How Artists Paint from Intuition

by | Oct 26, 2007 | Blog | 13 comments

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.

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Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

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  2. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Debbie,
    You can get gold leaf at art stores or on the internet. I like using a company called Sepp Leaf. Yes, you can use the gold leaf with acrylic technique from my book on canvas, as well as a rigid suppport.

  3. Anonymous

    I read your blog with interest. I have actually been writing this way for about 18 months and have been painting this way for about two year. It has amazed me that I have been completing very subjective paintings with no forethought or preplanning at all but jus working straight from my “gut”. The work on my website was mostly created with this technique-over half entirely and the rest to an extent. The more I do it the more I trust it and I have learned to tune the “parent” out. It sometimes even feels “channeled”.

    Nancy, I have your book but can’t find info on where to buy and how to use gold leaf. Also, can I paint on primed canvas instead of panels with it? Thanks for your great book. I have used all of the techniques. Debbie

  4. Angela

    I read NG’s book some time ago. I have found her technique works very well. Dumping everything that’s in my head onto the page helps me to think more clearly and gives my ‘inner child’ more room to play. Nice translation to painting!

  5. Gina Tyler

    I just had to tell you “Thank You!” I love your work and will definately try this. My first thoughts are the most creative ones.

  6. Jan Verhulst

    It is funny, but after reading Natalie Goldsberg book I was thinking in the same direction. Thanks for posting this

  7. Dion Kurczek

    Great idea, I adapted this by using the start of a painting as the basis for quick stream of consciousness sketches. I was able to then flesh out the painting based on the result of one of these exercises.


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About Nancy

Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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