Begin without beginning – an intuitive painting process

oil painting of pink rose in crystal bud vase
quiet light

When I paint, I “begin without beginning.” Another way to say it is to “begin without knowing.” This approach is opposite of the advice to “begin with the end in mind,” or to know where you’re going before you start. I’ve found that this organic, intuitive painting process suits me better than pre-planning every step. I try not to focus too much on the outcome of a painting session.

An artifact, not a painting

Let me explain. This means that I don’t usually actively try to produce a “painting” when I paint, though a painting is the result. My primary focus is on recording aspects of the experience. A painting then becomes an artifact of the process, recording the decisions and mistakes and revisions made along the way. I am happy if this is something that ends up to be visually pleasing- or at least if it captures some kind of truth. This is not a new idea, but I couldn’t say who first spoke about painting in this way.

“Artists today think of everything they do as a work of art. It is important to forget about what you are doing – then a work of art may happen.” (Andrew Wyeth)

Beginner’s mind

“Shoshin” is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” This is the single most important mindset I try to employ when I paint. It means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. Paint what you see; not what you think you know.

Firmly grounded in skills

But is having an attitude of openness without preconceptions enough? Frankly, no – at least not for me, as I consider myself to be a representational painter. Intuition is important, but intuitive painting is firmly grounded in skills, always, to quote Charles Movalli. In fact, I’d say that having a solid understanding of drawing, color, values and composition are prerequisites to painting intuitively. You need to know how to play your instrument before you can improvise.

What my intuitive painting process looks like

Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Trying to force things to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.

-tao te ching

These are some of the key parts of the process I typically follow when I paint. I hope that some of you will find it helpful on your own painting journey.

Get ready quickly.

I am not creating “a painting” or a “work of art.” If I am painting en plein air, I limit myself to no more than ten minutes to find the “perfect spot.” Otherwise, I sometimes get paralyzed. Usually if I am attracted to something, I have no problem settling in quickly. If I feel less excited, the time limit helps. I do this in the studio also, though usually when I paint there, I already have something in mind.

Connect with the motif (active looking).

I take a few minutes to look at my motif and don’t draw or paint; I just look. In general, I try to look less at my work and more at what I am painting. I also find that doing disconnected contour drawings separate from painting helps.

Prioritize and subordinate.

I try to get a sense of what it is about this motif that attracts me. What do I feel? I try to land on the first intuitive feeling that comes through (though sometimes I can’t pinpoint it). Then I think about it in terms of formal elements: the line, the color, the values, etc., if I can. Ideally, I start with this in mind. But sometimes I figure it out along the way, or it changes as I work.  My priority determines my method for starting.

Focus – get into the elusive zone.

Ah, the zone – otherwise known as deep focus. Somewhere I read that people can only stay in deep focus for 35 minutes at a time. I find that working in short, timed bursts helps me get into the zone and stay there. I set a timer on my phone (for anywhere between 30-45 minutes) and start painting. The point of the timer is not to rush or work with haste. The point is to work with sustained focus and separate the thinking (inner critic) and creative parts of my brain.

Dive in.

I start painting quickly without mapping out a composition first on my substrate or doing thumbnail sketches. I work on these skills separate from my painting process at this point. Usually, I start by massing in color (but not always). I make quick decisions and don’t actively assess or edit while I paint, though I know these processes are happening in the background.

Stay in the moment.

Staying in the moment is akin to beginner’s mind. For me it means not thinking about the whole and not judging as I work. I focus on observation and what’s in front of my eyes, not what’s in my mind. I also stay mindful of my physical location and do what I can to limit distractions. This can be especially difficult when painting outdoors or when you have your phone turned on. I make it a point not to check my phone other than when my timer goes off and I take a break.

Keep it open.

As I paint, I keep the painting open, not fully committing until further down the line, if ever. In the beginning of a painting, I find my way in gently.

Take a break.

When the timer stops, I stop painting- no matter what. I usually walk away from the painting and the motif and give my eyes a short rest. Then I sometimes look at my work and make assessments about what to do next, though not always. Sometimes I just start painting again.

Be ruthless.

If what I am putting down doesn’t capture or express what I am trying to say, I am willing to risk it all. I scrape it off, scumble over it, cover it up, or do whatever else is necessary to get at what I am trying to convey.

Begin by not beginning – again and again.

When I return to painting after a short break, I start the process over from the beginning. I begin again with beginner’s mind and try not to even think about the history of where I began. I begin over and over and painting all the while. When I feel I have said all that I want to about a motif, or when I get an intuitive hit that a painting is finished, I stop.

In later posts, I will share more about my process and ways of working.

Best wishes and thank you for reading.


8 thoughts on “Begin without beginning – an intuitive painting process

  1. LOVe your explanation. I’m so on that page of ‘think of the process’ and not the end result. I think I should wear a sign around my neck during class for my students.

    1. Hi Judy, Thank you very much, and I’m so glad we’re on the same page. It’s hard not to think about the end result – especially when what we are doing falls under the category of making something (hopefully art). But I try to remember that a good day painting doesn’t always mean having much to show for it at the end of the day. Your students are lucky to have you! If you can convey this to them, I think they’ll be better off for it.

  2. Congratulations Tracy. Thank you for sharing your process, it helps me understand and appreciate your work even more.

    1. Hi Barbara – Thank you so much for taking the time to read and for your kind words. I hope your own painting journey is going well. I know how hard it can be to find time to paint in between other things, but I hope you’re able to.

  3. So thrilled to have re-found u! I was a follower/admirerer on tumblr. U speak so plainly to my own internal battles and obstacles. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the emotional connection I made w yr paintings extends to you as a person. Shows just how honest your work is. Honesty is what I strive for, but rarely achieve. You’ve offered some spot on guidelines on how to deal w myself. Thank u for generously sharing so openly.

    1. Hi Jeffrey,
      Thanks for such a nice note. I’m glad you refound me, too, as I did leave tumblr behind. I’m even happier if you find something of value here. I find it difficult to write about painting and all that’s involved, but I will continue to try. I like what you said about how important honesty is. I think it’s often the thing we sense about a work but can’t always put our finger on. It goes beyond the marks on canvas and can be difficult to grasp. I hope you continue to work towards doing work that you strive for. It’s worth all of the challenges.

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