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.

How to draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw

And a hint: I don’t know how to draw either.  If we cannot draw as well as Ingres or Durer, we’re not there yet.

ingres girl in a chair

[Ingres drawing of a girl in a chair above.]

How you draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw is that you focus your mind entirely upon what you’re seeing and then let your hand follow your visual thoughts.  It takes some daring to follow this path because what you see may not actually find its way accurately into the drawing, and we are oh so cognizant of what other people think, are we not?

after huysum

[sketch made from a still life by Huysum at the National Gallery of Art above]

The essence of the blind contour is that it trains you to observe more keenly.  Let’s say that I’m drawing my still life objects.  I notice the various contours.  I follow them with antlike thoroughness.  (Remember that ants can run; this needn’t be a slow process.) I can notice the contour as a flat silhouette against its background.  But maybe there’s a tea pot with paintings of fish swimming across its surface.  My eye can jump to those and the ant can follow those silhouettes without having bothered to finish the other one.


Let’s say we’ve got an ant that can jump as well as run.  What if you notice a flower at the top of the picture, then a design near the bottom?  What if you note that a sinuous line created by the adjacent edges of several different objects seems to go across the whole image?  You can draw that.  If you are “just looking” you can draw anything and you need not reference whether the feature you’re drawing supports the illusion of the picture. Some things we perceive may actually confuse the illusion of the picture sometimes, in certain contexts.  But how does an artist know the worth of visual information unless he tries it out first? You may not even know for a long time what the significance of a line is, or a color, or a form.


You can observe objects and make a drawing that gathers psychological information, that takes you through your subject, that explores its various potentials. When we see the works of great masters in the museum and find their pictures full of an amazing verisimilitude, what we don’t see are the drawings, sketches, studies, pochades and whatnot that directed and supported the form the finished painting would take.  Much unseen information lies behind a highly finished painting.  In studies, sketches and incidental drawings a contemporary artist can gather his own (or her own) information in the living moment.


What do you want to learn about the things you paint that is separate from a finished painting? Remember too that what you learn is drawn in your mind, drawn with your thoughts.  There’s a keenness of perception that is exhilarating in itself.  Let yourself have this freedom to roam mentally through the veil of light before your eyes. It has its own great worth as lived experience.  And then too, it also teaches you things that cumulatively can find their way into finished works.

page of dog drawings.jpg

To draw with great skill when you don’t yet have the level of skill you desire means that you sometimes develop your perception first. You put aside the schemes of the art classroom (centers of interest and whatnot) and let your mind simply roam while your hand records the path as best it can — as perhaps a blind contour, or better still as simply a brave drawing — one in which the mistakes are let to be what they are. It’s a leap of faith.  But recall we said that this ant can jump.

ants in still life

[Ants in a still life by Huysum. Photo credit here.]

Be often drawing.

Heedless seeing

The notebook is the place where you can work in the utmost privacy.  The pages close, and the drawing escapes the light and hides behind perhaps a hundred veils.  While you’re making the drawing, you have a little studio that sits in your lap. You can try out ideas, and no one needs to know.  Or you have the option of not trying out ideas.  Not trying can be a very fine way to spend time.  You can draw the way the fish swim.  And they do not try to swim so much as they just swim.  Of course the fish know more about swimming than an artist usually knows about drawing.  And the fish after a lifetime of swimming swim as effortlessly as upon the first fishy day.  But trying to draw and not trying are very complicated manuevers that alter one into the other willy nilly.  It’s hard work not controlling the not controlling.

In any case, it can all transpire in the deepest privacy:  underneath the hundred veils hiding the depths of the water of the pond of the notebook of imagination held in the common backpack  — there with the pencils of various sorts and all the other stuff you cart from place to place, a vagabond of longings.

In the Garden

I spent the morning today and yesterday drawing in the conifer garden.  After so much rain, days and days of rain, it was wonderful to sit in the sun and to observe the sun.  Today felt like spring, so beautiful and mild.

I made a bunch of drawings.

After drawing I went back to my studio and did some fast paintings based upon the drawing.

It feels like the warm season should be beginning, not ending.  That’s how persuasive the sun was today.  But it won’t last long.  And I’m trying to get outdoors in front of the motif while I can.

We will of course have plenty of sunny days ahead — but not warm ones.  And my little fingers will get frozen, and all my landscapes will look like this little grisaille I did.


Junk Art

If you want to increase your freedom in painting, sometimes it’s useful to designate a specific painting as the official “junk” painting.  The junk painting is one that doesn’t matter.  It’s the canvas upon which any liberties at all can be taken.  You can use cheap materials, you can paint in poor light, you can have a headache, you can change your mind as many times as you want.  Expend the last dregs of your palette, all the half dried and sticky mess that remains behind from your “real” painting sessions on this unfortunate canvas.  The canvas you might have thrown out is wisely saved to be used with the paint you should have thrown out.  And with these junky tools allow yourself to take chances, to draw freely, to rehearse any idea.  Here you can be a completely free spirit.

Everything you learn you can later use in a serious painting.  The junk painting can also be a way of warming up.  You can get started thinking visually with great freedom on the little canvas that doesn’t matter.

The photo above is sort of like “finding Waldo.”  How many versions of the picture do you see…?

If it should happen that you find yourself typically doing better in the junk art — with its expansive freedom — than in the “real” arena — with its more expensive materials and greater sense of duty and its various crippling “shoulds,”  then some fine morning just switch them — only forget to tell yourself.  On that fine day, use the expensive canvas and the choice paints for the “junk” picture du jour and worry yourself silly with the cheap canvas and the palette scrapings.  Just don’t tell your brain about the switch!  Mum’s the word ….

Top of the post:  a “junk” painting in progress ….

Flowers future

If you can imagine it, you can draw it.  Took me many years to realize this fundamental fact about drawing.  Much of the work of becoming an artist is caught up in learning how to “imagine it,” — in even recognizing what “imagining it” means.

I was looking at these flowers when I drew them, but the whole act of looking involves an imaginative gesture too.  The image of “what you think you see” as it organizes itself in your mind.

Thinking small

Began another honey jar painting.  Feels like I’m beginning to paint for the first time, as though I haven’t done still life painting in eons, though I began one just a couple weeks ago.  I have many questions as I look at my little set up.  What a confusing, rich and complex cosmos a still life is.  Got so thoroughly befuddled that I had to make a second smaller painting (above), focusing on just the jar alone, and find that even just the jar has so many baffling features.  Elipses and corners and curving-away-from-you highlights …. While I figure out the small theatre stage of my complicated still life actors, I need to eat some honey.  Need something to soften the shock!

So much to look at in so small a space.  How did Chardin manage?  It’s all I can deal with to attempt painting just a few little things.

Crayon Burn

All in a rush about work!  The morning begins with drawing and the evening ends with drawing.  I have to make several paintings this week and next, and the only way I can do it is to draw.  First I draw, and I can develop ideas without having to think very much.  And at the moment I do not wish to think!  I haven’t the time!

Some of the drawings I made today might reflect a bit of intellection.  But mostly, it was see, point, shoot.  Still — even just looking can become wearying even when it makes one feel delightful and buoyant!  Though I am tired, I have to keep running!  So, I made these drawings to be quicker than quick, drawings which I can attest are completely devoid of any thoughts at all!

Van Gogh says something that describes my day and its speed, though he was less lifted by it:

I’m also utterly incapable of judging my own work. I can’t see whether the studies are good or bad. I have seven studies of wheatfields,5 unfortunately all of them nothing but landscapes, much against my will. Old gold yellow landscapes — done quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done.  [To Emile Bernard. Arles, Wednesday, 27 June 1888]

He felt, for the reasons of his time and circumstances, that he must judge his work and not being able to do so was wearying.  For me, however, modern girl that I am, not judging is part of my whole goal for these drawings.  Merely to draw, to draw a lot, to draw quickly, to get down many things, to pass through many images, to keep my fingers moving, moving, moving.

Quick, quick, quick!

Return of the Dundee Jar

My little white jar of Dundee Marmelade has returned.  Don’t know why I love it so.  Love is just that way.  Fickle, you know.  When I cast about for something to draw, sooner or later my eyes land upon the little jar, and I feel it beckoning.  Smooth and white like porceline, heavy with marmelade, subtle in its whites that softly reflect every adjacent object in muted tones, I just cannot resist.  And the name “Dundee” printed so magestically, confidently.  It was the constant object of my admiration today.

The ways of drawing cylinders is something that every art student encounters eventually.  Some rules of perspective provide a recipe for a cylinder that will always receed properly, whose top will form just the right oblique oval to tell how a little jar stands with respect to God and gravity, that will make it seem as properly symmetrical as in truth it is. 

But do the eyes see this symmetry?  Or, at least can we question whether we see it all the time in its rationality?  We have two eyes, and each one sees something slightly different, and between the two of them a highly inquisitive and perceptive viewer can detect the deflections of thought between right and left and this way and that.  Perhaps unconsciously we note the discrepencies between our two eyes and catch glimpses of the irregular cylinder presented in stereo to competing optic nerves?

I like to think that my cylinders are not incorrect, just lovingly observed twice.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this jar, but these drawings are like casting actors for roles.  These are the auditions.

And finally, below, we see the jar as it is — in itself — not in character but in ordinary life.