Tap into First Thoughts
I discovered an easy and surprisingly beneficial painting warm-up exercise. This 20 minute exercise, performed daily for one month (or even less) will do wonders for increasing your creativity, getting rid of artistic blocks, and finding new styles or shifting your work. I came up with this after reading “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg, a popular book for writers to increase their writing and creative abilities. Natalie suggested that writers should “clear their head” by filling notebooks, and write in a stream of consciousness fashion, by writing without thinking, very directly, and not editing. I decided to transform this freestyle writing exercise to something that would work for painters. This is how it works: First get a pile of inexpensive painting surfaces that don’t feel precious to you. I gessoed some scraps of canvas that I had lying around. Gessoed sheets of paper, or cardboard work well too. Just don’t get too small in size. My scraps were actually around 16” x 20”. The night before you start set everything up for painting so that you can just jump right in without any preparations. Pick a time, preferably first thing in the morning, and stick to a schedule for a length of time. Pick what works for you, perhaps trying one week to see how it goes, but you need at least 5 days in a row to make a good assessment. Make a commitment to acting out your very first thought. Now here is the key. Your first thought is the inner voice. Your second thought is the “parent”. We are so accustomed to paying attention to the second voice that the first is sometimes faint and barely there. This exercise will strengthen that first voice, sometimes called the “inner child”. I like using the phrase “first voice” better or I feel like I am in therapy.
Here is a common example of what may happen. You get all set up the night before and come in excited and energized the next morning ready to start. You look at the blank white surface and your first thought is “I want to splash the heck out of that blank white with a bright orange paint”. Your second thought sounds like “Are you out of your mind? That orange paint is expensive, and that sounds like a stupid idea. How about a nice green landscape instead?” Your job is to tell your second thought to take a hike, and follow your first directive – to splash orange all over the surface. Then after the splash, which may only take a few minutes, take a look at it. Your next first thought will come right away, and might be “Wow, that could use a couple of dark green marks”. The second thought says “this is dumb. I have some pressing errands to do and should stop now”. Again your main task is to always take action on the first thought, and tell the second thought or voice to take a hike. On this same painting surface, add some green marks, take a look at it, quickly listen to your next first thought. Repeat this process all on the same surface for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes take your exercise painting down from your easle, wall or table and put it away – out of sight so you can’t critique it. It’s only an exercise. Leave it alone and just keep piling them up one after another each morning. Now work on your regular studio work and forget about the exercise. Repeat each morning. This will strengthen your ability to make good clear painting decisions for your art – the paintings you are currently working on. The idea is that the inner or first voice is always right. It is just so used to being ignored that it isn’t coming in as strong as the second. The second thoughts are usually critical, judgmental, the parent voice, the one that keeps us from painting.
Please let me know how this is working for you if you decide to try it. You will know if it is helping by how your studio work progresses. Perhaps you will see an increase in production, or less creative blocks. The exercises themselves aren’t meant to turn out to be great masterpieces. I ended up throwing most of them away, and cutting up the rest for collage pieces. I am interested to know what comes up for you if you decide to give it a try.