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The puzzle system
July 19, 2013
A fellow painter told me her whole approach was intuitive. "Bob, it's not that your ideas aren't intelligent," she told me, "but I just don't need to know all that stuff." After telling me once again she paints how she feels, she went on to say that she wasn't feeling all that motivated. Later, I was wondering if it might be me un-motivating her.
Then I was remembering the many painters over the years who reported poor motivation and who also just happened to be from the intuition camp. Looking into old emails I found statements like, "It feels too easy to be worthwhile," "I can't be bothered anymore," "I don't know where I'm going," "All I paint is chaos," and "What's the use?"
That night I happened to be in an airport departure lounge. I couldn't help but notice a fellow traveller abandoning her half-completed crossword puzzle on the seat beside her. She had that internal smile that betrayed her satisfaction.
That was when my banana ripple fell off its cone. It's not only finishing the puzzle that satisfies, I realized, it's going word by word that brings the joy.
In painting, I use the puzzle system. I commit myself to one stroke or another at the beginning, then look around to see what my next move might be. Thus, I go from move to move--working out the puzzle--until it's either completed or abandoned.
The puzzle system starts with the proposition that you may not know what to do. The nice part is that, deep down, you have the feeling that you can figure it out. The system draws heavily on the skills of focus and concentration, as well as your accumulated knowledge of techniques and processes. A logical order may be desirable but, as in the case of the recently mentioned ice-cream cone, things can go this way or that. In other words, plenty of opportunities for intuition develop during the game. Further, the process is both additive and subtractive. Things you thought you needed turn out not to be needed; and things you didn't know were needed are suddenly seen to be needed. Balancing it all is quite an art.
PS: "Painting is the passage from the chaos of the emotions to the order of the possible." (Balthus)
Esoterica: If you decide to play this sort of game, if only as a test, you'll find there are challenges. Thinking is needed. As things go this way and that, you may, for example, need to dig for reference you hardly anticipated. Constantly asking the question "What could be?" may take you onto unfamiliar ground--maybe an odyssey of walking among the stars. The byproduct of this sort of structured but exploratory art-making is exhilaration. Thus joyfully obsessed, you may just happen to find yourself motivated. As far as I can see, the work is more like play. "Ludere ludum" said the Roman poet and philosopher Kjerkius Gennius (36 BC), "Play the game."
What's all the fuss? by Mahsun Haji Taib, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
When you are in front of landscape you'd already know what to paint, similarly, when the artist is in front of Dato Mahsun Haji Taib in front of artwork
the model. The artists know what to sketch, draw or paint so why the fuss of not knowing what to do? This puzzles me.
(RG note) Thanks, Mahsun. If art was just a matter of copying landscapes or models, you would be rightly puzzled. But it isn't. Art is the business of passing reality through the miracle of the human imagination. This takes a certain amount of thinking, and it also takes intuition.
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So you're not motivated, eh? by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Not motivated? Stop complaining! You've kicked the addiction! Relax, get a job, get used to sanity! Now youGo Ask Alice oil painting
can see that art was a bad idea to begin with. Don't blame it on intuition. Intuition is useless without thinking, and vise versa. It takes both to solve a puzzle or paint a picture. Marsyas and Apollo get together and create a symphony so terrifying and beautiful that your "motivation" becomes as impossible to avoid as gravity after doing a ski jump off a very high mountain--to mix a few metaphors. It doesn't matter if you're driving a Bentley or living under a bridge, there is no 12-step program. And this brotherhood-sisterhood Bob talks about won't help either. It's just you and the canvas in the end.
So be thankful! You're clean! Take a deep breath. Go into investment banking.
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Confessions of a puzzle person by Judith R Birnberg, Sherman Oaks, CA, USA
I found this letter revealing of my own approach: I think of myself as an intuitive painter, but I also untitled original painting
do the NYT crossword puzzle every day and have a certain way to do them. The crosswords and artwork seem to mesh.
You wrote "I commit myself to one stroke or another at the beginning, then look around to see what my next move might be. Thus, I go from move to move--working out the puzzle--until it's either completed or abandoned."
My beginning crossword "strokes" are to find the clues that contain blanks and fill in those answers. (I have read this is what most inveterate puzzlers do.) That's the easy part. Then I look for the three- and four-space answer slots and do those. Also easy.
So far my crossword "painting" has small spots of words here and there--no developed areas.
Next I go through all the across clues and do what I can. My painting is looking a little healthier. Then I do the same for the down clues. The painting is developing. I do a fair amount of guessing--that's the intuitive part--and often it accomplishes a great deal.
On Sundays, the puzzle always contains a gimmick, referred to in the title of the puzzle. Figuring out the gimmick can do a lot to get me to the end—or it can waylay me. I never look up an answer.
My paintings and collages are developed along the same lines: I do the easy parts first, the ones I know are right. But a fair amount of intuition and guesswork is also involved, and usually those places add to the developing whole. I used to have problems deciding when the painting was finished, but now I see when the last "word" has been filled in. There is nowhere else to move. And I didn't have a gimmick/theme to trip me up.
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Just stop! by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA
Sometimes people ought to just stop. My brother once bought a ton of stained glass equipment. He createdGlads of Summer original painting
the most delightful lamp shade. He never made anything after that. He'd done what he wanted to do and that was enough. Production art is not what it's about for everybody. Or even that attempt to scale our own personal Mount Everest. I painted a gannet once. I don't want to paint another one. It was good.
If you believe in a creator (and I don't), "He" looked and saw it was good. And stopped apparently because we've never found another planet like our own out there in the galactic art gallery. Nature is wonderful in her ability to make no two snowflakes alike.
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A process of self-discovery by Linda Murray, Bath, ME, USA
I've never heard the intuitive process described so accurately. You are right, you do use your mind,After The Rain acrylic painting
although it is not in the controlled manner one might think. Keeping it at bay and only allowing it to interfere when needed is part of the challenge. When you straddle the line between intuition and thoughtful reference it is a game that is addictive. While many may choose to carefully plan a painting, I find beginning with no idea but with trust that it will all turn out alright the best approach. This game is also a process of self-discovery. A challenge of "Can I solve this puzzle?" "Do I have the tools and skills?" "Where will I lead it to completion?" It's exciting!
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Fun and reflection by Raven McDonough, Venice, FL, USA
Here's my creative process: I start with an idea to get me started and don't picture the final outcome.Release What Does Not Serve You collage 8 x 8 inches
I let myself be open to new ideas dropping in (or you could call it the creative process) as I work on the collage or painting.
At night, I take the work in progress from the studio to the living room and hang it above the TV. I find watching TV at night helps me to relax. During commercials, I glance up at the art work and look at it with fresh eyes in a different setting, with different lighting. Most times, "things" (what's right, needs to be changed, or added) jump out at me. I jot down these thoughts on a note pad, to take with me to the studio the next morning.
Before declaring a collage or painting is finished, I do the same, hang it over the TV for review. When nothing jumps out at me that needs to be changed or added by bedtime, I declare it finished and sign the piece the next morning. For me, if it's not fun, why bother torturing yourself? Life is too short with too many distractions.
The case for adlibbing by Gloria Miller Allen, Idaho Falls, ID, USA
I have never used the words "Puzzle System" before, but that is so the way I work. In every way, that Canyon Steps watercolour painting
is what drives me. I do love solving the puzzle. In fact, that is where the 'high' is for me. I tell my students sometimes... "First you make a mark, and then you spend the rest of the time fixing it." I have said that so many times, that I don't know if I made it up, or if I heard it elsewhere, but it sure works for me. I have called myself a "Jazz Painter" for many years. I think it is just another term for the same approach. I found out years ago that if I did thumb-nail sketches, and value studies, I was done with it, and ready for the next painting to 'solve.' No, I dearly love working it all out in the process of painting. I have learned from teaching that not every artist can live there, or even wants to, but I love making it up as I go, getting into the weeds, and finding my way out. Like a Jazz musician - lots of adlibbing. I say "Whatever works - use it." I was happy the day I figured this out about myself many years ago. Got rid of all the guilt of not 'planning ahead.' Sometimes, I don't even need a subject. Now that's fun.
Daily painter by Kat Corrigan, Minneapolis, MN, USA
I have been painting seriously and daily since 2009 when my son was born, because I didn't want to lose The Green House 2 original painting
the artist part of me and I knew I had to commit or it would fade into a hobby. One of the habits that helped me stick to this idea is the Daily Painter practice, of painting something every day, even if it is small. I found Carol Marine
and took a class from her and it was wonderful!
In my methodology I set myself up with problems and figure out how to best represent them. Then there is the thoughtfulness about every stroke as well. I was trying to explain that to my adult painting class the other night, the "intention" of a stroke, the thinking about where it should go and what direction it should be to best represent what you are looking at. I can see having "intuitive" painting as a way of growing your personal mark and getting comfortable with the movement of paint, but I agree that if it is too easy it will get boring and unsatisfying.
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The discovery of abstraction by Pam Carter, Wellington, ON, Canada
As realist/impressionist oil painter for many years, I've covered all the subject matter in that spectrumIrreversible Encounter oil painting 48 x 60 inches
from portraits to landscapes and everything in between. In my little corner here of Prince Edward County in Ontario, I've enjoyed a happy amount of success, with a good number of repeat buyers.
Two years ago, after thinking about it for some time, I decided to try my hand at a big abstract and confronted a 4x5' canvas for the first time. It was daunting to say the least. I made no preliminary sketches, just had a big palette, some house painting trays and brushes, and a large bucket of thinners.
No amount of past experienced prepared me for this so it was raw motivation/ intuition that dared me to make those first broad strokes across that blank universe, and I had sweating palms and pounding heart the whole time with no idea of where I was going!
It was a constant process of make a stroke, step back, jump in with another, smear, smudge, remove, add, walk away, come back. The entire process was so compelling, yet so nerve racking that when I decided it was finished, I was quite exhausted and on all levels!
Since that one I've done several more, enjoying/cursing each one until it released me!!
I can say that the experience of abandoning subject matter to focus on the basics of colour, composition, texture, edges etc taught me so much that carried over to my more realist-based work, most of all to let my intuition and pure love of paint lead the way! I highly recommend it as a great way to jump start a new enthusiasm for this passion we are so consumed by.
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In need of inspiration by Marie-Ellen Boolsen, Cape Town, South Africa
I'm an artist and teacher of many years and, at the moment, in need of inspiration. Teaching others is such a joy that I have been neglecting my own art this year and this puzzle is just what I need - a bit of fun with my art materials and a journey that will take me to a place that I cannot even imagine.
I think you must be the most wonderful teacher and that is exactly what I feel I need - a teacher in the true sense of the word. I live in Cape Town so it is highly unlikely that I will ever have the privilege of attending your workshops but your charming letters and amazing generosity in sharing your ideas with others is an inspiration to me.
(RG note) Thanks, Marie-Ellen. Your lack of inspiration may be because of your teaching. Like your teaching, occasional teaching for me is an absolute joy, but I'm certain too much teaching can give a creative person the blues. I'm not sure why this happens, but, as usual, I have a few ideas. I do know, for most of us, the very best of times are when you're in your own space sweating, trying to squeeze quality out of imperfect capabilities.
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Pallister Valley Mist oil painting on canvas Bonnie Hamlin,
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