my thinking) empty discipline of the punitive plaster cast school of art — the one that says that you have to do a hundred pictures of noses from plaster casts before you can dare to portray even a turnip from nature.  I’m not talking about the false discipline of someone who sets artificial obstacles in his own path so that he can afterwards declaim about how many hours he spent perfecting a dry looking painting.

Instead I’m trying to evoke a living kind of discipline, one established in longing, the sort of situation in which you find that you love something very much, enough to strive to get it right.

monet 1monet 4monet 3

monet 2
How many haystacks did Monet paint, anyway?


So these two ideals can sit comfortably side by side.  There are times when the first few strokes catch the thing in a way that painting further would only ruin.  And there are also kinds of achievement that only arise from persistent work, which will never be got on the cheap.  It’s good to leave yourself open to both options: to be willing to work hard and to be ready to recognize the (rare) instance of inspiration when the thing seems to paint itself.  And you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that there’s a huge world of difference between these two kinds of art.

blue compotier
Study of the blue compotier. It never got any farther than this.

I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn the blue compotier, but I love drawing it and it’s blue corridors hypnotize me every time I look at it anew.

I will know them

I am making so many drawings of the koi.  Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense to draw the same motifs so many times, and yet I am always encountering some aspect of the image that is new.  And beyond the koi is the water.  Even as I find that I have learned much about the koi, I know so little about the water.  And it is always different, always moving and forming new shapes.

And what about the light?  The light is there also — pouring over the things, scooting round the surfaces, reflecting from points, being absorbed in shadows.

And what about myself?  What do I know about the gestures I make?  Why do I begin here and not there?  Why choose this color and not that one?

There’s just so much.  And considered that way, how could you possibly make too many drawings?

Quick thinking

One is forever learning to think quickly for no matter how many times one may have acted spontaneously in the past, each new spontaneous action is singular.  Always some brake that must be met.  Always some objection to get around.  The barriers are spontaneous, too, and only agile quick-witted thinking out-smarts that part of the brain that waits for you with the utmost caution.

The koi are quick witted, too.  Quick and sleek swimmers are they, as agile as desire unstopped by will.  Their direction is all their seeking.  Of one seamless swift intention they move.

If the crayon can be made to move with fish-like certainty, that would be a koi drawing indeed.

Past and Present Tenses

I used to make small paintings in emulation of artists I admired such as this painting of a sprig of holly in a crystal mug meant for a study of the early still lifes of Van Gogh.  The lozenge pattern of the mug, which one can find analogies for in certain Van Gogh drawings, was as significant as the “green-black” of the holly leaves (a color that Van Gogh loved) or the expressionistic pointiness of the leaf’s shape.  The scale, the smallness, the spontaneity of going outdoors and collecting a sprig and painting it all of a sudden were other things that I took from this master who I wanted to understand.

Yet there’s not just emulation of a famous artist:  the holly tree grew outside our house, you could see it from the living room window.  The mug was a fixture in the kitchen cabinet, container for many a cup of hot cocoa on a winter evening.  These were ordinary items from my life at that time and signified more about my life than I ever guessed then or than I can even guess now.

Whether memory lane provides a quiet stroll through the past or a fast-paced on-ramp into the future is sometimes difficult to gauge.  This painting that I made years ago seems to chide me now for the less-than-spontaneous patterns of my current art-making.  If I go back to that, I sense that I am not really going backwards but forwards….

The Mystery of Technology: or, the hazards of spontaneity

A couple days ago after having dropped my daughter off at school, I thought it was high time I began my foray into spontaneous drawing.  There’s a mill along the path of my usual commute so I decided I’d stop there.  It was pouring rain and “weather” was another of those categories of things I’ve been telling myself that I should take more notice of as regards my drawing ambitions.  Thus spontaneously I decided to circumvent my plans and drop by the mill for a bit of sketching by the river.  All I had was a little notebook I carry in my purse and assorted pens, but it was to be a “what the heck” adventure in seeing.

I listened to the radio.  I drew.  I commented to myself that these were not especially interesting little sketches, nothing much to look at, that I was going to have to learn a graphic vocabulary, sort of like what Van Gogh learned and used, if I were ever to get serious about landscape drawing.  However, those thoughts didn’t bother me any.  The whole purpose of what I was doing was to “see” more than to get results. 

I made a few of these things.  After a bit, I decided “okay, enough, it’s time to go.”  Turned the key on the car.  Nothing happened.  Tried it several times more.  Nadda.  The very rain that had prompted me to change plans was now putting a big crimp in my new reality:  I’m stranded, it’s pouring, and I haven’t even had breakfast yet.  (Note: never do the spontaneity thing on an empty stomach.)

Well, fast forward.  I made a phone call.  Got rescued.  We bought jumper cables and drove back to my car.  I leaped out of my husband’s truck and on a lark put the key in the ignition, turned it and — voila! — it started!  Has been running just fine since.  Go figure.

Back nestled in the dry warmth of home, I made a little sketch in oil pastel based upon the line drawings from the site.  I’m wondering whether it was quite worth the trouble, making these drawings, buying jumper cables, going without breakfast, for these little impressions.  But Van Gogh says “you have to suffer for art.”  On a suffering scale, I must admit (very gladly) that these inconveniences and automotive mysteries do not rank high.  So, I won’t complain.

But I have a new rule:  no spontaneity until after breakfast.

Drawing what you can draw

Drawing whatever you can, in whatever way you can, whenever you can has become something of a motto with me lately.  I have put too many limits upon myself.  Not that they’re bad limits, they’re not.  They are very fine limits.  But I wonder sometimes down what paths drawing might lead me if I were to draw things more randomly from life, as I once used to do, or if I drew even a few things that do not swim (though I won’t give up my koi, of course).  In short, I find myself hankering after a more spontaneous life.

Some jonquils turned up around here, were deposited into a dark blue vase, and it happened to be a nice day, so I took them outdoors, placed them on a platform and drew them quickly.  The fast and mostly unedited moment is presented above.  Draw what you can, when you can, in whatever manner you can draw it.  It’s a great motto!

To teachers: On Lesson Plans

Teachers are supposed to have lesson plans because if lessons are planned then their outcomes can be predicted, and little Johnny will learn.  And that’s why modern education is everywhere praised.  Okay, maybe not.  If not, why not?  Well, sometimes the best things happen all unplanned.  Sometimes opportunity knocks. And even you’re not ready when opportunity knocks, it can be a good idea to give opportunity a chance anyway.

I had a “plan” to draw cabbage this season.  Lo and behold, a cabbage appeared.  But I wasn’t prepared.  I had the crayons, but didn’t have the right paper.  Later I got the paper, but didn’t have the crayons.  Finally paper and crayons were together in the same place, and the cabbage had wilted into an unrecognizable, “floppy eared” mess.  But I drew it anyway, both when I had the wrong paper but the right drawing tools, and later when I had all the necessary tools but a pooped out cabbage.

To understand the difference between “lesson plan” art projects and the kinds of working drawings that real artists make, first we have to take a little peek into the pedagogical culture that pervades nearly every public school in the land.  I searched on “7th grade art lesson plans” and arrived HERE.  At a lesson plan that proposes to teach a “Cezanne-style still life,” the curriculum standards are stated forcefully:

1-E (5 – 8) Students select media, techniques, and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not effective in communicating ideas; and reflect upon the effectiveness of their choices
1-F (5 – 8) Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas
2-F (5 – 8) Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas
3-C (5 – 8) Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks
4-D (5 – 8) Students know and compare the characteristics of artworks in various eras and cultures.

Notice the repetitious declaration of what students will do.  Evidently saying that they will do it makes it so.  No where will you find a greater display of magical thinking than in the declaration of learning objectives, no where will you be farther from the wisdom of the adage that “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.”  And no where, than in this lesson plan on Cezanne style still life, could you find a better example of notions that would have horrified the actual Paul Cezanne!

Instructions for the lesson plan are these: “After a study of the artist Paul Cezanne, students create thumnail [sic] sketches for a large scale oil pastel still life drawing.” 

I didn’t choose this particular lesson plan to ridicule it, I found it at random, but it exemplifies the typical problem:  it relies entirely upon language and says nothing about seeing.  It gives no hint how “after a study of the artist Paul Cezanne,” one is to do anything at all with a still life.  The fact that students are making thumbnail sketches and not drawings of a more ordinary size, using oil pastels no less, suggests that the teacher has no very clear conception of how Cezanne himself worked and not a lot of confidence in the ability of the students to deal with a real still life.

Also, the lesson attaches itself to the name of a “famous” artist, but with no idea of how Cezanne’s still life is similar to or differs from any other still life.  Moreover it offers no suggestion as to why students should look at Cezanne to get ideas for depicting objects when they might as readily take things they like themselves for their own personal reasons and draw them just as artists have done for centuries.

Back to my cabbage.  It is neither a Cezanne cabbage, nor a Chardin, nor Van Gogh, nor an Andrew Wyeth cabbage, but merely an ordinary Maryland cabbage, born and raised.  It’s appeal for me was its being GREEN at a time when I seem to be aching for a bit of that color.

Here’s what I did, my lesson plan, teachers take note:  I put it on a waterproof surface (it was wet).  I looked at it.  I drew it.  Unfortunately all I had for drawing at the time of the cabbage’s serendipitous arrival was some Strathmore 400 series 18 x 24 inch smooth surface paper, a fine paper for pen and ink but an annoying one for use with crayons.   Perhaps as significant as anything else, though I had the wrong materials, I drew the cabbage anyway.  This is not a trivial distinction as regards the typical approach to pedagogy, for it wends toward this great insight:   no one ever died by drawing a cabbage using the wrong materials.

That wonderful Maryland vegetable, born and raised, that blasted cabbage, was so complex!  Its leaves had little serrations along every bit of their wandering edges.  And it was so layered!  Leaves over leaves, each leaf alone a magnificent spectacle to behold … I very nearly disavowed my interest in cabbage drawing right on the spot for the evident difficulties I faced.  But I stove on.

What I did:  I drew the largest shapes I could identify in as free a manner as possible.  I looked particularly for the “anatomical” forms of the cabbage, the places where its form was most noteworthy — the roughly spherical center part, and the pattern of over-lapping leaves, seeking to understand one leaf at a time.  I had so much God-forsaken smooth white paper to cover that I also used the crayons very generously as tones, raking the strokes across close together to make something like a continuous tone upon which I could try to depict a distinction or two of light or dark.  Though I had this 18 x 24 inch sheet, I still had to reduce the size of my drawing from that of the actual beast which was much larger than what I could easily draw.  And I got frustrated too, so that my drawing — big though it is — remains only a sketch of sorts and enacts the whole narrative of my finding myself so intimidated by this vegetative-wonder.

That’s how real art goes, you see.  You strive in various ways.  You fail in various ways.  And you stave onwards.  Another day, another cabbage.

My own curriculum standards:

1 The artist will notice the largest aspects of the motif and attempt to record them with a line that is at once precise but free.

2 The artist will draw even in the absence of ideal conditions, materials or circumstances abiding by the dictim:  “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

3  The artist will refuse to be intimidated by a cabbage.

4  The artist will try another, future cabbage again on some happy day.

An Artist’s Strange Favorites

blue compotier

About ten years ago, maybe longer, I stapled a piece of canvas paper to some cardboard and began drawing my blue compotier in quick strokes of paint.  And what happened after that?  The phone rang?  I dunno.  Whatever it was, I quit working and never resumed the painting.  And it has stayed in this haphazard condition ever since.  Of course it was only a study from the beginning.  The canvas paper is torn and oddly shaped.  But I love this unfinished picture.

It’s the kind of thing you do strictly for yourself, the way that humming in the shower is distinctly different from a recital.  I made a record of forms and linear contours in whatever order they struck my notice.  I was unconcerned about the identification of the object, about whether anyone can tell what it is.  I observed instead its visual properties, and they held my gaze perfectly well in all their abstract purity.

The beauty of a sketch offers dangerous temptations.  It can make one timid about going forward.  The sketchiness can be so beguiling that one becomes reluctant to make that necessary journey toward finishing an idea.  In my youth the buzzword was “over-worked.”  It was the great terror.  God forbid one overworks a picture.  New bugaboos have replaced that idea now.  Of course, there does exist a genuine fault involved in finishing something in unmeaningful ways.  Yet we must bite the painterly bullet and go forward with ideas, willing to make mistakes of judgment in the interest of learning real visual lessons.

An artist definitely needs to learn how to go beyond the beauty of impulse, ephemera and accident.  Certainly.  But equally truly, one must have one’s moment of daliance with these delights.  Or else one forsakes the encounter with pure form.  It cannot be got any other way.  Sometimes it comes just so fleetingly.

Artists learn to accept the stops and starts of discovery in order to get the knowledge that comes hidden in the different places — in the mind’s different corners of impulse and deliberation.

Lines Discovered by the Pen

sketch of girl smaller

The sketch stands at the opposite end of the highly realized drawing.  If you really want to understand the sketch, if you’re an artist, you should spend some time doing the most elaborate kind of drawing that you can do.  Or, if you don’t wish to make detailed drawings yourself, spend some time studying some examples of careful realism.  And after you’ve studied detail and really thought about it some, ask yourself:

What is the charm of the sketch?

It’s important to do this right.  Ask yourself the question, but don’t be too hurried with an answer.  Maybe you will never find an answer, but I hope you come to understand the special charm of the ephemeral idea that takes fragile form in a sketch. 

Ponder it.  Think about it a long time.  Look.  Draw.  Make sketches.

More Fast Landscape: Pochade


Pochade is a French word for a fast sketch in paint.  And more than that, it was in some ways the basis for the transition in French 19th century art from the formal, smooth and illusionistic are of the Salon to the more brushy, spontaneous painting we now know as Impressionism. 

Everybody made pochades, but typically they were a stage to something more finished.  Then a generation of artists decided that the pochade had much innate beauty in itself. 

My pochade will probably get worked over — perhaps into just a more layered pochade.  But I present it here during part of its stage from idea into being.  Here’s one of my tributes to fifteen minutes!

Catch time when you can.