Monday, February 1, 2010


I’ve been thinking about the place of intuition in art making after hearing a friend who makes wonderful work wishing tuk 09 158hat she could work more “intuitively”.

Intuition is knowing or understanding something without having apparently thought about it. This could be solving a mystery (but don’t you just hate those cheap mysteries where the detective solves the crime through “intuition”!! Poirot would be turning in his grave if he had one, as would dear Sherlock). It could also be expecting rain or a storm..some people “intuitively” know a storm is coming. Or it could be in performing skilful acts without obviously consciously thinking through the steps.

Intuition is not a basic instinct, something we are born with, a basic survival skill. A baby will instinctively fear strangers…and when we are grown up all of us are put on alert by our nervous systems when there is something unusual in the environment. The senses say “change!” to the brain, and the brain then assesses the importance of the change. So even in that case, there is a cognitive connection between the input and the reaction. Some very basic inputs will lead to reaction without thought: pulling back one’s hand from a hot object – you can see how that would be important for survival. But I feel that all other inputs do actually go through the brain!  And human beings have the ability to prevent their reactions too – which means the brain.

It certainly is very easy to fall into habits…they are useful routines that save us time..and we might well not consciously be really thinking about them as we perform them, a habitual pattern – “what we always do”.  But I imagine all of us could, if we wished, slow the activity down and give a verbal conscious description of the processes.

Okay so where does this play in art making?

You often hear artists say: “oh I don’t make a plan before I make art, I just do it intuitively”. They feel they are (for example) placing shapes onto a design wall without having apparently thought about it. It would be perfectly easy to do this – quick pick up a chunk of fabric from your cutting table and run to the wall and pin it up…quick run back to the table get another piece back to the wall and pin it up..and so on!!! It might work even better if you close your eyes while you are doing it! I think that would be art making without a plan or conscious thought. I think that would really be the ONLY way to make art without a plan or without thought.  Select the fabric from your stash with your eyes closed, cut out shapes carefully (no rotary cutters!), stick the shapes on the wall and no feeling around to see where the first piece is, either!   I do believe, in fact, that you can pay a large sum of money to take a class and do something very similar to this!   “How to become more intuitive in your work!”  Scrooge had a description for this!

But, seriously,  how many  “intuitive” artists are working exactly in this way? There are some problems in talking about intuition in art;  it’s not one straightforward thing.  Some people who think they are literally not making any judgments about how they place shapes on a wall (or whatever) are  actually operating “by habit”, following old patterns without really being aware that they are doing so. Their old patterns might be very good ones, based on a strong art education and years of experience. Or they might be quite bad ones based on doing what they have always done without ever assessing the value of it or thinking about any way things could be improved. For example a self taught tennis player who consistently doesn’t use her body in the most powerful way, or a golfer who has never been shown the most effective hand position on the club. Or the person who plays the piano “by ear”: they pick out a melody with one hand and then chomp away at some basic chords with the other. After they’ve played a few pieces, you realize that they all sound the same, because they don’t really know what they’re doing except trying to follow that right hand melody.

Going back to our art quilter standing in front of the design wall: Just because you might not be consciously thinking “okay I’ve got to place this piece of red fabric 3 inches to the right because I placed the last piece 2 inches from another piece and I want my distances between pieces to vary….” does not mean you are operating without conscious thought.

True intuition is based on years of experience. Experience both in what works and what doesn’t: where you have learned many times to select/avoid a certain solution or device because it always/rarely works well. Experience can lead you to a good basic design more quickly than if you reinvent everything right from the start. Intuition is not  instinctively avoiding – say – dividing your composition exactly into two because your survival depends upon it. That kind of instinct just doesn’t exist.

Real intuition ALWAYS depends upon experience, knowledge and sensitivity. The detective who has a “hunch” about the killer has unconsciously noticed that person’s awkward behaviour, or spotted some inappropriate element in a scene but hasn’t yet thought about it why the scene looks “odd”. A person who had never tried to assess the body language of a criminal, or the elements of a scene of crime who never be able to intuitively or otherwise find the murderer.

Good, workable, intuition is based on Something. That something is, I submit, a mixture of knowledge and experience. Not guesswork, and not blindly trying to copy something (like the person playing piano “by ear”).

One studies and practices art so that then one can let the more formal elements be dealt with at a less conscious level knowing they will be right. I descry those folk who claim to work intuitively when really what they mean is they don't think about it at all and havn't got any deep down automatic knowledge and end up making a dog's dinner!!!

I don't think you can skip the education've gotta get it, and then get it automatic.  It's like learning a piece of music, you've got to learn it SO well that when you play it you don't think about the notes and the timing but only about the feeling.

There’s no way you can go straight to expressing the feeling no matter how sensitive you are.

I also think that any experienced artist would say that while parts of the process of art making have now become more intuitive for them…the whole process (if the art is to be any good) is rarely, if ever, that smooth and unconscious and effortless; it's blood sweat and tears with nearly every piece..occasionally intuition and luck work ...but often they don't.  I used to think "when I'm a real artist, everything will go so well, there'll be no doubt, no multiple attempts,  everything will work perfectly the first time....." ha!!!  just talk to a few artists, or read their autobiographies, and the Truth is revealed!! No longer can we go off and sign a urinal!!

And neither could have Magritte – without the art education and experience that he had.

I submit there is no way to make good art without getting your metaphorical hands dirty – i.e. exercising the little grey cells.
you might do this in different ways:
planning it out before hand
planning some out before hand and then adjusting as the terrain unfolds
trial and error
etc...but that is for another blog!!
but all involve the brain! conscious thought...
which, I feel, is a Good thing!
otherwise, let us give all our cats paint brushes and sewing machines!!

If you have been, thanks for reading!!!  Elizabeth
PS There’s oodles of room below for your comments!


Jackie said...

Well said, and I have experienced this developing ease with understanding and lots of practice myself. I've worked hard to learn about values, setting myself tasks that were not always what was FUN, but I did learn what I'd hoped. I'm still not entirely fluent but much more at ease and can now look beyond that problem because, I think, I focused on it. Thank you for your clear examples. I found the piano-playing especially clear.

Jane said...

Well said. I agree with you; without a solid basis of knowledge there can be no creativity.

Ruth said...

This is an interesting topic. When I have done a lot of planning, sampling etc. and showed the planning work on my blog, I've had many people tell me that they didn't work this way because they lose the "spontaneous look" and that they won't be "creative" if they plan. I agree that it takes a lot more work and effort to achieve what I want and being "spontaneous" doesn't help me that much.

Sandra Wyman said...

Another useful and thought-provoking post. Recently went to talk by sculptor Peter Randall-Page (major exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park) - his view: on one side the random things, intuition - exciting but potential chaotic; on the other routine, hard slog, stage by stage progression - needed but can become 'dead'; somewhere in the middle art is formed. A useful model I think.
Good to hear the myth of the totally intuitive artists exposed. It may be ungenerous of me but I sometimes think this idea comes from people unwilling to put in the hard work on the equivalent of practising scales. However, there is also a risk that developing skills (including skills in areas such as composition, design and so on) can take over totally, to the detriment of art-making...

Elizabeth Barton said...

It's been said: you need to learn all the rules, and then forget them!

Anonymous said...

Well said, like always.
Intuition is something which can only happen when you know your tools, know your materials, have good design skills and a sound knowledge of techniques. Then I think most would still call it luck when a piece comes together without a lot of concious thought, and just because it happens once doesn't mean it will happen all the time.
Judy B

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

One of my favorite articles E. I especially connected with the ideas of finding the middle path between 'conscious' and 'intuitive' work methods. This rings very true for me.

Elizabeth Barton said...

From Robert Genn's newsletter ( on Feb 2:
"A painting requires conscious strategy as well as subconscious action and reaction".

Deb Lacativa said...

Great piece!

Since I have started doing more hand work (the whole Slow Cloth thing) I find myself less likely to go with the first thing that my intuition brings me, thinking that it might be leaving me in an uninspired rut. Challenging my own intuitive moves, the slick and practiced ones, even by a few degrees, is opening new path for me.

Martha C. Hall said...

Thank you for this. This is a topic where I have a strong opinion, but also recognizing that I don't know everything, I try to keep my mouth shut. I'm rather weary of hearing how the work is 'spontaneous', 'unconscious', one big 'happy accident'. I value intuition and synchronicity, but I work 'on purpose'. There are decisions to be made throughout the process, but in service to the concept, the fundamental *idea* of the work. Sadly, I mostly hear this nonsense from "art quilters". So, there is my opinion and I've gone and said it, hopefully without sticking my foot too far into my mouth.

Rayna said...

Great subject, Elizabeth. For me, intuition is knowing something without necessarily knowing how you know it (if you know what I mean - LOL).

Yes, it is based on experience and learning - however you've learned it. But it is also the ability to LISTEN to your intition instead of being tempted by the rational voice in your head that may belong to someobdy else.

As you know, I am fond of saying I throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. And the process may begin without a plan. But the direction always evolves with a combination of "what if?", experimentation, moving things around, adding, deleting, and often leaving it on the wall for ages.

Somewhere along the way, you need to decide where you are going but it's important to listen to your intuition that may tell you you are going in the wrong direction and had better turn around. Ask me how I know! The unconscious brain is usually right.

P.S. See you in Birmingham.

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Martha, I am right with you. I think people say things such as you mentioned because they don't realize themselves how much they know. People learn in all kinds of ways and people have all levels of art talent but a great deal of this has to do with how much they listen to themselves as well as how good they are at observing the world around them.

Connie in Alabama said...

Working intuitively to me means using the right brain for a while and turning off the left brain. The process is to put things up on the design wall (shapes, lines, blocks of color or value, whatever I'm exploring during this hour), and then moving them around to find some visually pleasing relationship between them. It's a right brain thing, no analysis, no checking the design rules or going back to some sort of plan, either drawn on paper or in my mind. Since I'm a left-brain-dominant person by education and job, this is tiring, so I take a break and come back later. It's then that I will probably use the left brain to critique what is on the wall, but maybe not, if I can go back into right-brain creating.
My 2 cents on working intuitively.

Karen M said...

Looks like you really struck a nerve with people on this subject. I'm wondering if maybe the problem with intuition arises when we assume it is the same thing as unconsciousness. Maybe you can put those first couple of pieces on the wall without thinking about it, but after that, your brain needs to kick in with the evaluation. You start telling yourself it looks good, or not, maybe without thinking too much, and that's intuition. As Rayna said, at some point you have to do some hard thinking, or you just end up with a mess. Of course, you can also let your brain trick you into insisting on taking a piece in a certain direction, and all the while your intuition (experience?)is whispering "that's not right". Which is why I'm spending today "unsewing"!

Judy Martin said...

This topic is on the top of my list right now as I start teaching a class in creative painting.

How do we teach others art?

I don't know.
As a teacher, I want to show the techniques that I have learned through hard labour.
Yet, I don't want to put limits on anyone, because I do feel bound up sometimes in my own academic work.

Thanks for your intelligent work and postings, once again.

Franchi said...

Right now, I'm with Deb doing "slow cloth" stitching. Using different threads and colors "intuitively" is OK up to a point, but I do need to think about what has gone before and balance and all the brain work that I've done. I used to take voice lessons and sing in a choir (in a former place), and I was always amazed when I realized I had come to the point of "unconsciously" using my voice the way my instructor was trying to teach me. The same is true about my "unconscious" use of colors and balance--design elements, etc, in my art work. Your writing has provoked a lot of thinking on my part. Well done.

Linda Branch Dunn said...

Listen to the Radio Lab epsiode about choice,, in particular the segment "Overcome by Emotion." Without "gut feelings" we can be overcome by rational thought.

I think "gut feeling" is what I mean by "intuitive" - not letting the yammering voices get in the way of the act.

But yes, learn and work. Over and over again.