Why I Am Working on 22 Paintings

[These notes for a talk were found in Curtis Fields’ papers after his passing.]

I’m interested in a creative problem probably shared by all of you – that is, anyone doing intellectual work requiring imagination and organization. Perhaps we’ve all experienced this: being too close to a problem for too long, getting fatigued, going in circles, in a rut, facing an apparently decreasing range of options, stuck.

Bare Vines I by Curtis FieldsRare is a creative person with the brilliance of a Mozart of a Picasso – able to start a complex project, visualize it whole, and work straight through to completion.

Drawing or painting from life is in part a selective process: one chooses what to record and what to eliminate from what is seen. Creating a painting from scratch I find to be much more difficult, a matter of assembling, pulling elements from many sources including ones memory – in one sense starting with nothing. I used to paint small landscapes on location; they might take four hours. A work from imagination, in the studio, may take me weeks, months.

When I was younger, with a day time job, painting at night and week-ends, I would try to force a piece of work, sticking with it, not giving up, trying to solve a design problem by will power. This of course led to frustration and exhaustion as I felt the work going downhill.

I came to realize that a man of limited talents has to use tricks to detach himself, to see things from a fresh point of view, to regain objectivity, to shake loose form hardening preconceptions. Here are some of mine:

  • I turn the picture sideways and upside down.
  • I look at it in the mirror
  • I look at it from the next room
  • I not only do small studies of it at the start, but while in progress
  • I write myself notes about it
  • I look at the work of other artists
  • I ask my wife, Vera, or a friend for comments
  • Most important, I leave it. Not just to sleep on the problem, but for days, weeks, even months. (I now have this luxury, unless doing a commission with a deadline.) This lets the wonderful subconscious get to work on what may have seemed an intractable difficulty. Then, on returning to a painting after such a rest period, the solution can suddenly seem quite obvious. Ridiculously so.

Swimming Pool with 8-People by Curtis FieldsThis means that I work in rotation. In fact I currently have 22 paintings in various stages of completion. When I sense that progress is slowing – or reversing – on one, I put it aside, quitting while I’m ahead, promising to attack the work fresh another day.

There is a disadvantage to this working pattern: how to regain the original fervor, the impulse, the spontaneity, the fire, after a work has been set aside, cooling. The answer seems to be partly a matter of will power, and partly of experience and professionalism – the ability to inspire oneself and carry a project through to completion.