The Art Life: Momentum vs. Inspiration and the Creative Practice

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For my final post of 2017, I thought I would offer additional musings under the heading of “The Art Life.” After a busy late summer and autumn, including a workshop in Italy and several here in Seattle, I was finally able to get back into the studio and do some more painting. Whenever I start to paint after being away from my practice for a while, I am always unpleasantly surprised. I look at what I’m doing and say, I’ve forgotten how to do this! I review the  work I did just a few months earlier and wonder, How did I do that? Then I am reminded of the importance of momentum.

Mitchell Albala. Rooftops, 59th Street, Winter Dusk, oil on paper, 6 x 12 inches. Available. See more works from the Rooftop series.

Painting is a process of moving energy, in the form of ideas, from one place (our creative vision) to another (our painting). The more regularly I work, the more my mind stays involved in the creative process, and the more those ideas keep flowing. Painting is like an endless question-and-answer session. Each stroke is followed by a question; the next stroke is the answer. And on a larger scale, each painting is like a conclusion that poses another question, What’s next? There’s an expression, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” Momentum is like that. Through momentum, I remain engaged in my own process long enough to hear the answers. If my efforts are intermittent, I lose momentum and I am less likely to hear the questions and answers that are  so much a part of my process. We hear a similar refrain from artists in other disciplines, like writers and musicians.

Renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz, said, “The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”

Creativity and problem solving can also spring from inspiration — but inspiration is a more elusive than momentum. Sometimes the inspiration is there; sometimes it’s not. I have more control over my own momentum. I like what Chuck Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Painting is hard work, and if we wait for inspiration before we pick up our brushes, we may be waiting a long time.

As long as I keep going forward, as long as I maintain my momentum, then I’ve got a chance to keep the creative dialogue going. And if inspiration comes about as the result of that momentum, so much the better. I’ll hope for inspiration, but keep up the momentum.

Here’s to a creative and happy New Year. May yours be filled with new and exciting ideas — and lots of momentum!

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

15 Comments

  1. Thank you. I believe you may be on to something. I use to teach reading and could always see the difference of a student of mine within 24 hours time of study vs. no study. Art is the same. I had a long break since August in my painting. I forgot how I’d painted some carnations. My energy wasn’t there at first, now it’s back. Thanks for the inspiration to keep working diligently. Happy New Year, also.

  2. Thank you very much! Painting is hard work! Thanks for making me see I’m not alone in this struggle. Rose

  3. Mitch, well said! I just got the paint I mailed to Florida, where I will be for the next couple of months. I’m on it starting tomorrow and I am also convinced that daily painting gives you self confidence to move to higher ground. Wishing you a very healthy and Happy New Year! Fatima

  4. Have a happy and creative New Year, Mitch. You always inspire me with your emails and your wonderful book. Today I went back to a painting from 2014 with new eyes and hope to make it better. I am still full of energy even at 8:30 pm mountain time. Thank you so much for being in my life through your work and words.

  5. So well-said, Mitch. 100% agree about momentum, and laughed at how true Chuck Close’s quote is. My inner hackles go up when I hear, “You have so much talent.” I like to respond, if appropriate, “No, it’s pretty much dogged determination.” I want to add to your musings that I get unsettled and itchy-scratchy in attitude if I am away from my practice for longer than a few days. Takes tenacity to stay present and calm, even doing other wonderful activities with wonderful people. The work is a clear need for me.

  6. I’m experiencing a lack of momentum right now. When I don’t paint for a day or two or three, I really feel that I have to immerse myself in a search to find the track again. I just came back down to Mexico and didn’t paint for over a week, the longest I’ve gone in several years. I swear I have no idea how I painted the works in my studio here. It’s an act of blind faith that I march myself into the studio now. I know I just need to play around with paint long enough to get back on track, to get that momentum or “flow” back again, but I have no idea when that will happen.

  7. I came to painting late in life. I’ve painted almost daily for 12 years. I’m 72 and wish I had started painting 50 years ago. My creative outlet was designing and making furniture. I loved it but it was hard to come home after work and go out to the shop every evening and get full of sawdust. I changed to painting by accident. My wife comes from a long line of painters. Her father, grandfather, and grandmother all went to the Chicago Art Institute so I have been inundated with art since I was 18. When I was 60 all of a sudden I realized I knew how to draw, as a result of designing houses, cabinets, gardens, and furniture. I was not great, but not bad. so I tried my hand at painting and fell totally in love with it. In the 10+ years I’ve been painting I went through a 3-month dry spell. It was frightening. Every single day I waited for a spark to go off and nothing happened. I was miserable. Finally, i could wait no longer and I started painting bookmarks. I think because they were small and it required only a small amount of thought and determination. I must have painted several hundred. Some took 1 to 2 hours to paint, but it worked. I was back. Another thing that works for me is that I work in many different forms of art. Acrylic, oil, paper, board, sculpture, clay, wood, natural rocks, resins, framing, leafing. I find that there is always a project I want to discover. One of the biggest pluses for me is that my paints are ALWAYS at the ready. I have a swivel chair at my desk and I rotate 180 degrees and within seconds I can be painting.

  8. Loved this post for it’s content and also how eloquently you outline your thoughts! While I do think that it’s better if I can keep in regular practice, I’m also (still) learning not to beat myself up if I feel that the “muse” has eluded me for a short period and that I need to take a recharging break–because “forcing” things never seems to work. So I’ve found that if I give myself permission to lay off of it for a few days, it renews my energy, focus, and desire, and I get excited about getting back to it.

    Having said all that, yes — I sometimes do look back at my paintings and wonder how I did what I did, and whether there was some special magic operating that particular day, what that was, and where it came from!

    It IS hard work–at the same time that it can be fun. I’m reminded of the quote (I think it was from the writer Colette) that “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

    Cheers, everyone!

  9. Hi Mitch, this was the best post yet. Applies to so much more than painting! Thank you!! Here’s to a new year of art and adventure …

  10. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Laurie. I’m glad the post resonated with you. Appropriate for the start of a new year, I suppose! 🙂

  11. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Susan. I think it was Thomas Edison who said something to the effect that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It’s kind of like that with painting. 🙂

  12. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for the kind words. I’m glad the blog post resonated with you, as it seemed to do for so many others. Good luck on resurrecting that painting from 2014!

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