Discovering the Secret of Art

There really is a secret of art. In fact there's a bunch of 'em. Trouble is they have a slippery habit of disappearing from your mind like misplaced little gems. All of us have to re-discover them. I just rediscovered one of them the other day and want to tell you about it.

Years ago I came to a crisis in my Freshman year at Oberlin College. I'd been planning to become a sociology major and was hip deep in the middle of writing my first 20 page sociology paper. It hadn't been going well and one evening, in complete disgust, I threw down my pen and stomped off to the movies. I'd never gone to the theater alone before so it felt odd as I walked up to the little one screen theater in the town. As it turned out, they were showing a film where Charlton Heston played Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

As you might guess from that casting choice, it wasn't the most sensitive films on the question of how artists invent their art. At the film's climax, a frustrated Michelangelo gazes up into the clouds. The orchestra soars and before him appears, fully formed from the billowing white vapor, the figure of Adam reaching his hand out to touch the extended index finger of God. This solves all of the artists compositional problems and he hurries home to finish off his greatest masterpiece.

Much as I'd like the same experience, it ain't like that.

What's required is some genuine self awareness. Pay attention and sometimes you'll feel a certain frame of mind steal over you. If you've painted for any length of time you know you're approaching one of those rare moments when you're likely to get some of your best ideas. It's almost like there's some insights that are knocking to come out of some sub-basement workshop in your unconscious. They don't come in with trumpets blaring, but rather tip toe up the steps from the basement and stand quietly in the back of the room, waiting for you to notice them. Honestly they seem shy and loud noises and sudden movements are likely to frighten them away.

Here's my legs holding one of my best secrets- a well used studio sketchbook. When I feel one of these especially receptive moods come over me I stop what I am doing, grab a ball point pen, and sit down and make myself as quiet as possible. Then I just look that the work in progress. Pretty soon a new idea suggests itself to me about how to change a shape or deepen a color. And I draw the idea in simple diagrammatic form, along with a few words to explain to myself what it is I want to do. The advice is kept simple, like "make rocks at right side higher" or "cooler greens."

What almost always happens is I then get another good idea of where to take the painting, and then another, and another... Almost always the insights seem to come to me in a flock or a herd.
I write them all down, carefully drawing pictures in simple silhouetted drawings of the parts of the painting I want to change. There is no attempt whatsoever to make the diagrams look presentable as art as they aren't intended for anyone but me. In fact, I never show the studio sketchbooks to anyone.

I didn't used to do this so religiously, this writing down of the good ideas. But I found that I would forget some of the changes I wanted to add to the paintings. Insights come to us usually with a quiet whisper. Often they're only half formed, and only give us hints of what we should do next. You have to respect the modesty of the process, feeling your way towards what you're most creative side is gradually revealing to you. You can't rush it, and you mustn't take the insights for granted. There are simply times when we are more talented than usual, as if the Muse has chosen for her mysterious reasons to smile on us for a moment. Take her gifts seriously, draw them and write them down as best you can, for she'll be leaving your studio again in a few minutes. I've tried offering tea and cake to encourage her to stay, but she always seems to be running late.


  1. A herd of insights - I love it! Sometimes I get these lucky things over several days, even dreaming of painting. Then months, or even years, later I use the drawings I've made as inspiration. Thanks for sharing your process.

  2. Barbara, thanks for your comment. You must be good about holding onto those old drawings to be able to put them to use years later. On the other hand, obviously Rembrandt was pretty good at hold on to old drawings too or we wouldn't know of them.

    My wife always complains about me being a pack rat. She's right, of course.

  3. Sometimes when I Have one of the moments or hours you describe and am rapidly writing the thought down or drawing thumb nails, I think "Wow, you've finally figured out how o do this". Then a few minutes, day's, or hours later one realizes, "No you Don't smart guy" but for those times however brief you fell the power. Like dreams these moments disappear as quickly as they arrived so it's best to write them down and draw them as fast as your little number two lead can scribble.
    Thanks For your Blog Tim Fitz

  4. Tim, well said. I like how you liken the insights to dreams. They both can evaporate awfully quickly. It's always going to be something of a roller coaster for us painters I guess.

  5. There is that mysterious 'time' when it all seems appearent. Like it's right in front of you, but like fish, you don't want to scare it away.(because you can)
    so half awear, I'll make note of it.
    Once I 'set the hook' I'm grinning ear to ear,
    because you never know what you're going to get!

  6. Dear Billspaintingmn-

    While I'm not a fisherman, I think your image conjures up the artist's situation perfectly.


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