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Think before you paint

Updated: Feb 20

"Art comes into being in that abstract interval between a thought and reality, and no one - not even the artist who created it - can remeasure the influences that caused it."

          -Edgar Alwin Payne



Brief disclaimer... this is more of a reminder for me than anything else.


Thinking is one of the most underrated skills associated with creating a good painting. A great painting can happen serendipitously however if your objective is to create consistently good works of art, thinking well can tilt the odds in your favor.


Edgar Payne may have said it best when he said, " The most important ally in the study of painting is the art of thinking."


The great Edgar Payne was not alone in this type of conclusion. Michelangelo is attributed with saying "A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” Leonardo da Vinci is credited with saying, “The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.”


References to these notions can be found throughout history. I tend to focus my learning on the great painters of the 1800's and early 1900's and there is no shortage of similar sentiments there.


We need not rely upon Edgar Payne's ideas alone to draw similar conclusions about the importance of thought when if comes to creating art. Much of his classic book "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting" is dedicated to describing how the mind of the painter, plays and integral role in their ability to produce good and unique works.



This is the very first sentence in the preface he wrote for the second printing of his classic book "Composition of Outdoor Painting. Therein he goes on to say "Excepting natural talent or genius, individuality in thought is, without a doubt, the greatest single factor in creative work."


"It is the ability to determine consciously what it is that interests him, and why, that differentiates the artist from the art student."

          -John F. Carlson


Here's a longer excerpt from "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting" that suggests so.

Style or method in painting is like your personal handwriting; you thought little about it when you were forming your first crude letters in school. We all use the same alphabet, and one man’s letters are legible to another; and yet how vastly different in general appearance! The style of your handwriting was dictated by some latent and unconscious quality within you, and even your present style will gradually change, with the years of practice in writing, or in painting, with the ripening of character. When you sit down to write an essay or a letter it is not your penmanship that you are thinking about; it is what you are going to say that occupies your mind.


But art is a thing so much of the imagination, of the soul, that it is difficult to descend to the fundamentals of technique and yet make it plain to the student that these are but the means, and not an end in themselves. The underlying principles, or fundamentals, should be so hidden away by the beauty that they are eventually to support, that it would require much digging to disclose them. These are things we painters knew long ago, and have half forgotten. It is this that causes many teachers to attempt the impossible: that is, to start the student from the place where they, themselves, have arrived!


How shall we approach our task of rendering these aesthetic experiences upon canvas so that our brother man may feel them with us? How shall we see nature with a painter’s eyes, and not merely as a tourist? The word “see” does not mean, in this instance, mere visual correctness; this never in itself produces a work of art. A snapshot is a correct rendition of physical fact; sharply focused it will show the numberless grasses upon the ground; it can in fact, render these so that we can see nothing else upon the print. The actual form of the mass upon which these grasses occur, it does not suggest; nor does it convey nature’s subtle color changes or color-flow. But, most of all, the camera does not have an idea about the objects reflected upon its lens. It does not “feel” anything, and will render one thing as well as another.


This “idea,” or thrill is the unteachable part of all art. It must be intrinsic in the student. It is presupposed that anyone taking up any of the arts has this inherent sensitiveness to beauty. With this native gift, he can proceed to apply the process of reducing his material to its simplest denomination, eliminating all non-essentials, and leaving only the simplified elements with which to create and express.


By diligent practice with eye and hand (and the logical lobe of the brain), he must master the fingering of the keyboard, as it were, so that technical deficiency at least will not stand between him and expression. Once this is mastered he can very well afford to forget the fingering and proceed to play Chopin or Wagner. When one has thus arrived at the point where he can play, let him not mistake this ability or dexterity for the end or final expression. Let me reiterate, it is only the means to an end.


If you feel things intensely and can learn to see simply (which is not a child’s prerogative, but that of an intelligent man), a style or manner will develop that will be adequate, and it will be as “individual” and different from anyone else’s style as your personal idiosyncrasies dictate.


Your color sense, too, will improve along personal lines, and it, too, will always be distinctive and “characteristic” of you. I have never met two individuals who “saw color” identically; not only the physical construction of the eye, but the personal predilection or soul-state of each individual causes him to see differently. Copies of personalities are neither possible nor desirable in our world. All schools are full of the bugbear of “personality.” This is often prompted by the desire in the student to become distinguished from his fellows, which is laudable enough, but which cannot be achieved hastily or artificially.


Beauty of method comes of experience and similarly cannot be forced. This leads us to consider what office beauty really fills in the work of art. What beauty in a physical sense really is, no man has yet fathomed. It is like an electric current; we use it, feel it, know in a sense how to harness it, but we do not know what it is.


It has always seemed to me that a picture does not rest upon beauty alone. The beauty and the recognized elements of subject matter (with the unity of idea in which they should be represented) together signify something to us; it is difficult to say what that significance is. There is a spirit behind beauty which is its cause! Beauty, therefore, must be relevant to that cause. Perhaps it is an “association of ideas,” perhaps it involves what psychologists call the personal and the collective unconscious, perhaps it involves more mystical, even religious factors.


It is quite notable that Carlson specifies the yin-and-yang type relationship between rigorous, intentional, conscious thinking and intuition-based thinking. When it comes to painting (and most if not all creative endeavors...) the interplay between choregraphed dance of practice-based thought and more spontaneous sparks of thought that light the way at times with their brilliance, generate the energy and resonance we all seek as artist.


These ideas related to the connections between thought and creative acts are not relegated to Renaissance painters and those turn of the century American Painters I tend to favor. These sentiments transcend and permeate throughout art history and the general study of creativity.


"To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them."

           -Edgar Alwin Payne


"The average artist, if he chooses, could render an exact drawing of what he sees. Artistic work not only allows but demands some deviation from form and line. Just how far this may go depends on the viewpoint of each painter."

           -Edgar Alwin Payne


"Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought." – Albert Einstein


"You use a glass mirror to see your face. You use works of art to see your soul." – George Bernard Shaw


“Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” – Dorothy Parker


“Create with the heart; build with the mind.” – Criss Jami


“Art is a line around your thoughts.” – Gustav Klimt



Cheers for now - stay well!

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Connecting the mind and the heart is the role of the artist. Great quotes!!!

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