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3 Ways to Train Your 'Wild Child'

21 Nov 2012

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.
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 our painting.

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.

Please join us on The Artist's Road for more interesting in-depth articles and interviews.

--John and Ann


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frizzlerock wrote
on 22 Nov 2012 9:13 AM

i have a painting sitting for the past 6 months, so i know the feeling. Sargent. one of my favorites. ...

rook74 wrote
on 24 Nov 2012 6:23 AM

I get sidetracked very often and this article was helpful, even just knowing it is not me alone. I find that listening to music, or more assigning a single song to the painting I am working on helps me get back to where my mindset was. I will listen to that one song on repeat if needed to make sure I stay on that one wavelength and see a project to the end.

on 24 Nov 2012 7:37 AM

Rock74 - that idea really appeals to me. Thank you for sharing it.

thecsweet wrote
on 24 Nov 2012 7:55 AM

Music makes a huge difference for me when I'm painting as well.  It was very clear when I took several workshops and the first had music playing throughout and the last was quiet as a tomb except for the instructor speaking at times.  The music puts me in a completely different place - that special "reason why I love to paint" place!

So what do you do when you have a painting that went off track and you don't know whether to go back and a) "fix" it, b) finish it, or c) just paint over it and use that canvas for something else?  How do you decide?  Obviously it's not that easy to decide or we wouldn't have these things lying around for 6 months (or more!)

dbaldwin wrote
on 24 Nov 2012 9:20 AM

Be mindful of your breathing.  Painting is very much a mindfulness activity and if you pay attention to your breath even occassionally you,ll notice that inyour deep moments your breath iscalm and even, but if your mind wanders, especially into rocky emotional waters it will speed up or get ragged.  Your muscles may get tense and you might even clench your teeth!  Go back to an even breath as you refocus your mind on the painting.  It helps!

on 24 Nov 2012 11:06 AM

"the natural tendency of our minds to wander while we work..."

my powerful tool: Sketch!

I make several sketches not only drawing but writing down notes about what I would like to achieve: effects, color, edges, shadows, movement...

once the painting is in intermediate step I go back to the initial "fresh ideas" sketches, this is great to find again the initial inspiration!


on 24 Nov 2012 4:24 PM

Very true. Whether I am sculpting, reading articles such as this one, or studying how other artists created special affects in their paintings; I somehow concentrate entirely on only what I am doing at the moment. My husband has constantly observed that I tell him I will be in my studio for one hour and eight hours later, I am still in there not aware how much time has elasped. It can take me months before I am satisfied with a sculpture; however, when one is in this mode (zone?) time does not matter. Ideas and observation come intuitively.

Another observation on my point is that when I come back to a sculpture which I had left thinking it was finished,; I see it with new eyes and new insight into what is needed to truly bring it alive! You see, most of my pieces are realistic observations of people or animals in motion. They are not finished until they become alive to me! Carol Ann Minor

on 27 Nov 2012 1:49 PM

These are ALL great comments and ideas, and point up the fact that there are many roads to the top of the mountain. Roadblocks are common and come with the turf - we expect them. In a way, solving these can sometimes open the door to new creativity. Giving up is the only true failure. Look for an upcoming article on how we deal with those paintings that just don't seem to measure up to our vision for them.


Ann and John

P.S. Music in the studio is also very important to us.

Beth33 wrote
on 10 Jan 2013 2:40 PM

I love to listen to soft relaxing music while I paint. It really serves to help quiet my mind and thus enables me to focus more on my art of painting. It works wonders for me .... I hope it helps others as well.

YAkina wrote
on 25 Feb 2013 2:04 PM

Thank you. A wonderful and perfect reminder. Just what was needed for the day.

YAkina wrote
on 25 Feb 2013 2:05 PM

Thank you. A wonderful and perfect reminder. Just what was needed for the day.

Marlien wrote
on 17 Feb 2014 9:10 AM

sometimes i need to take my thoughts off of the painting on my easel to be able to finish it. therefore listening to an audible book helps me to just keep on painting, just to let it flow