Priming Your Mind for Painting

by Lori Woodward Simons

As I've mentioned in past blogs, artists are motivated visually—at least I am. It seems our minds follow and are motivated by what we see. So in order to get busy on a painting, I need to remove myself from distractions and put myself in an environment that suits my artistic dreams. When I'm out of the studio and looking at other things that need to get done, it's difficult to become motivated to paint. One of the ways that I whet my appetite for painting is to just sit in my studio. I see my studio as a kind of painting sanctuary—a place set aside for the sole purpose of creating art. If I can get my body there and my eyes fixed on my work, before I know it my mind gets saturated with visions and imaginations of paintings that I want to make. American Artist just released their special issue on studios. I am looking forward to getting my copy, and although I don't have the space or finances to build a workplace like some of the studios I'll see in the issue, I will certainly gain ideas about how to make my painting space more efficient.

So, how do I motivate myself to paint? First, I move my body (and therefore my mind) to my working space. This space, my studio, needs to be separated from the rest of my home. Once there, If I'm not already working on a painting, I look through my references and magazine tear sheets (yes, I tear out the articles I love and put them in files). My art-library bookshelf is nearby, so I often look through my books until I begin to get the urge to paint. Some artists prefer to plan ahead, but I'm the type that wants to be "led" to paint something that excites me.

It goes without saying that if I'm painting en plein air, I'll find a scene or subject that touches my heart. I'm reminded of something Donald Demers said at a recent workshop I attended: "I never paint anything unless it resonates emotionally with me."The studio, however, is where I enjoy working the most, and the hardest part about getting psyched to paint is getting away from life's worries and distractions and into the solace of my studio. This works best if I designate a time to arrive there. In essence, I'm making a personal appointment with my workspace. Since my mind is sharpest in the morning hours, I usually plan to get myself into that creative space around 10:00 a.m. Once I'm there, the muse automatically follows. The trick is to not allow myself to leave for at least an hour. Even if I just look at books, before I know it, the ideas for paintings will begin to flow, and I'll find myself putting my brush to paper or canvas.

How do you get motivated to paint on a regular basis? Do you have a routine? Perhaps you're working on commissions that must get done whether you feel excited about painting or not. No doubt, some of you have a system in place in which you work with such regularity that you have no need to whet your painting appetite.

Lori Woodward Simons earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from University of Arizona. She has studied watercolor and composition extensively with Sondra Freckelton and Jack Beal. Simons’ work has appeared in several issues of Watercolor, and she is a co-author of the Walter Foster book Watercolor Step by Step. She is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group in Vermont. She resides in New Hampshire with her husband, Brian Simons, a software engineer. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter here.

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

4 thoughts on “Priming Your Mind for Painting

  1. I’m sure Lori’s suggestions are helpful to many artists, but I have yet to find a formula that works for me. I wonder how different we all are in our approach to getting the creative engine to turn over.
    Lori is motivated by escaping into her studio. I think there is something to the escapist thing. I was a lot more productive when there was more in my life to escape from. I did more work with my canvas propped up on the stove in a tiny apartment than now when I am retired with few worries and my studio with everything just as I want it. When I am away from my studio, all sorts of ideas come to me. But when I get back to the studio they have all lost their appeal. So, what does get me going? As I said at the beginning, I don’t know … but every once in a while some idea does stick around and eventually seduces me into setting up my pallet and brushes, and I begin to learn all over again the things have forgotten while waiting for new inspiration.

  2. I occasionally hear other artists comment favorably on the smells associated with their work as a motivating factor (usually oil painters and print makers). I believe I read that Charles Dickens used to find inspiration from the smell of rotting apples he kept in his desk. Psychologists tell us that the function of smell has a lot to do with memory and perhaps other aspects of our responses to things.
    However, I have very little sense of smell. I switched from oils to acrylics long ago because I could glaze over colors within a minute or two. I never missed the smell because I never noticed it to start with. Oil painters who have tried acrylics say they just aren’t the same. Of course they handle differently, but they have so many advantages that I wonder if it really isn’t something else the oil painters are missing … the smell perhaps.
    My wife, who has a particularly acute sense of smell, can generally tell immediately when we visit the home of an oil painter. The place “smells.”

  3. Thanks John for your comments. Ha! I never thought of how smell could contribute to wanting to work. I know oil solvents are toxic, but there is something about the smell of an oil painting studio that energizes me.

    I too love painting with acrylics and watermedia. Sometimes for me, looking at paintings in my collection of art books gets me motivated… these books remind me of all the things on my list to paint.

  4. John I “suffer” from the same malady as you. Great ideas outside the studio but lose the inspiration when in the studio. I also suffer from the “if only”. If only I had my own studio I would be a productive artist. Well now that IS the case in my apartment. I have definitely set up space to paint. But motivation is hard to come by. I have really come to realize that I am a people person. Plein air painting allows me to be with people and do what I love which is painting. I know that painting still lifes and drawing in the studio are highly beneficial. But without the interaction with people I am very unmotivated.