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Writer's Block - How Can Artists Avoid Running Out of Ideas and Make Great Paintings?

February 10, 2012

People who give private art lessons say the question they most dread from their students is: 'What shall I paint?' Even professional artists sometimes run out of ideas and are faced with the same question. I've never had that problem. So, am I some kind of a genius?

Oh boy, I know the answer to that better than my worst critic. But early in my career, I stumbled on the secret to a never-ending source of inspiration that leads almost effortlessly from one painting to the next. I call it:The Power of a Series. It comes in three forms.
 
The first is obvious: Specialize in a Category.

  • For example, you might decide to become a landscape painter and, within that genre, you might specialize in the landscapes of the region where you live. No matter how 'ordinary' that scenery may seem to those who see it every day, a true artist will recognize its unique qualities and reproduce them in a way others will appreciate.
  • Just think of the way Lloyd Rees treated  the 'mundane' roadside scenes around the little town of Berry in NSW. Or remember how, when you took your first international flight out of Australia, you looked down at the central desert and saw Fred Williams' calligraphic paintings. Flowers or buildings, town or city streetscapes, beach scenes - the subject choice is vast and within each one, there is always room for a painter with a fresh approach.


The drawback is: You'll have an enormous amount of competition from artists taking the same tack. So you'll have to develop a very individual style and great expertise to stand out.

The second form of series painting is, unfortunately, also obvious.

  • You can see it in many galleries whose owners care more about making quick and easy sales than they do about an artist's development. Of course, the 'hack' artists who follow this line must take a lot of the responsibility for whatever it is - laziness, lack of imagination - that motivates them.
  • I'm talking about those exhibitions you see in which one painting shows, for example, a girl in a white dress sitting beneath a tree. In the next, she sits between two trees. A third has two girls in white dresses and three trees. Well, you get the picture...


The drawback is: The market for girls in white dresses sitting under trees is soon saturated and the pool of collectors who are satisfied with a painting that looks as if it came off the rack - 'this goes with that' - is quite small.

The third form is truly the most powerful  of all -  because it's built on ideas.

  • Your personal ideas, on a subject you care passionately about. It might be fuelled by your desire to protect the natural environment, or by your fierce opposition to child slavery. It might grow, almost organically, from love of your home country and its history or folklore.
  • The possible choices are endless and as unique as your own character. But the subject must be one that engages your deepest feelings. One that intrigues you so much you can easily spend your life exploring it. One that enthuses you to carry out the research it demands.
  • Because each of these paintings will grow out of the ideas you, and only you, have developed about the subject, your body of work will look like no one else's. It will be instantly and unmistakably recognised as yours. Others may try to copy your work but they will always be a step behind. Because your mind is the wellspring for the ideas behind the artworks, and no one else thinks quite the way you do. And you will never spend another minute wondering 'What shall I paint, today?'

The only drawback I can think of: The human life span is too short for you to ever make all the paintings on your subject that will keep rising in your mind's eye, demanding expression. This is because they are part of an on-going story you are building around your special subject. And when you think about it, Story is the oldest and most basic of the arts - the foundation all great art. But that's a topic I covered in my first post.©Dorothy Gauvin

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