How many of us have started a work of art full of enthusiasm and
excitement, only to wind up disappointed with an unfinished oil painting or watercolor sketch and you are left with no idea
why? While there are many reasons for these false starts, they often can be
attributed to the natural tendency of our minds to wander while we work. The
human mind is a planning, analyzing and strategizing machine, and without those
skills we would not have climbed up the evolutionary ladder.
We sift through
the past to avoid future mistakes and we plan our efforts for the future trying
to predict possible outcomes. It is our default mode of thinking—that "voice
in our heads"—and it normally serves us well. We are so good at this type of
thinking that we can be largely unaware that we are doing it, and this is where
the trouble can start for us when we try to create.
|An Artist in His Studio by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1904.
Creative work requires a quiet, focused mind to be successful.
The optimum creative mental condition when it comes to how to paint can be described as "intense relaxed
concentration." It is a condition in which we are so focused on our work that
time seems to disappear, and along with it, all of our worries and concerns. It
is then that we are at our best creatively because we are living in the moment.
The voice in our head is quiet, allowing our creative subconscious to join us
in our absorption with the subject. Work seems to just flow effortlessly and is
always true and remarkable. Having the ability to switch our minds into this
mode at will would seem to be a great advantage to an artist. For most of us,
however, these peak moments are hard to achieve on a regular basis.
Our consciousness is a powerful tool, but for many of us it is a
wild child, running rampant in any direction it chooses unless we train it to work with
us on a task. We believe that the ability to turn on intense focus and
concentration at will is a skill that can be learned.
Here are some techniques we have found to be helpful:
The first technique is to gradually retrain the mind by simply
becoming aware of what the "voice" is absorbed with, and then gently turning
our thoughts back to the subject at hand. This process will have to be done
repeatedly each day for it to become routine, somewhat like training a puppy to
sit. Just being aware of how our minds try to divert us into other directions
each moment points up the amount of resistance that we have been unconsciously
struggling against. This struggle uses up precious creative energy. No wonder
we sometimes quit.
The second technique is to replace the random wandering thoughts
with thoughts relevant to our creative work. When painting, we repeat a kind of
artistic mantra, "Shape, Color, Value, Edges", with each basic painting stroke. This simple
technique quickly becomes automatic and shows in the positive improvements in
The third technique is to take frequent breaks. This may sound counter-intuitive, but working for shorter periods, say no more than 90 minutes
at a sitting, can result in marked improvements in our work. It is always
beneficial to get away from our work briefly, to stand back and appraise our
efforts, and see the forest for the trees.
As Saul Bellow is quoted, "Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction." Practice these painting techniques and you'll be well on your way to making the most of every painting session.
Do you have painting tips you can share that do the job of training our "wild children"? Leave a comment and let us know.
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--John and Ann