The Threshold Of Creative Output

In Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way she prescribes writing 3 morning pages everyday which forces open a hose of creativity. While you’re writing so much, pushing out every idea, dream, a small conversation at the grocery store, you’re priming the pump of creativity. After doing this for 3 or 4 months you hit this crescendo and before you were just another person, but after that peak you have no other choice than being a creative person. The only way to go back is to actively fight against your now nearly overwhelming urge to put out something.

You can do this with any creative output by itself without writing but writing is such a great partner to any other creative output you could imagine. If you did something interesting that day in the woodshop, you’d write it down. Maybe a little mistake led to something interesting. Writing will become your little workshop for ideas. You’ll carry a notebook with you at all times, you’ll have a notebook near your bed in case something comes up in a dream or a you just wake up with an idea. You’ll be journaling, writing down recipes even though you could save them to your smart phone.

In order to reach this threshold, you need to slog through days where there is no muse, the muse isn’t coming at all. You have to just sit down and put in the time no matter what and be okay that maybe what you put out isn’t a good idea or product. The only thing that matters is you showed up and didn’t let your callouses weaken today. That might have been the only feature for that day, you didn’t degrade that .00003% today. You maintained and tomorrow might be a different day.

Once you’re past a certain weird abstract amount of weeks and months, the slog feels less and less and the compulsion to create turns into a bit of fever. That amount of time is probably different for everyone but you’ll know it once it hits. There’s a slight anxiousness if you can’t get to your medium that day and you’ll start trying to plan on how to get back to it. Whatever your medium of choice will haunt you in a wonderful way and you’ll know that you’ve reached that threshold of output where there’s no turning back. You’ll be an artist for the rest of your life.




The Search For One Bold Mark

One bold mark is what all artists are going for after a certain amount of time learning their medium. Obviously to do that one bold mark over and over and over to get the whole of a finished work, be it a drawing, sculpture or a painting. Maybe in a finished piece they only get one bold confident mark, but that mark made their painting. While artists are searching for it, that ideal great work is accomplished even if they don’t necessarily pull off the one bold mark.

John Singer Sargent tried to minimize all of his work to the least amount of strokes possible. To work with the biggest brush possible and minimizing his moves to only what is necessary. If you’re going for porcelain skin realism that is not the strategy you would take but if you’re looking for the fastest most accurate feeling that you can get from a subject. It is to work fast and capture the true essence of the subject.

If you’re up for the challenge of minimalism in paint strokes you’ll notice the work gets very abstract. How many brush strokes will it take to get the feeling of the thing or person until it will register to the viewer? When you’re searching for that you’ll realize how dynamic everything will feel and how sometimes the quick works of art will surpass the art you broke yourself trying to perfect. The scary part is you’ll get people being moved more by a piece that took you 20 minutes as apposed to 20 days.

Being bold is being loose, so when you start out a work you’re looking for a general concept of the image. When watching comic book artist Jim Lee he starts out so loose and sketchy you can’t believe it. He actually has fun with it and draws loose shapes for placeholders that he’ll come back to later. By laying down those lines he gives his imagination something to work off of and then he can start clarifying all the shapes and figures to get a rough in. This is where the critical part of creativity comes in, he’s laying something in and if it doesn’t reconcile, he erases and then puts in his bold mark over the rough lines. He’s looking for drama and to do that he needs his comic book characters to have bold dramatic, realistic poses.

Some strategies to get bolder confident lines and brush strokes are to do long lines or dramatic pulling and pushing brush strokes with seemingly bigger brushes than you need. If you’re drawing a line you want to think of the start and the finish of the line and to make that line in one smooth movement. To get better at that, one exercise is to put points on a paper and to draw straight lines between them, then move to S curves. There needs to be a beginning and an end to the stroke. You don’t want to be sketchy. In paint you want to practice your stroke above your canvas, the brush loaded with paint. Not touching the canvas until you know you have the movement down and only then putting the brush down and pulling the paint.

In your search for bolder more confident marks you’ll see it in other artist’s work and gain an appreciation for the process that led to those marks. Everyone starts out with hesitating hashes of lines, but once you’re able to lay a line in one stroke you’ll understand that is one of the aspects to what separates amateurs from professionals, a bold confident mark that all artists are searching for and are working to lay down.


Frustration is a feeling that can sneak up into any task, but in creative work it can really wear on the creative process, sometimes being such a road block that the creative quits entirely. What should be concentrated on is that frustration is part of the process, a step in the stair to another new level. If you’re frustrated, congratulation, you’re human. What we need to do is look at frustration’s role in creation to better understand why it’s something to be cherished instead of avoided, as hard as that is.

Learning anything has plateaus and frustration usually lies in the plateau. When we’re in the plateau it’s hard to get through the minutia of the tasks and practice we have for whatever we’re aiming at. One of the saving graces of this plateau and the frustration we feel is that it usually lies right before a peak of increased skill and a breakthrough in your practice. All of a sudden things become easier, you’ll do a move effortlessly, write a magnificent paragraph in the first go, draw that arm in the first go, you’ll automatically have a solution to problem. You’ll feel like it’s easier beyond belief.

It’s hard to plan for these breakthroughs, you have to just keep doing the work, getting to that your studio, desk or gym. It’s the most important time to be studious and getting your foot in the door. One reason is to keep your skills warmed up so when the breakthrough does happen you’re warmed up and primed to best take advantage of the flowing effortless phase.

Once you accept frustration as part of the path you can work within it and through it. With that in mind you’re much less likely to quit, you’ll have the wherewithal and the grit to continue. Once you have enough plateaus under your belt you will be hardened to keep seeking and be okay with putting the sometimes seemingly endless lonely hours practicing.

There is a lag to getting better or stronger, you need to be aware of that. The time you put in is compound interest for an end long from now in the future.

Some ways to deal in the plateau, drowning in the frustrations is to get to the table as often as you can. If you’re a writer and are blocked write out a dream, rewrite an article you like, a drawer, practice anatomy. A painter maybe just reorganizing your space. If you’re an athlete just showing up to the gym, maybe as little as putting on your gear walking into the gym and walking back out. Another strategy might be to have a notebook on you at all times, your sketchbook, your camera keeping it at the ready at any moment. Retail therapy is also a fun way to get the motivation going through the hump, get some new tools of the trade which will help you motivate yourself for the campaign ahead.

If you are really blocked and the task is wearing on you mentally a little too much, and even showing up seems too much look up videos, articles and read books on your creative choice. That way even in that dreaded block you’re still taking in something and you might accidentally come across inspiration that will help you out of it.

A walking habit might be a great task that will work in parallel and dove tail into your creative process nicely, helping get through frustrations. There have been countless writers and artists that have sworn by their walking habit. If walking isn’t your speed, biking or I imagine even drives down scenic roads could help greatly.

With all these tools available to help get through frustration it’s important to know that frustration is part of the path. In fact if you’re not feeling frustrated at least part of the time, you might not be advancing. You’re probably just coasting, and that’s something if that’s all you can manage. There is another gear available if you are coasting and you just have to be willing to take on that extra crux.  To advance you have to be playing at the edge of your abilities, taking in the frustrations. Looking for your weaknesses and practicing at that rather than what you are good at, only playing your hits. In the valley of frustration lies all your potential and if you’re willing and courageous enough, the breakthroughs will come and you’ll see frustrations as part of the process rather than a stopping point.

The Importance Of Story In Art

In order to bring in interest in a piece of art or more broadly into the artist’s themselves there must be a hook or a story to bring that interest in. There’s many ways to do that from creating an interesting artistic process, a historical and or political narrative that the piece explores, embedded symbols and sigils and the artist’s life story through trials and tribulations they have endured. When a painting brings in a narrative it can bring the viewer in and they can empathize with the piece, which makes that work more effective and likely to have an impact for lifetimes.

The contemporary painter Jeremy Mann uses a camera for reference for his dramatic paintings which is not atypical, but he dives into the intricacy of the camera and film. Mann has turned the camera, not just into a tool, but into a detailed process where he’s learned and fell in love with cameras he uses and then develops his own film. He has an extensive collection old Polaroid cameras and has even built his own, taking control of every aspect of the staging, posing and what the models wear in his portrait or figurative work. As well as the execution of the painting, Mann cares about the weeks of preparatory process before he ever touches a brush. Once in front of his canvas the story of his process doesn’t end. Jeremy uses ink rollers and scrapers with oil paint in bold striking moves, where you can’t help but wonder if even his posture is part of his process. When you gaze on Mann’s work it’s impossible to not feel the boldness and the confidence that Jeremy Mann’s process has given his paintings.

Symbols bring in quick avenues to bring story into paintings using animals, magical creatures, religious figures, skulls, certain jewelry, colors, weather and whatever can bring about a emotional connection. It’s basically endless. Symbols are metaphors to a deeper connection conscious or subconscious, that might be brought out socially or culturally. They can bring meaning and significance through personal metaphors or more culturally accepted symbols. Leonardo Da Vinci for instance kept a long list of animals and what meaning that animal meant. Caravaggio would take popular symbolism in grapes and apples which have obvious connotations to Christianity and give them a bit of a twist, having an apple with a wormhole or a mummified few grapes. Showing that symbols can be used and twisted to find new meanings.


Frida Kahlo brought all of the above to her paintings but her life story also informed her work. Frida brought dream imagery into her paintings, imagery of her health struggles and yet she had fought hard politically for the Mexican Communist Party and had a very volatile relationship with also political muralist husband. Frida fought and struggled and lived life to the fullest, and again no matter if she was at her mental or physical end, whether emotionally destitute or literally bed ridden in a body cast, she would paint. Frida would paint whatever was happening in her life and would bring symbolism and iconography in to reflect how the world affected her. Because she was often bedridden she used roots in a lot of her paintings, yet using the positive connotation as a symbol of positive growth. Opposites being a common theme in her paintings. Frida could have painted her literal life experiences and they would have been powerful in their own right, but she expanded on the meaning and created a mosaic of dreamlike iconography that was her own and which would elicit a more powerful response from the viewer.

Before and after of a surgery where Frida hoped to recover despite the botched procedure.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty, composition and the technique of a painting but patrons and artists should keep in mind that it’s the story that really brings out the reaction from the viewers. The impact we’re all looking for in other’s art or our own. It’s something that the critic and the artist should always be thinking about. What is the story of this piece? What is the historical significance, what do the symbols mean? What was the process of this image? Does this image have any cultural or religious commentary? What is the personal iconography that they’re searching for and what can that mean to the context of that artist’s life? The questions and the answers are the point, and the more personal your meaning to the piece the more impact it will have.

From Imagination And Memory

Very few people understand how much memory is a factor in art, and additionally working from your imagination. Memory factors into the study of the figure, increasing your visual imagery, even minutely when working from reference. When you understand how much memory factors into your art you can design strategies to work that skill and compliment your imagination and invention.

The role of memory gets lost in both observing and creating art. We don’t notice the imperceptible bit of information that we’re keeping in our mind’s eye in order to transfer that information to a brush stroke or a line from a pencil. We’re observing what we want to draw from, and then memorizing a little bit of that information and trying to transfer it over to your work. So a lot of training to become a better draughtsmen is to expand the amount of information you can remember.

One way to expand the amount of information you can hold in your visual memory is to do a lot of sketches. First of the subject. If you’re doing a portrait painting a way to prepare is to do quicker sketches of the person. Each sketch you’re adding more information broadly and the following sketches you are able to focus into details you might have missed before. When you are doing the final version you’ll find you are intuiting details, having to pay less attention to the reference. If something is off, you’ll sense it’s off more acutely, which will allow you to focus on the detail.

With memory being such a huge factor in creating we understand how important studies are for image making. If we do a lot of portraits and figure drawings we get a rather average face, or figure built into our brains. That sort of average avatar of a human is what we measure each beautiful uniqueness off of. Which makes the work faster and more energetic, we’re able to make fast, bolder strokes. We’re not stumbling on details and are instead imagining how that feature could fit into the design of our image. We’re much more able to look at the subject and figure and see how to add it as an abstraction rather than just as it is, just a copy. It’s a matter of “am I just doing a copy, or am I in charge and the autonomous factor in this creation?”

The American artist and instructor Thomas Eakins would have his students do their final study in a room separate from the model. In an exercise of memory, Eakin’s students would be able to make sketches in the room with the model, but they were not able to take the sketches back to their final easel. This exercised the visual memory to such an extreme that it would be much easier once they went back outside the teaching environment.

With memory being such a huge part of creating don’t forget about one of memory’s best tools, the sketch. Don’t think of it as just any other quick scratch, think about it as programming that image into your mind so your intuition for the final product’s execution.

Drawing And Painting From Life

Painting from life is one of the pillars of training your eye for art. In drawing from life you have to understand what you are drawing in terms of depth, angle and account for movement and the passing of time. There is a lot of problems to solve when painting from life. When you are drawing or painting from a subject it forces you to get away from symbols of things and to render them as they are from your perspective, not as you think them to be. The advantages to life painting and drawing are well worth the problems and the process of getting over the lingering doubts an artist might have.

I believe for a lot of beginning artists life drawing can be scary and a lot of us may avoid it and draw only from reference. I know for me it was the last thing I ever wanted to do in art but once an artist gets past that nagging feeling and draws from life a new skill can open up new understandings that might only come from reading or teachers. You get to teach yourself instead of relying on other people’s photography or master copies of other artists. Instead of relying on the path of others, you get to choose your path and have complete autonomy over your choice of subjects.

An easy way to get started is to draw or paint from things in your immediate vicinity. You could set up a still life with plants from around your house, cups or vases, knick-knacks and whatever you can find to use as drapery. If you have any anxiety about getting a model you can do self-portraits in a mirror and you can draw your own hands and feet. A nature walk with a sketchbook could also help your practice. Drawing your pet will introduce you to the frustrations and fun of drawing or painting wild life or in public squares. All these could be a step to gather up the skills and courage to seeking a model or getting out to do some more urban painting.

There is a magic to painting from life that using reference might not have. The artist uses their memory more and we as an observer of the finished product know that artist was in the wild, in the thick of it creating. The observer knows that there is no tricks that got in the way between the observed and the final product. No photoshop filters, no optical trickery with projectors, just the artist in a field or the studio faced with their subject.

Plein air painting (painting outside from the environment), from a model, or a still life helps artists get over the dreaded impostor syndrome that plagues most, if not all artists. At least with myself painting from life was maybe the scariest part of art, but after getting the hang of it and getting past some of the anxieties that come with the new skill and process, I noticed that negative voice got quite a bit weaker and had faded into the distance and sometimes disappeared altogether. Part of it is there is no room for that voice to exist while you are concentrating and using all of your powers to work in the limited time you have with your subject. There is no mucking about, your model can only hold a pose for so long, the fading light of the sun is disappearing under the horizon, your fruit or flowers might parish in a still life. The clock is running and you need to concentrate, using all of your observation to get that line or brush stroke. The impostor syndrome can be a hard problem for artists, but it will have it’s own problems existing while you are out in the environment continuing the tradition of painters of the past because you are one of them. You are in the artists guild standing side by side despite, and in defiance of whatever anxiety or syndrome tries to meddle with your creativity.




“He Was The Best Of Us All”


The Florintine painter Masaccio (Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone) led the way past the traditional two-dimensional flat paintings of old, to cinematic three dimensional realism. When viewing a Masaccio painting it was like the frame was a window and peering into the painting you could now see light, color, movement and depth that matched our own world. Masaccio would be the leader that bridged the gap and invented the tool kits for future painters like Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Caravaggio.

Little of Masaccio’s early life is known as there are no records between his birth in 1401 until he joined the artist’s guild of Arte de’ Medici e Speziali in 1422. We don’t know his teachers or where he might have apprenticed to lead and sculpt young Tommaso’s insights and invention. We can however infer his heavy influence from Giotto, which Tommaso would take on Giotto’s task of breaking free from the more Gothic paintings. Through Masaccio’s contemporaries or friendships with Donetello and Fiilippo Brunelleschi he would learn how to bring out the depth of realism. Drawing studies from Donetello’s sculptures he could learn the foreshortening of limbs and feet that could ground his figures on the planes that Brunelleshci’s guidance in perspective could manifest. Tommaso brought all these teachings as well as his travels to study ancient Greek and Roman art to coalesce into something completely new and seemingly way ahead of it’s time.

To see Masaccio’s genius one only needs to view carefully the feet that he painted. Vasari the famous biographer of the artists who we owe a lot for the knowledge of Masaccio, would say that the commonly rendered foot of the time and before seemed like they were on tippy toes. Masaccio would carefully place feet, grounding them firmly and yet giving them movement as one foot could be arched with ball of the foot pushing off implying walking.


Tommasso would also give great care in how he handled his wonderful folds in his drapery. Careful to not place too many folds in his figures but also to have the folds flow with the movement of whatever limb was manipulating it under. By keeping them simple, yet carefully placing them the folds were more effective and dramatic than overly wrinkled messes of fabric.

As he had such a mastery over perspective and depth, Masaccio’s paintings with multiple figures interacting with each other felt much more real and sturdy. They felt like there was a real transfer of weight and energy. Flesh interacting with flesh, interacting with a world. You feel that the woman holding her baby might get tired, a figure exchanging money with another figure you sense the hand move as the coins fell into their hand. A man kneeling in the background strains as he’s bent over. These were events, much more than the sum of the figures alone.


Where his genius shines was the creative use of atmospheric lighting and the technique known as chiaroscuro which uses light and dark dramatically to bring contrast and depth to a painting. Viewing the mountains in The Tribute you can see the blue in the mountains fade and grey the further in the distance they sink. In the same paining we get an example of chiaroscuro as Christ is brightly illuminated as the other figures are slightly darkened further from Jesus. Masaccio’s play of shadow fall from the light source helping to reveal form and are used to help the design of the image.



In another example that genius does not exclude one from cruel fate of consequence, Masaccio passed away at the age of 26 or 27 under mysterious circumstances during a trip to Rome. It’s not known for sure how he passed, rumors say by poisoning from a rival painter, another in a back alley robbery. Brunelleschi would eulogize his friend “We have had a great loss.”

Masaccio’s legacy is undeniable and through his invention in the medium he would influence a great many masters after him. He influenced Paolo Uccello to Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Rapheal and Michelangelo. Michelangelo most profoundly where he did master copies from the great works in the Brancacci Chapel. Seeing where Michelangelo took what he learned about humanism from the frescoes one wonders where a full life could have taken young Tommasso. If he was such an influence on the Renaissance artists with only 6 years of painting, what cascading effect could he have had with 40 to 50 years. What kind of butterfly effect could Masaccio have had on the art world of today?

Michelangelo’s master copy of Masaccio’s Paul.