If You’re Thinking, Your Art is Stinking!

5 Steps to Get Into an Optimal Painting Flow

“If you’re thinking, you’re stinking” is a saying that means if you are overthinking while creating, you will not do a good job. There is a big difference between the moment when everything falls into place, described as “knowing”, and “thinking” which is trying to figure things out. It turns out different areas and brain function are involved when you are “thinking” rather than “trusting your knowing”.


Practice, repetition and muscle memory are what you need to create a seamless rhythm, to get into “the zone”, or to be in “the flow”. It is the ideal state, whether you are playing a drum or painting a landscape.


Thinking too much stifles the creative process.The more you think about what you’re doing, the less creative you will be. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to think, just make sure to do it before and after the painting process - not during.

5 steps you can take to get into an optimal painting flow…

  1. If you are not living on the edge you are taking up too much Real Estate.

When squeezing out paint onto your palette consider the placement. Keep your colours close to the edges of the palette, along the top and sides to allow for a larger mixing area. This also ensures your brain doesn’t have to break-out of the flow while your eyes dance around searching for the colour you need.


2. Consistency is King

Place your paint colours in the same position every time. Think of your palette as a piano and each colour as a key. Middle C is in the same place on all pianos, it makes no difference if you play on a Steinway or a Bosendorfer. You don’t need to learn the scales each time you sit down to play. By being consistent with your colour placement, you avoid “thinking” and instead “trust your knowing”.


Additionally, some colours like Cadmium Red and Quinacridone Rose look virtually the same when they are on your palette. When you keep them in the same order you will always know which is which and intuitively choose the right one for your mix.


With consistency you colour mixing will become easier, faster, more accurate, freeing up valuable brain activity for your creativity.


3. Keep on Keeping on


Use the same colours all the time! Although this goes against the grain of creativity there is are very good reasons for doing so. Using the same colours allows for familiarity (knowing). After a while you get to know what each colour can do.


For example, if you have 7 colours, 8 values and 12 chroma levels, you can get approximately 300,000 mixtures. If you add one more colour to the combo it jumps by another 500,000. I can’t remember 3 things on a grocery list, let alone remember all of those colour combinations.


Never was the “less is more” quote more appropriate than here. Adding more colours to your palette will not make it easier to make colours.


I suggest you work with a limited palette for a while. Limit your palette to 8 colours or less. This doesn’t mean you cannot change or switch them out for a new colour later, but get to know them first. Once you know your colours your creativity will flourish.


My palette evolved over the years while I got to know each colour intimately and carefully switched them out one at a time. I eventually narrowed it down to the same 7-8 colours and even while using this limited range for so many years, I’m still finding new combinations.


I do, however, change my colour palette depending on the subject I am painting. One palette for landscapes, one for portraits, figures and a few different colours for flowers and still lifes. I am very aware and of the colours on my palette, and do not change them willynilly.


Careful consideration goes into adding a “specialty” colour to my palette. I will use, say, a quinacridone magenta for painting certain flowers. I like to place this “visitor” colour just off to the side so that I don’t get it confused with my regular range of colours.


  1. “We are family”

Keep your paints in colour families. Yellows with yellows, reds with reds, working your way around the colour wheel. This way, if neighbouring colours accidentally bump into one another, the original colour isn’t modified that much. Imagine, if you have cadmium orange next to ultramarine blue and they accidentally meet - a puddle of mud ensues. When the orange is surrounded on either side by its analogous friends of yellow and red, accidental mixing isn’t a muddy disaster.


  1. Towel Dry

Clean your palette often!


Learn your mixes so you do not become a slave to accumulating puddles in the mixing area. Each time you attempt to duplicate a colour you will get a slightly different variation which will keep your painting looking fresh and vibrant.


Keep your puddles fresh! Dried and dirty puddles are the perfect storm for creating mud or leaving chunks of dried paint on the canvas. Putting out fresh paint is actually a money saver. Use your palette knife to clean up contaminated areas of your squeezed out paint.

Add fresh colour regularly.


The less your eyes are on the palette hunting for that lost blotch of colour, the more they will be on the painting enabling your brain to concentrate on the act of creating.


Remember to stay fresh my kiddies! Less Thinking = Less Stinking!


Happy painting :)

Your friend in art, Doug.




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