Finding Creativity without a GPS

Most artists readily admit to having creative “dead zones” when no subject or theme appeals. That can be disheartening.  It can be hard to find one’s way back, and for some artists, creative block can last for a very long time, even ruin careers.

An experience a couple weeks ago made me wonder precisely what puts artists in a creative frame of mind. Can I put my finger on specific tangible or intangible things that help me think creatively? Maybe triggers for creativity aren’t the same for every artist. I feel as if I’m creative, but it is not a characteristic that is with me 100% of the time.  And if I can identify things that make me feel creative, I can probably also find things that bar my way, such as my inner critic, stress, or several consecutive paintings that don’t turn out well.

Creative block was not on my mind one evening as I drew a composition for a demonstration in a watercolor class the following morning.  I’ve always found that if my concept and the drawing are going well, I feel as if I’m driving on the entrance ramp to a creativity freeway! Speed up, speed up, merge, and GO!  Once the concept and drawing are ready, I have a hard time disciplining myself to interrupt the forward creative momentum. But that is what I do each week I teach in order to demonstrate putting paint to paper to my students.

The next morning in front of my class, I picked up my brush but somehow couldn’t at first find the turn onto that entrance ramp. I painted slowly, without conviction and even made some wrong choices. From long habit, what I was painting was OK, but I didn’t have that exciting forward momentum.  It seemed like work rather than play. The brush that normally feels like an extension of my arm and hand felt awkward. Luckily my right brain soon took over.

That failure rarely happens to me, but when it does, I’ve learned not to dwell on it. If my head is full of “Why can’t I think of something interesting to paint?” or “Been there/done that dozens of times!” or even “ I’ve used up every morsel of creativity I had!” ……there is no room for creative thinking.

I’ve found a creative journal to be helpful. An instructor in a workshop suggested writing in a journal daily. That workshop fanned my creative spark into a raging blaze to start with. So within hours after the class I followed that advice. I bought a nice journal with a leathery marshmallow cover. It feels nice, opens flat, and stays flat. The added bonus? A red ribbon bookmark. In the days following, I regularly jotted down creative ideas, drew small sketches, added clippings, and wrote about making art. Over time I’ve not been as faithful about writing in it. But re-reading earlier entries, written during a particularly creative period, slams me firmly back into that creative zone.  At that point I can’t write fast enough to jot down new ideas that spill over into my painting efforts.

I’m quite certain that creativity spurs ever more creativity. However, we all have necessary activities and chores that bring all of that to a halt. I doubt that the IRS, for instance, would be impressed if I were to be creative with preparation of the figures for my income taxes. So after necessarily paying attention to that left brain, the trick is to recognize the things that quickly draw us back to right brain creative thinking.  Such as new art stuff……

The delivery of new art supplies at my back door can make me forget the pan on the stove, ignore recorded messages on my answering machine, and fail to put laundry soap in the load of clothes. It doesn’t take much – a tube of paint I’ve not tried before, a new brush. This somewhat explains my 30-year collection of art gadgets and widgets I wrote about in my last blog. It’s not all bad! There are two pages in one of my early sketchbooks that make me smile. I well remember the day I painted those two pages – a day new ½” and ¾” watercolor brushes arrived in the mail.  I filled a page with each brush, painting every conceivable mark I could think of.  It was fun - and creative. The long ago doodles I made with those brushes still find their way into my paintings today.

Right now my laundry is in the wash – with soap. The latest bank statement is balanced. So I now have the luxury of looking through my creative journal or one of my sketchbooks to find something that beckons me, asking for my imagination to grab it and turn it into a composition. My next class is a few days away, so for today I can take that creative onramp and enjoy the momentum without slowing down or stopping.  

Oh....I’ve cleared my calendar for tomorrow. I’m expecting delivery of a big carton of new art supplies.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Is someone watching me? The name of the author of a short article in the latest Palette Magazine is not familiar, but she was almost certainly writing about me. Maybe I should search my studio for video bugging devices.

Video surveillance wouldn’t be necessary.  I readily admit all and plead guilty as charged - guilty of falling for slick promises about art gadgets that can purportedly - miraculously - make my paintings wildly successful.  My studio has an impressive 30-year collection of good, bad, and ugly art gadgets.

I actually do use “Uggly Brushes.”  No, I didn’t misspell that. These brushes are manufactured for ugly jobs and are therefore called "Uggly Brushes." These are tough brushes manufactured for jobs that are equally tough, so they don't last long and are not expected to. They have an odd, easily recognizable pattern painted on the handles and are perfect for applying masking fluid or adhesive or even gentle scrubbing out. They keep me from abusing my quality brushes so even if they are billed as “Uggly” I think these brushes are good.  

Another “good” tool is a set of three, transparent 8.5 x 11 acrylic sheets, each with a graded primary color.  The sheets can be set on a painting individually or in any combination  to decide what color glaze would work best. Any two sheets provide a secondary color. Stack all three for a perfect neutral. Arranging these sheets in different ways provide an infinite array of transparent colors.

I have three “Funny Brushes” in different sizes. They have short handles and the working ends appear to be made up of strands of hefty rubber bands. Each makes the same type of mark in small, medium, and large sizes but in over 20 years I’ve never found a need to make these marks. Subscribing to the adage, “Never say never!” I stubbornly keep the Funny brushes – just in case.  I don’t know if these are good, bad, or ugly. I simply haven’t found a use for them unless I would ever need to paint eyebrows for Groucho Marx.

Once my students try my own “Fritch Scrubbers”  they invariably buy a few of their own. They are short handled brushes with stubby, stiff bristles meant to do what their name implies – SCRUB!  Sized like other brushes, available in several different shapes, they can scrub out small areas of the most stubborn colors. In fact, they could easily scrub right through the paper! Even though that would be bad, I rate these brushes as “good.”

Someone recommended a black pigmentm but when it arrived in my order I asked myself, "Was this a joke?" The pigment was incredibly granulated, and even felt gritty as I brushed a wash on my paper! It felt and looked like dirt. When I touched the dry paper a bit of the grit came off on my hand! Eeeeew! Still, it made interesting textures. The black was different than any other I already had.  I used this pigment wholesale in a painting that turned out well, won a prizes in a competition at both the regional state levels. The painting sold the very first time I showed it. All of that caused that tube of paint I first thought was both bad and ugly to steadily grow in stature. I will probably buy another tube of this pigment, and that must mean that for me, it’s good.

Toned watercolor paper? Not for me. Long ago I bought pale green, tan, and pale blue watercolor paper I’ve scarcely used. It seemed like a good idea. But even though I usually apply an underpainting as a first step, I still leave parts of the paper white, and love the glow of the white of the paper. With toned paper there is no profound white to reserve, and I miss that sparkle. I’m eating my hat though, after a friend recently painted some lovely paintings on toned paper. What was ugly for me is good for her.  I’ll give her my toned paper.

I’m still “out” on an unusual new folding palette I own but have not yet used.  The small size and the rubber seal to keep it from leaking are certainly appealing. The fact that it is lined with bulletproof glass is unusual and amusing. Is that to keep disgruntled artists from taking out their disappointment in a failed painting on their own palette? Or perhaps to hold up as a shield in case jealous artists start throwing darts? I belatedly noticed the disappointing disclaimer on the package that reads “Not meant to stop bullets.” So why line this palette with bulletproof glass? Because watercolor pigments can stain most palettes faster than a speeding bullet, but bulletproof glass stains not at all.

Water soluble graphite pencils, rubber brayers, Gatorbord to stretch paintings: good good good.

Liquid paper, fluorescent pink masking fluid, a reducing lens: bad bad bad.

A stained old toothbrush used to splatter paint, a tortured McDonalds straw used to blow paint around, a much used kneaded eraser: ugly ugly ugly.

The article I read advised artists to resist the temptation to rely on the dubious promises of miracle materials . That resonated with me. Since I already succumbed regularly over the last 30 years, it is time for me to clear away gadgets I’ve tried but not found useful.  The author, Sarah Hay wrote, “Great art happens when an artist regularly practices…skills and applies them to her own sense of style.”  It is still January so it's not too late to make a New Year's Resolution, and that sounds like a great one for me.


Bing! and Bzzzt!

Even if you are not a fan of America’s Got Talent, you’ve likely seen clips  or similar programs in which a pleasant little sound like the ringing of a small bell signifies that a contestant has provided a correct answer or is exceptionally talented. Bing! 

A wrong answer or a performance to which the word “talent” does not apply is immediately followed by loud and unpleasant sound at a low pitch much like…..well….something that is not done in polite company! Bzzzt!

We have the “Bing” of affirmation, and the “Bzzzt” of rejection. It can be entertaining in a quiz program or a talent show. But for the rest of us, affirmation and rejection can seriously affect how well we do our jobs, our confidence, and sense of self worth.

I once received a mailed notice that my painting was not accepted in a show. It arrived on a form the juror completely ignored, choosing instead to stamp a big red “REJECTED” diagonally across the paper. That seemed rather nasty. Bzzzt

Art friends and I often discuss affirmation and rejection, so I asked them to share their experiences for this blog – good, bad, or ugly.   

One friend wrote, “…your topic on Affirmation and Rejection is a deep undertaking. We read over and over how we are NOT to rely on others opinions, but to paint for ourselves. I know that there is a point in every painting at which I realize (with horror) that I have gone from painting for me to painting for a juror or someone who I surely don't even like! Someone nasty! That 'someone' is my own inner demon who is demonizing my painting! Noting all of the blurps and runs. After pondering this further I believe [dealing with this inner demon] is a lifetime journey.”

She added, “I DO know that the paintings of my own that I deem acceptable or [to which] others have responded positively are those in which I just WAS. I was just doodling, in the mid-area of my mind. I love it that there is neither affirmation or rejection in this safe haven. Only the flow of creativity. Why do we look to others or give others the chance to either affirm or reject what came from our heart? What makes us care? Profit? Validation of self worth in painting?”

Another friend shared, “It doesn't take too much affirmation to make up for tons of silence, which I invariably interpret as rejection. While working his way across the keys, my piano tuner admired one of my paintings across the room, and suddenly that painting rose several notches in my own estimation. It doesn't matter the lack of artistic expertise of the viewer, a positive and sincere word has a wonderful effect in drowning out the negative inner voices. So, for that brief time the painting was a good one, giving at least one other person pleasure, and it doesn't matter that I later tore it up.” Piano Tuner - Bing!  Inner Critic - Bzzzt!

She also wrote “I am thinking about the time when I sat quietly incognito, listening in on people at a show of my work. Hobbling along with a cane came a little old man and his tiny, hunched-over wife. "Very nice painting," she said……. "but mighty expensive." Alas, affirmation followed so quickly by rejection! “ BingBzzzt!

Life can be tough, even brutal for we artists. Everyone thinks themselves a qualified critic. I think most artists soon decide whether to put on the gloves and get in the ring - or not. For some artists “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the frying pan” is profound rather than a simple adage.

Two silver haired ladies once went with me to an opening for a group show.  They were old enough to have earned the right to say whatever they chose, and often did. But on the ride to the gallery, I hoped to temper that right just a bit. I said, “Now if either you see a painting you don’t like or don’t understand, the artist or a relative or friend might be standing nearby. So rather than say “This is awful!” or “I really don’t like this piece!” just knit your brows, put your hand thoughtfully to your chin, and say “How interesting!” and all three of us will know what you really mean.

As we stepped up to view the first painting one of the women said, “WHAT is THAT supposed to be?” Bzzzt! I needed no clue to understand what she meant.

Thanks for reading my blog. Bing!


An Old Dog 

Normally I think of myself as as a pretty good teacher and watercolor artist. I'm confident. My formal education led me to teach music. I have much longer experience teaching and painting watercolor. But... I'm often humbled by what I myself learn from students in my classes.

I learn as I prepare to teach a class, reviewing notes from workshops I've taken, re-reading parts of my many watercolor books, looking through a very thick 3 ring binder filled with 30 years of articles cut from watercolor magazines, reviewing techniques on art DVD's, and doing research on the internet. Even if I already know much of what I plan to teach, a review is beneficial. Making lesson plans helps me organize my thinking. Preparing handouts with illustrations and class notes force me to find the best way to explain "why" of design and the "how" of techniques.

But one of the best ways for a teacher to learn is to listen to their students and observe what they do.

This year I had requests to teach the use of texture in abstracted paintings in the winter class I teach. While I have never taught this before, it is what I currently paint at home in my own studio. An advantage is that every class demo I finish will fit comfortably with the style work I am showing.

Putting random texture on the paper is the first step - and the easiest. Deciding what to do after that is far harder! When preparing visual examples of possibiltiies for that next step, I realized that painting the first, textured step in gray, then adding a second step in color would make it readily apparent to my students which was step one and which was step two.

As I proudly held up my samples in class, a student provided me with that AHA moment when she said, "These paintings would be great in black and white!" I had not thought of it myself, but that idea was immediately appealing to me. I could hardly wait to get started.

The goal I've set for myself is to complete a series of eight textured paintings that are essentially black and white. Each will be vertical and have two containers with unusual plants. I've completed the first two paintings in this series, and look forward to the exciting creative challenges posed by working within my self-imposed limitations.

Thank you Kay! I'm very much enjoying your suggestion. Disciplining myself to paint with such a limited palette forces me to employ design principles in different ways than usual. I may be an old dog, but I'm still learning new tricks.

Both "Two Vessels" paintings I've completed can be seen in the"Paintings" category on this website.



Flying in Cyberspace

Early in 2011 an exciting invitation arrived in my email. The writer was a fellow artist, Sue St. John, who discovered my website and liked my work. She invited me to submit two images of my choice for a cyberbook she was compiling. The book was to be titled "A Walk Into Abstracts Volume 2." I felt honored!

I had no idea of what a cybergook was or how it worked. With a bit of research I found that it is a book that can be bought online to be instantly downloaded, viewed, and stored on your own computer. There is no need to top off your gastank ata $4 a gallon for a drive to a bookstore, no fee for a membership card that gives you a discount equal to the price the card, and no hunting through thousands of books to find it. With much of our population regularly using computers, it seemed like a terrific idea.

The concept for the book was for each artist to write a detailed explanation of the process and materials used to create their painting. We were to write to the question "How did they do that?" which is also the subtitle of the book. And the challenge was to have it fit on a single page.

I shared the news of this appealing oppotunity with my artist friend Liz. Both of us decided to apply and spent considerable time discussing which images to submit, but that was only the beginning. Both Liz and I love words and like to write. Perhaps it could be said we are easily entertained, but we very much really enjoy reading what the other writes, providing endless critiques for each other, honing even that single page to make every word count! Of course we wanted our explanations to be succint, but we felt that what we wrote had to be interesting as well - not simply a dry narrative. I lost count of how many rewrites each of us did for our entries.

Happily each of us had both entries included in the book. You can see more about this book at and watch a short slide show of some of the paintings from the book.

Does having work shown in a cyberbook count as being "published?" I think so! To have an artist unknown to me see my work and invite me to participate was affirming. The idea that I'm soaring in cypberspace with a couple of my paintings is a kick, and I don't even need to worry about dealing with those dreaded pretzels or a tray table.