Thursday, December 27, 2007

Learn From the Masters

from All at Once:
a practically instant guide to creativity

Each generation stands on the shoulders of the last.
The wheel took a long time to invent. The Sumerians started out with simple logs, added grooves, cut out the spaces between the grooves, then, at last, made the wheel and axle separate.
As artists and human beings, we need to reinvent ourselves every day, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Many problems of form, color, texture and line have been solved by other painters.
Take time to look at as much art as you can. Visit museums. Go to galleries. Haunt the art sections of libraries. Notice what kind of work you like. This is probably the kind of work you would enjoy doing the most.
Do you like portraits? Realistic Dutch paintings of floral arrangements? Impressionist landscapes? Surreal dream paintings? Geometric abstracts? Expressionistic pictures portraying powerful emotions? Religious paintings? Rebellious paintings? Political paintings? Naïve paintings?
Find out about the training of your favorite artists. How did they attain the skills you admire? Many of the same training opportunities are available today.

1. Copy a painting. If you can, go to a museum and copy from the original. You will need to either take a museum class or make special arrangements, but it is worth it. If you can’t go a museum, don’t worry. Most of us can’t. Use a reproduction.
2. Choose five favorite paintings. Think about what they have in common (for you). Use these elements to create a painting of your own.
3. Find reproductions of narrative paintings, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think about how the subjects relate to your own life or to situations in the modern world. Do a painting or a series of paintings using master artists’ compositions, but your own figures, background elements and colors.
4. Attend a workshop or lecture given by a favorite living artist. Ask questions. If you can’t do this, write a letter. Tell the artist what you like about his or her work. Your librarian can help you find a mailing address. Don’t expect anything from the artist. The act of writing the letter or taking the trip will help you in ways you don’t expect. If you don’t like the work of any living artist, keep looking.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Just Say You are an Artist

from the online ebook
All At Once
a practically instant guide to creativity

This one is harder than you might think, and more important.

There’s an old playground saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

It is not true.

Broken bones are not fun, but they heal much faster than broken spirits. Criticism and teasing have left their marks on most of us.

I taught elementary school long enough to know that in every class there was a “Designated Artist”. This boy or girl was like the star kickball player. Anything he or she did was admired by adults and children alike, so this student drew and painted more than anybody else. It was an interesting cycle. The more the class artist drew and painted, the better he or she became at drawing and painting.

There were many other students in each of my classes who could have drawn and painted as well or better, but they did not think they were artists. Someone had once laughed at their work or misunderstood it. They were reluctant to try again.

If this is you, don’t curse the person who hurt you. He or she was also hurt. Just stand up straight and reclaim your spirit.


1. How would you spend your working day if you were an artist? Use a planner page to make a schedule. Reserve a Saturday or vacation day for yourself. Do everything on your schedule. Revise your schedule, if necessary and repeat this exercise as often as possible.

2. When you have twenty finished paintings, tell a stranger you are an artist. They will ask what kind of work you do. Be ready to tell them in a sentence or less.

3. Investigate conferences, retreats and artists’ colonies. They are available for all skill levels. Attend one.

4. Join a local art group. This could be a weekly figure drawing session, a plein air painting club, or a neighborhood art collective that hosts a tour of local studios. Introduce yourself as an artist.

The more you say this, the more you will believe it. When you believe it, other people will too.

To read the entire ebook, visit

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Let Go of the Results

All at Once
a practically instant guide to creativity

The love of money may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of a lot of mediocrity and unoriginality in art.
There’s no doubt about it, the market-place loves the familiar. If you want to support your kids through college with your art or writing, then the advice in this booklet is not for you. Originality is not as popular as people would like to believe.
If you are doing art for yourself you have the best chance of producing something unique. The reason is simple. You do not need to worry about whether anybody else will like your finished piece enough to buy it.
How do retailers know what will sell? They look at what people are already buying. Artists who sell do the same thing. It works, but is it original? Does it provide the “recreation” that civilizations require of their art?
If you make art without thought for its ultimate fate, you can allow each piece to become what it needs to be, evolving under your brush in a joyously unpredictable way.


1. Cover a small canvas with random patterns of three or four colors of acrylic paint in less than ten minutes. Repeat with four other canvases. Put them all aside. Do the same thing every day for a week. Have a show for yourself. Put the pieces up all around a room. Assume that there is something hidden in each picture. Choose one painting at a time to develop. If any of the paintings leads you to a type of subject matter, or a style you want to explore, follow it. Save the original canvases for reference.
2. Tear as many pictures out of old magazines as you can in ten minutes. Create a collage from the pictures. Notice any themes that might show up. These can be colors, textures and angles as well as subjects. Use these ideas to create a painting or series of paintings.
3. Take out a thick book. Close your eyes and open it to a random page. Point. Write down the word you are pointing to. Change books. Repeat three to five times. Write a paragraph or poem using the three words. What is it about? Do a painting based on your paragraph or poem.

To read the whole free ebook visit

Note to my readers: I changed the name of my blog because I discovered that my previous title was already taken by someone else.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Judge Not

Here is the second installment of my ebook "All at Once, A Practically Instant Guide to Creativity"

Written for my students at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts, it is useful for artists at all levels. The exercises, if followed, will help you find your own unique vision.

All at Once
a practically instant guide to creativity, part 2

If there is no right way to be an artist, there is also no wrong way.

There is a right way for your friend to be an artist, a right way for your cousin to be an artist, and a right way for you to be an artist. The only thing you can say for sure is that these different right ways will never be exactly the same.

When Mr. Esteemed Workshop Genius of the Month starts telling you his way to create art is the only way, a good response is to nod, smile, and think about what you need at the grocery store. Good teachers help students clear debris away from the entrances to their own paths.

Critique groups can be helpful, but they can lead to creative block. Artists who criticize the work of others may feel a familiar pointing finger when they return to their own easels. When commenting on the work of others, be sure to emphasize what you like about the pieces.

There are many audiences for art and many styles. If you don’t like a person’s work, there’s a good chance he or she does not like yours--different brushstrokes for different art folks. You can still go out to lunch together. Everybody likes lunch.

1. Check a book of paintings out of the library. It should be a book of pictures you don’t like at all. Find something to admire in each painting. Choose a painting you actively hate. Do a version of your own. Change it any way you want. Keep working on your version until you like it, even if it takes a year. (You may work on other things too.)
2. Go through your old drawings and paintings. Pick out the very “worst” one. Mat and frame it beautifully. Enter it in a show. This is an especially useful ploy if you are afraid to enter shows. After all, what do you have to lose?
3. Choose a failed drawing or painting from your drawer. Pin it up where you will see it every day. Look at paintings of similar subjects by your favorite artists. Hire a model or do sketches to fill in missing information. Resume work on your failed painting.
It was not really “failed”. It was just not finished.

Watch for part 3 tomorrow, or visit

to read the little book in its entirety.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Loosening up

For a while, I taught drawing and painting classes at our excellent local art center. Some of my students were very skilled professional artists and designers, but they had lost touch with their own unique visions and were not having very much fun. They liked my class because I approached art practice from a completely different angle. I wrote a little pamphlet called "All at Once, a Guide to Practically Instant Creativity" to be sold in the center's gift shop.

It was a lot of work printing those things out and stapling them (an indication of their professional production values), so I decided to put the second edition online. You can find it (for free) at

It contains a series of simple lessons, each with a group of tested exercises to help artists get in touch with themselves.

Here is a sample:

Do it Rong
from All at Once: a practically instant guide to creativity

We live in a time of professionals. Professionals do things right. Singers hit every note. Writers make prose invisible. Dancers, skaters and gymnasts follow definite rules as they challenge the laws of physics.
There are right ways to do your taxes. There are right ways to discipline your child. There are right ways to drive.
There is no right way to be a creative artist.
Have you ever heard yourself say, “I’ll paint that picture someday--after I study the rules of color.”
Why study rules? Rules say this way is right. That way is wrong. People made them up. People break them--all the time. As a painter, you can look up the ones you need. Don’t worry about the rest.
Rules are ready-to-use, one-size-fits-all decisions. In daily life they are wonderful. In art they are not.
An artist makes his or her own decisions. The quality of decisiveness is recognizable instantly in a drawing or painting.
It is called style.


1. Make a mess.
Cover your carpet with a tarp. Close the door so nobody will hear you. Use lots and lots of inexpensive materials. Have you ever watched small children draw or paint? They are finished in five minutes, and you should be too. Do one piece, then another, then another. Two hours is a good stretch for a start. You may or may not create a masterpiece, but the time you waste will be more truly your own than any you have spent in years.

2. Break an art rule you have learned. For example, did someone tell you never to use black? Do a painting with black outlines or do a painting with black ink on rice paper.

3. Make a list of rules that drove you nuts when you were a kid. Share your list with friends over a good dinner. Do a painting about one of those rules or its enforcement.
to read the rest, or revisit this blog. I will repost the rest of the "book" here.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Gray Weather, Grande Jatte

This morning, I turned over my calendar to the December page revealing a reproduction of a lovely, moody painting by Seurat entitled "Gray Weather, Grande Jatte." Seurat is a master of moodiness, and I adore his shadowy drawings, Dover's collection of which, sadly, is out of print.

Outside the upstairs window of my little ex-bedroom office, dramatic gray clouds are skidding overhead on their way to the mountains, where they are scheduled to deliver up to five feet of snow to waiting ski resorts.

Looking out at the sun-touched wet landscape outside, I remember one beautiful Saturday afternoon when I dashed up the stairs to my father's studio and dragged him to the window to see all the city streets below our hilltop house painted with silver. I hope my daughter will remember some moment with me as I remember that.

See my Dad's work at