I Know Magic When I See It

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve been shouting from rooftops recently. My voice is a little hoarse and my neighbors are a little deaf from the persistent refrain, “Have you read ‘Big Magic’ yet? Go out and buy this book NOW. No, I mean RIGHT now!”

If you are in the creative world at all, whether teacher, student or “want-to be,” you should have this book on your shelf. Preferably literally, as this one is better in hand and in hard copy to be underlined and dog-eared.

Ms. Gilbert’s approach to creativity had me hooked with her first TED talk where she explains the origin of the word “genius” which actually came from the word “genii” – a guiding spirit of a person or “tutelary deity.” Back in good ol’ Rome they thought that artists worked along with a genii or muse. We artists shared the work with our spirit/muse compadres. It was only later in the 18th century that genius acquired it’s “modern” definition of “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative” resulting in all inspiration and creative responsibility landing firmly on the artists’ shoulders. Personally, I’m with the Romans on this one.

Ms. Gilbert personifies her emotions and concepts which is one of my favorite parts about her writings. In “Big Magic” she speaks of Fear as a difficult but inevitable companion. One who must always ride in the back seat of the car.  She says to Fear, “Dude, you are not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”  I love that idea. Instead of shouting Fear down or denying its existence, she gracefully accepts that it’s along for the ride. Creativity is a long process and we need to all get along during that journey. (Plus, you can actually work with Fear to create some really cool stuff….ah, the topic for another blog.)

Ideas are tackled next, and again Gilbert personifies their existence as they glide from person to person hoping to find a co-conspirator. Someone willing to write, paint, sculpt them into existence. This chapter is particularly fascinating to me as I have had similar experiences with the comings and goings of ideas. I’m in love with her concept of them.

The chapter on Persistence is spot-on, but as with most of the book, there are surprises. She brilliantly describes not only the artistic need for persistence but also the necessity of the “letting go of perfection.” I can’t give away too much here, but I want to start a DeeplyDisciplinedHA club. Message me when you’ve read the book and you want to join.

One of the greatest gifts of this book is the lightheartedness; the refusal to make creativity a long suffering ordeal. There is no doubt that the process can be difficult, frustrating, and often lonely, but, she writes, “I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity. ”  - Amen to that!!

“Big Magic” is a gift to us all. Buy it. Read it. Now. So I can get down off this rooftop, have a hot toddy and get my voice back.

In addition to her many books, Elizabeth Gilbert has two TED Talks on creativity as well as podcasts called “Magic Lessons” available for free on iTunes (I don’t know how to link that), and a wonderful talk on “The Curiosity Driven Life.” You can also follow her on Facebook where she posts daily.


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Lost In Thought 48 x 42 M. Cootsona

Lost In Thought 48 x 42 M. Cootsona

“Pears seem to be selling really well. I think I’ll paint some pears.”

“Susie Smith sells figures really well. I think I’ll paint some figures.”

“My gallery liked the blue painting really well. I’d better start painting more blue paintings.”

“Plein air paintings are hot. Maybe I should start painting landscapes.”

“Everyone likes dogs. I should start painting animal portraits.”

Chasing the illusive “what-will-sell-best painting” is a trap. A giant sinkhole trap.  Most of us who sell our work have had a glimpse of this hole. The “pear line” is mine. When I was participating in Open Studios regularly I sold a lot of still lives. One year I thought, “Pears sell great, I’ll paint some more pears.”  Guess what paintings didn’t sell?

Artists need to create what is authentic to them.

“How the heck do I do that?” you ask.

The best way to think of this challenge is, “What would I paint if no one would see it?” Create the piece that just hangs on your wall for you and no one else. Thinking of my work as solely mine is the best way I’ve found to work towards an authentic voice. Whenever I have painted a painting “just for me” it is the one that everyone wants; the one that I could sell ten of.  Which, of course, is ironic, because once you begin to try and re-create a similar painting for sales purposes, you will be back at the edge of the infamous hole.

Now, this all sounds a bit like Catch-22 if you are, indeed, creating work that you sell. You are not just hanging these works in a sealed-up closet, you are trying to earn an income darn it. Here’s the “catch”: If you are truly interested in what you are creating you are not at the edge of the trap. In other words, if you are interested in creating the work regardless of if it will make you money, then you are on solid ground. You are remaining authentic. Let’s call it Catch-23.

This may all sound a bit controversial, and like I am describing “selling out,” but what I am speaking of is more subtle, and I don’t actually believe in selling out. If you need to paint an image in order to survive, then go for it. If you need to take a commission that you would rather not take, but it will pay your rent, which may not have been paid otherwise, for heaven’s sake take it and be grateful. Many people remain authentic while selling their art. Michelangelo did just that, and quite frankly, created some pretty nice commissions. The concept of “selling out” is for people who are not truly trying to make a living with their art, and for late night philosophy discussions in the dorm room. (OK, and maybe Jeff Koons, but that is his whole point! Selling out is actually his authentic voice!!! Uhmmm, and maybe the topic for a separate blog post.)

I’m describing authenticity while you are painting daily, developing your voice and your art and trying to decide what to paint. If you are painting pears because you love pears, great! Likewise with figures, blue paintings, plein air, etc. The point is to find what inspires and excites you and that energy is what people will perceive in your work. The ENERGY is what sells a painting. NOT the subject matter. It’s the difference between a nice, well-done, competent painting and one that jumps off the wall. The authenticity creates the energy, and visa versa. Catch-23. Finding what it is that inspires you can be, admittedly, easier said than done, which is why I often go back to the nice, big empty wall in my dining room. What do I want to see “just for me” on that wall today?

Find that wall in your home where you can imagine a painting that no one will see. Now go create that painting!

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I Often Think of Ted



In the mid 90s I was lucky enough to take a workshop from the inspirational Ted Goerschner. A tall, manly man with a “Tom Selleck” mustache and a gun rack in the back of his truck, Goerschner was a contradiction in terms. His paintings ooze color, beauty and romance with subject matter ranging from riotous florals with tea-cups to stormy rugged landscapes or peaceful Italian villas.

His brushwork is strong, assured and never overworked. He was a master at simplifying complicated imagery, turning it into bold brushstrokes, rich neutrals and glorious light that danced in patterns across his canvas. And of course, there are the famous “Goerschner Flowers” – colorful bursts that only “grew” in his paintings.

Goerschner Mendocino Farm

Goerschner Mendocino Farm

Ted was a superb teacher. Straightforward and direct he could “cut to the chase” and pinpoint exactly how to improve a student’s painting. About fifteen of us were painting plein air during this workshop, in the tiny town of Harmony, California. All diligently concentrating on our work we heard Ted suddenly stop his critique, look up and say, “You know what problem you all have? You guys all just need to paint more.”  There are many lessons that I learned from Ted, but “You guys all just need to paint more” is the one I remember daily.

Everyone needs to paint more, myself included. The more you paint, the more you improve, find inspiration, discover subject matter, develop narrative, become authentic. It is the ONE THING that you have complete control over in terms of improving your work. No teacher required. Simply paint more.

So, I’m off to the studio. What about you? It’s time to SHOW UP. TALK LESS. PAINT MORE. NO EXCUSES. I think Nike has a slogan for this…..

Ted Goerschner 1933-2012  Miss ya

Ted Goerschner
1933-2012 Miss ya


images-3If you want to learn more about Ted Goerschner you might like his wonderful book “Oil Painting, The Workshop Experience.” I used this book to help me teach and illustrate concepts of shape, color and composition for years.

You can still see his work at the following galleries.

Gallerie GabrieJones and Terwilliger and Judith Hale Gallery


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The Flip Side


The Back Side of My Painting

Your signature is now on the front of your work, but what information do you put on the back? There are no hard and fast rules about what to write or include on the back of your artwork. Each artist will have her own ideas of what information is important. I do think it’s important to include the title of the work and your full name at the very least. Below I have outlined the information that I choose to write on the back of each of my pieces.

  1. The Title – The name of the painting.
  2. My Full Name – I print it clearly so it’s legible. Some artists use their signature or both.
  3. Inventory Code – This requires further explanation: See “#5 – Date” below.
  4. Size – I work with unusual sized canvases and can’t remember which is which. Including the size on the back keeps me from measuring repeatedly. Also, galleries love it when you deliver a painting and they don’t need to measure it. For example, I label a 40” x 42” canvas as 40/42.
  5. The Date – Dating your work is the most controversial topic here. Generally galleries prefer that you don’t date your work. This has to do with the consumer mindset of “If it’s old, there must be something wrong with it” – like last year’s skirt length. If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know whereof I speak. If your work is undated, it is always “new,” and a gallery never has a controversy with a customer over the painting’s salability because of age. As you become more established in the art world and develop a recognizable name, the date on your work can be desirable or at least not a negative.

I like to keep some record of the date of my work so I include an “inventory code” on  the back. It’s pretty straightforward and most patrons could figure it out with a moment’s thought, but it is not a flat out date to distract them.

Example: 14001

14 is for 2014

001 is the painting number.

Honestly the second number is only a general order of things. I may have a stack of paintings at one time in my studio to inventory, and the first one I grab may get the next number, not necessarily in the order that I painted them.

I don’t typically include the following two items, but you should know about them:

6.  Additional Notes – Sometimes a work was completed in a special time or place, or with particular friends, etc. Including this information on the back can be a fun and interesting addition. Plus, if you are famous someday, these notes may actually increase the work’s value. (Have you watched Antique Roadshow?)

7.  Provenance  – (“a record of ownership of a work of art…”) Some artists will attach a Provenance paper to the back of their work for each owner to fill in over time.

So, that’s the Flip Side of my art. Feel free to comment on the flip side of yours!

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Top Two Mistakes Artists Make at Open Studios

Cover-Title#1 Mistake at Open Studio Events

Inconsistent and/or Inappropriate Pricing.

 Let’s face it: most artists hate putting a price on their work. Emotionally it feels like taking a loved one and turning them into a product. But in order to actually sell our work, it’s a step we must take.  Getting the right price for your art is a big key to your sales, so take a deep breath and begin to look at your work objectively.

Too often artists either over-price, or surprisingly, under-price their work. And very frequently their pricing is inconsistent. Paintings (for example) of similar size and subject can vary by hundreds of dollars, which will completely confuse a potential buyer. Typically this discrepancy is because the artist has priced their work emotionally instead of objectively.

The easiest way to objectively price two-dimensional work is by size. This step is clearly and simply outlined in my book Open Your Studio – Nine Steps to a Successful Art Event. Options for other mediums are also included, but the most important concept for everyone to remember is to price your work appropriately and consistently.

 #1 Mistake at Open Studio Events

No, that’s not a typo. I just couldn’t decide which mistake is of greater importance, so I decided they were tied.

Lack of Artist Interaction With The Public

I know, I know, we paint, throw clay, bead, weld, design, draw, glue, and shoot film; if we wanted to use words to describe what we do we’d be writers! Unfortunately, in most circumstances, art does not sell itself.  In my seminars I have found that many artists are shy about speaking with the public. If you have similar feelings, you are not alone. However, now IS the time to talk about what you do.

Very often the best “sales pitch” is to simply talk about your work and inform the potential buyer about some part of your process. The important concept here is to engage with your visitors. Find a story or technical aspect of your work to share that you can comfortably discuss. Stories sell art. You may even consider posting a story next to your work about why or how you created it. Consider having friends or relatives on hand who can also help you communicate with your visitors.

Sign up to receive my blog if you want to know helpful tips on creating your best Open Studio to date!

Melinda Cootsona is a recognized authority in staging a successful Open Studio. Over the last 11 years she has hosted over 15 Open Studios, routinely grossing as much as $20,000.  Her book  Open Your Studios – Nine Steps To A Successful Art Event has been a #1 best seller on Amazon.







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Sign It!

16 x 20 Oil On Canvas by M. Cootsona

Vienna Game, 16 x 20, by M. Cootsona

You’ve finished your painting. There’s nothing left to add, simplify or modify. You are done, except for one last flourish…your signature.

Beginning and even more experienced artists often wonder where and how to sign their work.  Should I use my initials? Last name? Where should I sign it? How should I sign it? Here are some answers to these frequently asked questions:

#1 Make your signature LEGIBLE.

Starting right now you want people to know who you are. It is better to use some part of your name then only initials  – I promise there are more artists out there with your same initials. (OK, OK, I know that Diebenkorn signed RD to his paintings, but remember, he was lucky enough to be relatively famous in his mid twenties, so everyone already knew who RD was!)

If your name is unique, your last name may suffice. If your surname is common, you will want to include at least your first name’s initial, possibly a middle initial, or even your first name.  You may also use only your first name especially if it is unique and if you want your work identified with you that way.

#2 Sign it on the FRONT!

Your signature is part of your art. Consider this when thinking of placement. Some artists always sign in the same color and location on every work. Others change color and placement according to the composition (I do the latter). Either way is fine, but the placement should work with the painting just like your other marks.

#3 Your “Chop”

In parts of Asia, people would use a “seal” or “chop” to sign documents, contracts and art. Your signature is your “chop.”  It should be recognizable and represent you. It should also be consistent in its form (design). Take some time to consider and possibly even “design” your signature.

#4 Brush, Pen, Ink?

Artists use all kinds of tools to sign their work. Just make certain that whatever tool you use, the signature is PERMANENT. Regular Sharpies can fade over time so they are not a good choice. There are some “Oil Paint” Sharpies which can be used, but in all truth, have not been fully tested as to their permanence since they are such a new product.  It’s probably best to sign your work in the medium that you used to create it. And, of course, if your medium (oil, acrylic, etc) is thick enough you can always scratch your name back into the wet paint!

So, go forth and paint and take ownership of your endeavors. It’s time to SIGN IT!!

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