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 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.
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–John and Ann