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Is there something missing in your life that you should pursue now? Is this the right time to start a business, find love, go on an adventure, take a swim? Being open to the signs that appear before you is a welcome practice of the SuperOptimist.* When we’re in need of guidance and stumble upon a suggestion, directive or advertisement for a really good deal, we consider whether it was placed in our path by a higher dimension, and then  use it to navigate our next move in life.

There’s nothing like waking up and seeing a sign in front of you that gives you hope, or surprise, or even a warning of impending doom. Heeding these signs will help you in a myriad of ways, from understanding which route to take to making sure your record is clean before walking into that next job interview.

Let your emotions be your compass. See if that next sign offers the answer to the question you’re grappling with. In many cases, you might find it to be the key that unlocks a new door, especially when you reach a critical juncture.

 

Keep your third eye open for the next important message, and happy trails to you!

*Note: All signs photographed by the SuperOptimist on recent walks in the continental U.S.

Do you long for a deeper connection with yourself and the world around you? Why not start by transforming your daily grooming habits into a profound spiritual practice?

Take shaving as an example. Shaving one’s face in the morning is often seen as a tedious task, a routine to be rushed through, even a burden to be endured. But it doesn’t have to be.  That’s why SuperOptimists have gravitated to the practice of “Happy Shave!” By infusing your shaving routine with intention, gratitude, and joy, you can elevate it from a mundane task to a meaningful spiritual practice.

The spiritual dimension of “Happy Shave” lies in its ability to foster mindfulness and presence. Shaving is not just about removing hair from your face or body. With its repetitive and rhythmic motions, shaving provides an ideal opportunity to slow down, focus on the sensations, and truly immerse yourself in the experience. Glide the razor across your skin. Feel the warmth of the water, the scent of the shaving cream, the smoothness of the blade. Each stroke becomes an act of self-care and compassion.

Add to your experience with a Happy Tee.

The physical benefits of “Happy Shave” are also worth noting. Shaving is not just about aesthetics; it can also have a positive impact on your skin and overall well-being. Regular shaving can exfoliate the skin, removing dead cells and promoting a healthy glow. It can also improve the texture of your skin, making it smoother and softer to the touch. Shaving can also help to prevent ingrown hairs, reduce irritation, and provide a clean canvas for skincare products to penetrate and work effectively. Taking care of your skin through “Happy Shave” can be a form of self-love and self-care, promoting a healthy and vibrant complexion.

“Happy Shave” is an opportunity to start with a clean slate and set the tone for the day. It can go beyond razoring your face. Consider creating a ritual that aligns with your personal beliefs and values. This could include lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or simply taking a few deep breaths to center yourself. By infusing your shave with intention, you are not only caring for your physical appearance but also nurturing your soul.  We hope you enjoy exploring the spiritual, physical, and mental benefits of shaving with this newfound perspective.

When the Australian and American Samoan football clubs met in a qualifying match for the FIFA World Cup in 2001, Australia broke a world record for the largest victory in an international game, winning 31–0.

Not only was the American Samoa team seriously outmatched, they faced passport issues so only one member of their original 20-man senior team was eligible to play.  They had to recruit youth players, including three 15-year-olds, to form a makeshift team. Some of them had never played a full 90 minutes before the match with Australia.

Yet the American Samoans showed their fa’asamoa—the Samoan way—by not losing their spirit and even singing and embracing the audience as the match ended.* Goalie Nicky Salupsa said that he enjoyed the match and “wasn’t embarrassed because we all learned something from it. If we had all our players, maybe it would have been only five or six goals, because I was without my best defenders and there was nothing I could do.” Coach Tony Langkilde also stated that “now we are recognised by FIFA, it has really helped spark an interest in football on the islands.”

What’s more, the American Samoa team that got crushed is now celebrated in two movies, one a documentary that revisits the historic loss and shows them 13 years later, still the worst team in FIFA:

And now there’s a fictionalized version coming out this year with the same title that puts actors like Michael Fassbender and Elizabeth Moss to work replicating the 2014 story. So who are the losers now? Put your fa’asamoa to use and see what happens when you fail next. Hollywood might just come calling.

*Other examples of fa’asamoa are:

  • Asking for permission before taking photos, using the beach, or doing other activities in a village.
  • Sitting down on the floor and covering your legs with a mat when you enter a traditional house (fale).
  • Respecting Sunday as a day of church, rest, and quietness.
  • Speaking politely and saying “tulou” when you walk in front of someone who is seated.
  • Honoring your family (aiga), your language (tautala Samoa), your genealogy (gafa), your chief (matai), your church (lotu), and your obligations (fa’alavelave).

Let’s face it. We live in a world that values rationality, logic and common sense. If you are equipped with these three strengths, you will avoid risks, learn from your mistakes, and plan wisely for your future. You certainly wouldn’t be foolish enough to do the following:

You wouldn’t be fired from your newspaper job for lacking imagination and creativity and have the gall to think you could create an iconic entertainment empire. 1

You wouldn’t keep sending out the manuscript of your novel after it had been rejected twelve times. 2

If you couldn’t make your high school basketball team as a sophomore, you wouldn’t dream of showing up the next year to get humiliated again. 3

And if 26 of the campaigns you attempted for political office ended in defeat, you wouldn’t keep banging your poor head against the same immovable object. 4

What kind of fools are so dumb that they don’t get the hint and do it anyway? The kind that relish proving others wrong, climbing the mountain that everyone says they can’t, and don’t mind acting in ways that are unconventional, unpredictable and often irrational.

Running your own fool’s errand is a way of expressing your individuality, exploring your potential and discovering new possibilities. It is a way of having fun, making friends and creating memories. It is a way of living in the moment, enjoying the journey and not worrying about the destination.

Of course, foolish behavior has its risks and drawbacks. It can lead to embarrassment and regret. It can alienate you from your family, friends or colleagues. It can get you into trouble with the law, and your boss. And you might fail so bad, everybody laughs when they see you coming.

But if you’re willing to take the chance and go out on your own limb, you have a shot at being truly alive. (Even if you saw it off and hit every branch on the way down.) So go ahead and be foolish. Try something crazy, make the mistakes, laugh at yourself, and don’t let anyone rob you of what makes your foolish heart tick. These crackpots sure did:

1 The guy who co-created Mickey Mouse

2 Author of seven Harry Potter books

3 Successful Nike pitchman

4 The 16th President of the United States

Editor’s note: At a time where everyone is in hysterics over the fear that artificial intelligence has arrived to take our jobs, our dignity, and our raison d’etre, we asked Jasper AI to write a few words about our favorite coping mechanism.

Absurdism is the most rational method for dealing with the world today because it recognizes the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability in life. In an absurdist worldview, there is no single overarching explanation or meaning that can be attributed to any given situation; instead, individuals must accept a certain degree of ambiguity and randomness and use it as a tool for forming their own interpretations of reality. This means that on some level we must embrace our lack of control over many aspects of our lives while simultaneously making sense of them through our own individual understanding.

The idea behind absurdism stems from its rejection of traditional causes and explanations. Instead, absurdists view life as carrying no ultimate or deep purpose, instead simply existing as something which should be accepted rather than questioned or opposed. It’s not about nihilism—the idea that everything has no value—but rather the notion that life exists without clear answers or absolutes, which can make it difficult to find meaning in day-to-day experiences. Despite this difficulty however, absurdity shows us how accepting such uncertainty can lead to freedom from constraint by allowing us to form original perspectives on challenges we face each day; refusing to succumb to society’s predetermined roles but rather finding solutions based on our own.

Quit vaping. Start making real money in the stock market. Quit dating losers. Start learning how to code. Get off social media.
2023 is here, and with it the pressure to halt all our bad habits, right all our wrongs, improve our posture and lose 15 pounds.
But is attempting the impossible the best way to start the day, much less the decade? We think not. In our view, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ringing in the new year by eating an extra helping of gourmet chocolate while watching reruns of “30 Rock”.  (If that’s what you enjoy doing, of course.)
Here’s the resolution the SuperOptimist always adopts, whether it’s New Year’s Day, Arbor Day, All Saint’s Day, or just another Wednesday: “All is well, life is swell, and I’m good just the way I am.”
By starting the new year accepting every screw-up, flaw, and mistake as the price of being human, you have a 130% better chance of enjoying the first days of the fresh annum.  So ignore all those life coaches with their exhortations to improve everything about yourself.  If they want to drink celery juice and get on the scale five times a day, that’s their problem, not yours!
Remember, the definition of resolution is “the firm decision to do or not do something.” Why not make a firm decision to make no decisions about your future, and enjoy the first month of the year without putting undo pressure on yourself?
By starting 2020 this way, you might find this turns out to be “your year” after all.*
*If you are compelled to figure out how to improve your life in 2023, we suggest looking back on what worked in 2022.  Here’s a short quiz to separate the pluses from the minuses. By doubling down on the good stuff, you’ll assure yourself of more personal victories in the coming year.
MY PERFORMANCE REVIEW 2022
 What was the best thing I experienced in 2022?
 What was a huge waste of my energy?
 What activity gave me the most pleasure?
 What was my bravest failure?
 What can I try that I haven’t?
 What error can I avoid now that I see it?
 What did I fear in 2022 that I survived?
 Did I handle the bad shit well?
 How many times did I feel joy?
 Who did I like hanging out with?
 Who would I prefer never seeing again?

Inside The SuperOptimist Guide to Unconventional Living, you’ll find an eclectic assortment of experiments and activities to help you challenge the steady drip-drip-drip of pre-programmed thought that humans have developed over the eons. 

With estimates now placing 89% of our brain function as habitual reactions to circumstance — checking our phones, working at repetitive tasks, binge-watching television, wearing shoes — The SuperOptimist Guide is designed to upend social constructs that have become calcified in homo sapiens. 

By adopting a practice of “daily self-provocation,” this book encourages the reader to explore big questions, gaze into other dimensions, and seek out new adventures — with positivity, humor and spirit intact. 

Kirkus calls the book “Playfully counterintuitive…At every turn, Whitten and Morton vigorously urge their readers to shake off old habits and embrace new ways of thinking. An idiosyncratic but ultimately uplifting approach to life and all its complications.”

This new volume should appeal to anyone attracted to creative pursuits, philosophical musings, white magic, Zen Buddhism, transcendentalism, left-field thinking, right-brain experiments, or post-humanism. And amusement. That too.

While positivity is a the central objective of SuperOptimism, it’s often by saying “no” that we can achieve some of life’s most empowering results. Consider all the insidious little things that waste time, do us no good, or ruin our chances for a better outcome. These are habits we are socially conditioned to perform, yet add nothing to our lives. Certainly there are at least 65 things you do every day that you don’t care much about. What if you said “no” to these soul-sucking activities that pull you away from your essential purpose?
If you explore the radical power of saying “no” more often, you may become a NOHEMIAN — a person who has changed their habits to say no more often. It’s based on the old cultural idea of “bohemian.” Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people and with few permanent ties. It involves musical, artistic, literary, or spiritual pursuits. In this context, bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds. A more economically privileged, wealthy, or even aristocratic bohemian circle is sometimes referred to as haute bohème (literally “high Bohemia”).

Nohemia is directly related to Bohemia, as it too is an unconventional lifestyle in a world of “yes” men and women. Saying no means you are less controlled by the outside influences imposed on you by other people and more responsive to your own internal, authentic nature. You are able to assert yourself by turning your back on nonsensical social mores and the small insults a person must endure in the course of an average day.

The best way to learn how to say “No” is to sit down with a piece of paper, reflect on your day, and write down things that you can say “no” to. Your list may look something like this:

1. No TV after 11 PM
2. No fake bullshit corn chips, only real corn chips.
3. No self-doubt.
4. No answering phone with unrecognizable number.
5. No Facebook.
6. No pointless hairspray.
7. No cheap pizza, ever.
8. No use of weird-smelling soaps.
9. No cleaning the kitchen floor.
10. No Black Friday shopping (in person)
By saying “No,” you are putting yourself in the driver’s seat, displaying conviction where others choose to waffle, bend and break. Watch how many people want to ride shotgun in your car once you do! As for Fear of Missing Out? From our experience, there’s always another bus a’ coming.
*If it’s difficult to say “no” directly, here are some other ways to get the point across.

How many times do human beings set themselves up to fail? One universal example is the classic “Change on a Dime” plan. “I’m going to quit smoking today.” “I’m going to lose 25 pounds in a week.” “I’m going to write a best-selling suspense novel, sell it for $300,000, pay off my credit card debt, move the family to a warmer climate, and really start living! By next month!”

Setting unrealistic goals is a sure way to drive yourself into a deep crevice. Rather than look realistically at the situation, we crank ourselves up for a major achievement, step in a pothole right out of the gate, and go back to the “I’m a loser who’s never going to get out of Fayetteville!” whine. Two packs a day and an extra slice of bundt cake follow shortly thereafter.

The SuperOptimist view? Maybe quitting smoking is a noble goal, but if it will cause you to kill your spouse, you should put it on the back burner. Maybe that quart of vanilla fudge nut swirl is what makes a night of insomnia tolerable. Maybe anonymous phone sex works. See where we’re going here?

Rather than set yourself up for complete and utter failure, how about turning the tables on that reluctant inner mountain climber with the rusted set of crampons? Today, set yourself up for major SuperOptimism — by not setting any goals at all! Suddenly, anything you do will seem like an accomplishment. Getting out of bed! Putting the tea kettle on! Picking up the phone when it buzzes!

Who knows, without the pressure of a self-imposed Pike’s Peak, you just might start writing that novel and forget about the long naps and bundt cake for awhile. You never know until you start lowering the bar!

Chart 2: A good day’s work.

 

Opening Day is normally associated with the beginning of the major league baseball season, bringing a sense of hope that at the very least, sub-freezing temperatures are behind us and spring has finally arrived.

But we see no reason why the pastime should only be relegated to balls and strikes. Here are some suggestions for celebrating opening day outside of a ballpark, tavern, or Best Buy electronics store.

Open a window. Not only can open windows boost mood by letting in some fresh air, the very act can be good for the environment. Indoor air pollution has been described by the EPA as a primary environmental health problem. In addition, the American College of Allergists states that 50 percent of all illnesses are caused by polluted indoor air. So grab that sash and fling wide the windows. You’ll be glad you did.

Open a jar of sauerkraut.  In addition to going great on a hot dog (the classic opening day meal of baseball enthusiasts), sauerkraut has amazing health benefits that might actually negate the harmful qualities of the frankfurter.

Open your “third eye.” Known as the ‘Ajna chakra’, the third eye is a source of intuitive wisdom and has the potential to lead you to the highest form of intelligence. Try some third eye meditation, with eyes closed, focused on the area between your two actual eyes. Once you start seeing a bluish-white light, you’re halfway there to healing your chakras and getting in touch with a further dimension of existence.

Open your browser and search for “Smead Jolley”.  There’s nothing more enjoyable than discovering arcane knowledge about some of the more colorful players of yesteryear, Smead being one of them. Jolley was an outfielder in the 1930s who once committed three errors on a single play.* But did Smead let his ineptitude in the field get him down? No! After getting dumped from the majors due to his poor fielding skills, he spent the rest of his career hitting the cover off the ball in the Pacific Coast League.  Back then, the PCL paid their established players in a manner commensurate with the majors, so Smead did okay for himself.  Not only that, he was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003.  Oh, and his nickname was “Smudge.” You can’t ask for more from a ballplayer.

*First he let a ball roll through his legs in the outfield. After allowing it to carom off the wall, the ball rolled back between his legs in the opposite direction. When he finally recovered the ball, he heaved it over the third baseman’s head and into the stands. **

**Although the ump took pity on him and only scored it two errors.

 

Celebrities

Where does art get made? In the mind of the artist? Or in the experience of the viewer?

Cultural critics developing “reception theory” started asking those questions in the 1960s. It was part of a philosophical project to understand how humans make meaning from the objects they see. How do we process what we see in the world and make sense of it?

For example, an artist has a specific idea in mind to paint a red apple. If the artist paints the apple realistically the resulting painting is called “art.” The artist made art by converting an idea, a mental image, into a real object made of paint.

Next, a viewer comes into a gallery and sees that apple painting, and in the viewer’s brain, there is a jolt of mental recognition. The viewer’s brain goes: “Ah-ha! I see an apple. I understand what the artist is telling me. There is an apple. It is red.”

There are two important art moments:

One: An artist conceives of art in the artist’s brain.

Two: the viewer makes meaning of art in the receptive brain.

Reception theorists argue that the “art moment” is really when the viewer sees the work. That is when the art is activated and the viewer translates it to real, actual, lived experience.

Suppose you lock a painting in a vault where no one can see it. Is the painting still functioning as “art?” A book without a reader is pointless. A movie without a spectator is just flickering light. Without the active viewer response, no meaning is made and no art exists.

I know what you’re thinking:

“This reception theory is philosophical bullshit. Only the artist makes art. Duh.”

But another way to think is that “art” exists in the active process of physically making art. Art equals process. This is literally correct in art forms with a temporal basis, like ballet and other forms of dance. The skillful performance of music equals art. If the violinist stops playing, the art stops. There are some painters and sculptors that see their work as a performance and the physical results are a “recording.”

But consider again the rather bold idea of reception theorists:

What if the viewer is more important than the maker? That radical idea shifts power from the maker to the consumer. The shift makes a lot of sense in our consumer-driven commercial culture. Right now, you can be a wonderful traditionally skilled artist-maker, but if you don’t connect with a receptive commercial audience you’ll starve. Reception is important.

And does it really matter who makes the art?

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Is honoring the maker just a nod to ego and the celebrity of fame-culture enjoyed by name artists of high reputation? In that case, “art” has become about treating artists as name brands and there is a scant difference between the name-brand paintings of Odd Nerdrum and the name-brand shoes by NIKE. The shift makes art a commercial product with easy hooks for the audience to understand why they should buy “X.”

And now we come to the latest development, the issue of AI programs creating art. There are anxious questions about AI art: Is AI stealing from the true human makers? Who is actually making the AI art? Where does it come from? Is AI stealing source images? Or is the real maker the coder who created the architecture and designed the AI software? With AI art, it’s hard to pinpoint who and what made the art, and where it came from. AI art seems to form magically, pulled from the void by typing an incantation of a few words online. We are given a new power, but we are not given an understanding of how the hidden AI magic works. This is scary.

A reception theorist would say AI art is 100% legitimate art because it only requires a viewer to see it and understand it as art. That’s it. The art reaction is made in the mind of a viewer and it doesn’t matter if the art is made by a person, or by AI software.

Pigs, dogs, and dolphins have been taught to hold a brush and paint what they see. Some viewers see the work as art. Is this real art? Reception theory would say: yes it is art — if you see it that way.

The upsetting thing about AI art is that it challenges human ego, vanity, and hubris. We got pretty smug when we were competing with dogs at painting. Humans are obviously better, more dexterous painters than any elephant. We humans can feel good about our superiority over the animal world. But AI is a lot more skillful and learns faster than an elephant, which is scary. AI looks like it could be much better at providing art to viewers than the slow, lazy old human artists. AI removes our special status as the only animals with divine inspiration to make magically good art. And that hurts.

There’s a thing in the social sciences called the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage. The Matthew effect is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In the creative arts, you might say “the famous get ultra-famous and the overlooked become invisible.”
Fame comes as a byproduct of success. A filmmaker like Peter Jackson experimented with many genres from comedy to horror. But once he found massive success with Lord Of The Rings it led to fame. And once you get labeled a famous creative genius in our culture, your opportunities are essentially unlimited.
So how do you get that massive success? Writing in the journal NATURE, social scientists recently evaluated creativity across the careers of top-performing artistic, scientific, and cultural figures.
What the scientists discovered as a common feature of these careers is “hot streaks.” A hot streak is when a creative person makes some original, novel, surprising artworks that are spectacularly well-received. The art gets attention, it gets awards, a lot of money changes hands. For the artist, a major career impact, more money, more opportunity.
Hot streaks are not about luck. They are a result of two things. First, a large volume of work needs to be produced to develop a personal sense of craft. Second, a lot of experimentation has to take place to arrive at a unique personal aesthetic that “works.” Both factors are required to discover a hot streak.
If you are a fine arts painter, you can’t decide to do one painting and call it a hot streak. You also can’t continue to produce hundreds of stylistically identical images year after year and hope for a hot streak to come. Because hot streaks arise from experimentation, development, risk-taking, and exploration. You won’t find a hot streak by following a venerable established recipe.
This can be a problem because 97% of traditional fine arts training in skill-building is about learning tools, following recipes, knowing historical styles, and seeing patterns. There is very little guidance into experimentation, risk-taking, or how to think about failure in most educational art settings. Students crave a formula for a successful result. They don’t want a messy failure. And yet a messy failure may be the only way forward to a personal style that does not look exactly like every other artist’s skillfully rendered bowl of fruit.
A great example of experimentation is Picasso. Picasso started with traditional skills, and his precise pencil torsos from 1892 look like ordinary academic studio work. By 1897 he was drifting from staid realism to symbolism. In 1901 he entered a three-year “blue period” doing works in shades of blue and green. His two-year “rose period” followed to 1906. Then came a period of African art and primitivism. In the next decades, he explored analytic cubism, synthetic cubism, and surrealism. Was all the work great art? No. But the volume of experimentation created “hot streaks” of highly original work that led to fame and success.
Maybe you are not a dynamic creative genius like Picasso driven to constantly explore new approaches. But if your work is unsatisfying, the solution is not to keep repeating a failed recipe in hopes that one day the burnt cake will eventually taste good.
This tendency for artists to continue making work that nobody likes can be attributed to the “ego effect.” The ego effect suggests that you’re prone to making the same mistakes over and over again when you protect your beliefs instead of learning from your mistakes and changing your beliefs in response to conflicting evidence. I’ve seen this in art when a painter makes a painting nobody likes (not even the maker) and yet they continue to generate more similarly unlikable art because it is the style they have invested the most time practicing.
Difficulty in making a creative course change is sometimes called “target fixation.” Target fixation occurs when an individual becomes so focused on one thing that they exclude other factors to their potential detriment. For example, a painter becomes so fixated on being able to paint a vase of flowers in the admirable style of Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904) that they fail to see the bigger picture. Learning to perfectly emulate that retro-classical style may be irrelevant today.
Changing any behavior or habit requires both acknowledging there is a flaw in the current pattern and a willingness to commit to consistent, incremental, change. A bad habit, or consistently repeated error, can only be corrected by replacing the habit or pattern with a better one. And how do you know if your new pattern is better? This can only be discovered by personal experimentation and an open mind.
Do we need more bowl-of-fruit paintings? No. Please stop now. Reconsider your assumptions, and begin your personal experiments towards massive success.

These questions are developed in tandem with writer John Fox to help clarify any artist’s goals.

  1. What art subjects bring you to your knees?

So many artists avoid their true subjects. Perhaps they’re afraid to shine a light into the darkest corridors of their heart and paint what excites, obsesses, or terrifies them. But the only way to discover your true subject is to create freely, wildly, without a plan, and to see what subjects crop up repeatedly. What thoughts can’t you ignore? Many times people don’t want to show their inner obsessions, demons, or embarrassing pain. Because “odd thoughts” can appear as a personal weakness to stolid Americans. Don’t avoid the subjects that wound you – head directly for them. If you show us this kind of very personal subjects, we’re sure to be interested in seeing the results.

  1. Who are you drawing or painting for?

It’s presumed that artists only need to please themselves and follow their private North Star. But even if we agree that a please-yourself ego-driven approach is an OK way to approach art, you still need to be aware that your art will have a larger audience of viewers. If you are a normal human, you want a huge audience on Instagram that beams love at you. But to be a more effective communicator, you need to imagine and target a specific group of humans to connect with. It could be Cubans, Mormons, teenagers. And even if you do that targeting, aim yourself even further: Cuban designers in Miami, Mormons who own art galleries, short-attention-span teens that crave Day-Glo pop art. Even better, choose a single person and direct your art to them.

If you can’t imagine a specific person that will like your art — then the truth is nobody will like it much.

  1. Why are you painting?

Burn through the easy answers quickly:

  • Want to do something with my hands.
  • Want to make money and be famous.
  • Because you have something to say.
  • It’s the only job I could get.

Drill down to the true depths:

  • Because you want to express the unsaid.
  • You want to understand trauma you experienced.
  • Because someone told you that you couldn’t.
  • You want to see what kind of artist lives inside you.

Sometimes it takes years for you to realize that the reason you make art isn’t what you thought it was.

  1. What is the one thing you want to paint before you die?

Many people make art because they feel it’s marketable or because it’s popular or they enjoy copying what others do in imitative fashion. But what do you really want to say before you leave the planet? You better figure that out and paint that painting, because the one thing I can guarantee you is that you will be leaving, and maybe sooner than you’d ideally prefer. So get busy and leave us a masterpiece, OK?

Art shown above: Woman with a Coffee Pot by Paul Cezanne. Monsieur Cezanne obviously had an affinity for Arabica beans which he didn’t shy away from.

Hair is where painters show their biases towards design or nature, realism or abstraction. How a person paints hair reveals a lot about inner thinking and outer working process.

There are four main useful groupings revealing how artists think about hair (illustrated below.)

For some artists, especially painters coming from a background in illustration, hair is treated as a graphic design problem to solve. These artists seek ways to treat the tremendously complicated mass of hair as a simplified but intentional graphic design, often simplifying hair to strongly defined shapes and bold lines to execute hair as a graphic design. Examples include Picasso, Norman Rockwell, Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville, J.C. Leyendecker, Andy Wyeth, Ray Turner, Michael Borremans, and Olivia. This design-thinking is a very artistic approach but also a simple and minimalist mode, because illustrators need to get the job done and not spend hours fussing with hair. Once you have figured out a personal graphic-design way to interpret hair, the art can be done fast and effectively. But only after you know what graphic solution appeals to your taste.

A second way to think about hair is primarily as lighting falling on semi-solid forms. This kind of distillation approach asks the artist to do two things. First, get the shapes (or outline) correct. Paint the shape with the right color and value to indicate believable lighting, shadows, highlights. This idea requires extracting a precise simplification of what we see, reducing the visual data, but if it is done with sophistication and practice, the results are what we typically consider “a good painting.” A clue that an artist is thinking this way is they will avoid unnecessary small details and not be painting any more individual hairs than strictly necessary, and “none” is ideal. Examples are Justin Mortimer, Sargent, Sean Cheetham, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

A mild step away from that way of thinking is artists that like to build in some limited areas of crisply defined, intense realist hair details. This can look quite good as shown by Cesar Santos, Golucho, or Odd Nerdrum. These artists paint the overall hair as a mass but also feel that adding single hairs, single strands, areas of detail, and clean edges gives a more compelling illusion. The idea works to a point — but can become a flawed compulsion because we all know that this is not the way we perceive hair in ordinary reality.

Really? How do we perceive hair?

Have you ever found yourself seated with another person and begun to microscopically study any single hair on their head? Or an errant nose hair? Have you counted the lush hairs in their eyebrows? No. It is a misconception to think that we perceive reality in high-definition and high-resolution. We don’t. It’s not how human eyes and brains work. Paintings that attempt this greater fine-grained resolution typically look flat, stiff, or odd, and artists wonder why it doesn’t look artistically great when they sweat to paint every last pore and hair.

A fourth approach paints hair the way it appears in photographs. This dominant photographic aesthetic has contaminated art and our brains to the point that we approve of a very mechanical optical result. Most painters working from photographs try to deny the potentially poisonous influence of photography and say it’s just a valuable source of realist detail. There’s nothing morally wrong with choosing photography as your aesthetic goal as a painter, though if that’s what looks good to you it would be a lot easier to just use a camera and the results will be even better at feeling like a photograph. And 5000 times faster to accomplish. That said, some people do the style very well like Gottfried Helnwein. Casey Baugh, Alyssa Monks, and Michael Sydney Moore.

It is not an uncommon circumstance that an artist will be invited to place a single painting in a group show or submit a single painting into a contest. Larger shows like the BP portrait competition get nearly 2,000 entries. At BP, the top 50 paintings get exhibited and four finalists are picked by tweedy British judges.

Is there any strategy you can use to help yourself psychologically or productively in this situation?

The big problem is that all your wonderful talent must be distilled down into this one painting. It alone represents you. No viewer is giving you extra credit for listening to your clever podcast talk or studying your dense sketchbooks. Judges can’t see the 573 paintings you did previously that got your talent where it stands. Nobody can see any of your tear-stained hard hours of lonely labor. The A+ you got from your beloved art teacher who set you on the path is invisible. All your good intentions for dolphins and trendy politically-informed ideas for radical justice are hidden from the viewer as well.

All we can see is the one painting you did.

BOOM!

GOOD OR BAD?

We are jolted awake or bored. Love it or walk on by. Sorry. “It didn’t work for me.” Or “I don’t like it.” Or “Who would hang that on their wall?”

Obviously, if award-winning painting strategies were easy, people would be grabbing awards like greedy children snapping up free chocolates. Actual winning strategies are few, but I will share four thoughts (and I welcome any comments if you have a good strategy I overlooked).

1) Do a lot of paintings. If you can only enter 1 painting in a show or contest and you only have 1 sad lonely painting in your studio you are severely limited at the outset. All paintings do not come out equally good and we all know this. Some remain failures no matter how hard you try to revive them. If you can challenge yourself to do the extra work and paint three, seven, or nine paintings for the contest and then select your best favorite one, you have already given yourself a huge advantage. Human nature tends to resist this approach because we are such lazy dull horrible beasts.

2) Figure out what wins before you start. This is a slightly corrupt strategy untrue to the higher realms of art but still a good cheat. If you look at the last twenty winners of the BP contest you can see a clear trend in the kind of subject, approach, and style that wins. At BP the judges will immediately look fondly on you if you paint a representational single figure soberly seated in a venerable chair.

3) Never paint an idea. Viewers respond to ideas slowly and poorly if at all because their brains are weak and seldom challenged. If you think you can win by painting about ecology, post-colonialism, or quantum physics it is an unlikely proposition. Winners paint “things” and ideally important things. Important painters paint important things like the pope, the queen, Elvis, Hitler, JFK, Stalin, and Marilyn Monroe. Painting a human being or the human form is always an advantage because the homo sapiens primate species is endlessly in love with watching itself.

4) Leverage what exists. If you are entering a show of floral paintings, pick an existing floral painting you like by Klimt, Monet, Haverman, or whoever floats your boat. Be willing to stand on the shoulders of dead art giants. No one will care if you try to flawlessly copy a vase by Matisse (I guarantee you can’t.) But take some inspiration and maybe even borrow some composition. This is the idea of starting from something already great. And you can never go wrong making “art about art” because that is the work that museum directors love best.

Seeking awards is a terrible reason to paint in any case, and can only be a sign of a fragile ego that seeks sustenance sipping from a golden cup filled with the milk of vanity. If you never win any damn award but your art fills you with deep private joy, this is the only true victory.

There’s a unique feature in visual art that’s easy to overlook. Artists frequently fail to recognize the deep power of the idea but it’s crucial to becoming the best artist you can be.

It’s simply this:

“Every attempt to make a single piece of art gives you information that can increase your chance of success in subsequent attempts to make art.”

So even if you make a drawing or a painting and it’s a total mess, a train-wreck, a failure, it’s filled with information that can guide your next attempt to be better. But only if you are honest with yourself and paying attention.

The people that really understand the power of this learning-from-failed-attempts concept are mountain climbers. Climber Reinhold Messner is among the best mountain climbers in the world, ascending peaks like K2, Everest, and Annapurna. More relevant is looking at all his failed efforts. Consider Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world. Messner tried climbing Makalu four times. He failed in 1974 and failed in 1981 on the South Face. In winter 1985 he failed again on the North Face. In 1986 on a new route he also failed. But every failure informed the next attempt. Keep in mind that his attempts required a tortuous life-threatening climb above 8,000 feet in freezing conditions.

And how bad is it when a studio painting fails?

For climbers, analyzing what worked well and what went wrong is a matter of life and death. This is where climbers have a psychological advantage over painters. Every failed attempt to summit gets seriously analyzed down to the last detail of how many micrograms your climbing boots weigh.

But few artists scrutinize their completed painting with that same kind of intensity. Mostly, artists are relieved to be done the damn painting and happy to put a frame on it and get it out the door.

Yet painting offers a unique feature that does not apply to temporal long-form arts like writing novels or composing symphonies. You can make a painting and step back and quickly see in an instant (without a map or snow boots) how you are getting along. If you are analytical, the ability to recover from a mistake (paint it out, erase) is fast and you rarely need a helicopter rescue.

In painting, you can attempt an idea and if it fails, this is a great moment. Recognizing failure is crucial. That honest failure is loaded with information that can guide your next attempt at a better solution. And one of the biggest blocks to processing failure is when critics are too kind and generous and offer faint praise or polite smiles. And then the artist thinks: “Gee, I guess this is good enough.”

Your biggest job as an artist is deciding which information in your failed attempt is important. Why does it look so bad? Did you go wrong in composition? In color? A silly idea? Cliché? Too dark? A weak drawing? Identifying problems and coming up with creative solutions and alternatives — this is essential in making your “map” for a successful ascent, and it’s not the same for every artist.

Admit failure. Embrace failure. Extract useful information. Make a better plan. Try again via a different route.

Artists should never feel bad about failed attempts or disappointing results. These are gold mines of information and ripe opportunities for improvement. Brave failed attempts may be the only way to truly improve. You just have to pay attention and read the mountain. Stop trying to ice climb in the worst snows of winter. There are always better alternate routes to the top, right? Find your way.

We’re particularly impressed by the powerful and iconic paintings of the artist Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom (June 22, 1899 – March 10, 1976.) This stuff is brilliantly painted and aims an artistic arrow into the heart of Americana. We’ve done some research into exactly how he approached oil painting and we share it with you here:

When painting, Sundblom would work from dark to light, and thin to thick, utilizing a wet-into-wet (or ala prima) approach in laying down heavily loaded strokes of color. This technique of working while the oil was still wet allowed Sundblom to complete many of his illustrations in only one or two sittings. He was a remarkably fast painter, and his speed helped him to maintain a sense of freshness and spontaneity in his work. When Sundblom first sat down to consider a picture, he would start by making loose, rough sketches.

According to Harry Ekman, an artist who worked with Sundblom in the late ’50s, “He would sit down, and roughly—I mean quite roughly, sometimes on monogrammed stationery—make very abstract sketches. You could recognize some substance to the doodles, but they were mostly value sketches. He would make many of those and just keep going until he got an idea. Then he’d call in his models and take photos. When he started out he used models and worked from life, but by the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, you’d have to pay $30 to $50 an hour for models, so it became prohibitively expensive.”

Not surprisingly, Sundblom often used his neighbors, colleagues, and three young daughters as stand-ins for many of his illustrations. After taking the black and white reference photos, he would make a quick but highly accurate charcoal drawing on his canvas, and seal it by fluffing pumice across its surface, blowing ethereal varnish or shellac on the board with a spray atomizer. Unlike some other illustrators, Sundblom only used the photos for a reference, never trying to copy the actual look of the photograph. Sundblom very rarely used a Balopticon projector, as many other illustration artists of the day were doing to save time.

“He believed that if you were doing an illustration for a story, you should enhance the story. You should always add to it,” Ekman said. His goal was iconic powerful images and copying photography alone would never deliver the iconic power he sought.

Alexander Kortner, an illustrator and protege of Sundblom’s, said, “He was a terrific draftsman in his own right. He would first make a sketch from nothing, just out of his head. Then he would use some reference photos to construct his drawings on canvas with charcoal. He very seldom used a Balopticon, and he never stayed too close to the reference photos. He drew with the brush as he painted. His drawing on canvas was never very detailed, but it was beautiful in and of itself.”

Then he would start in painting, and it was miraculous the way he mixed colors from a rather ordinary palette of 12 tube colors and his only medium was turpentine. Few people ever actually saw him paint, but I did,” Kortner said. “He would start with big bristle brushes and rough in the whole thing in an hour or two. He was very, very fast. It’s surprising how much he could do with a big brush. in a demonstration for an artist’s group in Chicago, he’d make a painting in about an hour and a half at the most, and it’s a beautiful thing. At the end of the demo, they would raffle it off to whoever was there. He didn’t do demonstrations too often because he wasn’t fond of it, but he would do them occasionally for the Chicago Artist’s Guild. He would start with a raw canvas and start right in. Some of the best illustrators in the city would come to the demonstrations just to watch him work.”

If you want to try to work in the Sundblom style, one of the best ways to modify your current habits and be more Sundblom-esque may be to set a 60-minute timer while you paint. Try to force yourself to work faster than you normally do. Don’t be fussy or precious but strive for accuracy and efficiency. Get that idea down in paint! Remember, the client expects your great iconic art done by tomorrow. Better get moving