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Everyone’s always on the alert for “the next big thing.” Yet a key to staying sane and at peace is to notice and appreciate the little idea. Don’t ignore the fork at the table when you sit down to eat; pick it up and admire the ingenuity it took to craft such a simple, yet perfect, tool.

The same goes for salt and pepper shakers, the butter dish, and the water glass. Once you begin treasuring under-appreciated objects like these, it’s only a matter of time before you think of some simple, yet vital, invention that could be as popular as the fork or salt shaker. Perhaps a combination fork and salt shaker, all in one! The salt-fork? The forshaken? The salforker!

What new object can be made from these common parts?

 

Once you have an interesting idea, don’t forget to patent it. You never know where the future might lead. And that’s one of the first questions Mr. Wonderful asks on Shark Tank.

For example, look at this brand new gizmo that Ford has created for a power-extendable exhaust outlet. An ingenious, yet simple, improvement for off-road vehicles. Further proof that it’s not just the big items that could use a new twist.

In any new or daring task, it’s not a bad idea to charge ahead as fast as possible. Leonardo da Vinci believed that it was essential for artists to work quickly to capture the “first flash of inspiration.” Ralph Waldo Emerson concurred, saying, “In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”

It is also the advice of the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who described the “sekka no atari” — or “lightning strike” — as charging in with strong legs, strong body, and strong arms combined for maximum speed. As he plunged into battle, Musashi had no time for worry, fear, doubt, or regret. He relied on having mushin, or “empty mind,” to detach from whether he’d emerge victorious or chopped in half. Foreseeing the possible outcomes could serve no practical purpose. The truth would be revealed through action. So stop foreseeing and just go, go, go!

NOTE: This secret stands in complete opposition to statements elsewhere on this site. Further proving that contradiction is not feared, but embraced, by the true SuperOptimist who savors a complex universe.

It’s a documented fact that during the seasons known as fall and winter, the decreased amount of sunlight can lead some people to feel down, dopey, and lethargic. It’s called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD. What’s not known to many SAD sufferers is a readily available antidote that can relieve many of their symptoms. And that is to jump out of bed, run out the door, and get some pie.

Eating pie has the unique ability to distract you from the demons of darkness who come knocking at your chamber door. Pie also goes great with coffee, yessir. There are literally hundreds of pies to bake and eat: here’s a short list to get your mouth watering:

Apple pie

Cherry pie

Banana cream pie

Pumpkin Gingersnap pie

Rhubarb Meringue pie

White Russian pie

NOTE: Alternatively, to lift your spirits, you can always take a whole pie and throw it at someone, preferably a politician who’s not telling us the truth or a public figure who is woefully misinformed.

Why is it that the girl or boy of our dreams almost never materializes, yet we can always attract somebody who we’re not the slightest bit interested in? Why is it when we’re in a real rush, there’s never a parking spot, but when we’ve got all the time in the world, somebody pulls out right in front of us?

A lesson here? Remove the word “need” from your vocabulary. If you don’t give a monkey’s toss what happens at any given moment, the universe will expand in direct proportion to your disinterest.

Here’s Christopher Walken, admirably demonstrating offhanded insouciance:

EXERCISE: Act completely aloof at your next job interview. Chances are, they’ll make you an offer. Refuse — and they’ll up it to a management position. Shake your head no, and boom! Senior vice presidency. Move towards the door waving goodbye, and they’ll drop to their knees and plead with you to take a seat on the board. Walk out the door without agreeing to their terms and you’ll be 5 times closer to your real goal!

Despite being alive in this very moment, human beings have a tendency to want to “know” the future. Folks imagine a “career track” at work. At home they wonder about the “future of the relationship.” The United States government encourages us to believe in “social security” and legally requires citizens to pay exorbitant taxes so they can invest in the invisible future of 2074 A.D.

The aspiring SuperOptimist can take a lesson from Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Professor Bohr conducted countless scientific experiments where he would try to guess the real outcome of events imagined beforehand. With the best theoretical models available, he still could not predict the future any better than a drunken tourist at a craps table in Las Vegas. Professor Bohr summed up his career of deep scientific thought by saying: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Bohr proves that no matter how smart you are, you can’t reliably predict 5 days from now, much less 50 years. That’s why the SuperOptimist believes that the “good time” is not in some imagined far distant future, but in every tiny moment of existence at this very moment right now. And now. And now. And…now.

The bosk, or common bush, resembles the human in many ways. It is messy and multi-layered; thick in some areas, patchy in others. But that’s where the similarity ends. While people are apt to complain about the slightest problem, the bosk remains imperturbable in its approach to life.

The bosk lives in concert with its surroundings. It asks nothing of others. It requires no heavy care or maintenance. The bosk is neither envious of its flowering neighbors, nor takes pity on those considered less fortunate. The bosk does not wish to trade its unkempt appearance for that of the manicured hedge, row of daffodils or climbing ivy. The bosk is comfortable in its own skin, no matter how many layers of itchy vines and bushy leaves hide its Jackson Pollock-like skeleton.

The bosk watches bemusedly as bipeds march past, busy with their efforts to landscape every square inch of yard. People like to try controlling nature, but the bosk knows it’s a fool’s errand. Take a lesson from a nearby bosk and relax into your surroundings. You’ll be glad you did.

Scientists have estimated the probability of you being born at about one in 400 trillion. Those odds are ten times greater than winning the Powerball and four thousand times greater than being hit by lightning. (As for winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning together, well, our math skills don’t reach that far.)

It turns out the amount of available DNA is so vast that the chance of it combining in the certain specific pattern to form the person you see in the mirror is virtually impossible. No scientific chance whatsoever. And yet, here you are.

But the news gets more amazing — since those odds of one in 400 trillion against don’t take into account the chance of your parents meeting, finding each other attractive, consummating their relationship, and having a single sperm and a single egg unite in joyous conception. We are now up to one in 400 quadrillion. (Even more if you add in surrogates.) And in case you’re wondering how big a quadrillion is, think of it as 1,000 trillions. In other words, a f***ing huge number.

Are we finished? No, not yet. Factor your ancestors going back four billion years, all the variables that could have prevented them from ever meeting, dating, mating, and so on …well, by the time you add up all the coincidences in this long tail scenario, the chances of you being here are one in ten to the power of 2,685,000. So the odds that you exist are basically zero. But because you do exist, and you’re now aware of how precarious that is, you’re the big winner today in the jackpot of life.  Even if all you’re doing right now is eating a chicken burrito with extra hot sauce.

That makes today a “fall on your knees, cry-tears-of-joy” kind of day.  Dancing is an appropriate response to this news. So is finishing your burrito and thanking the server for the extra hot sauce. Congratulations on that too.

Right or wrong, good or not-so-good, sane or mad, making a choice and then committing ourselves to it can be considered the most valuable practice in life. To set out on a course of action and eliminate any route of escape reduces the chance of compromise.

The expression “Burn one’s bridge” comes from the very act of burning down a wooden crossing after marching over it during a military campaign, leaving no choice but to continue moving forward while making it more difficult for your enemies to follow.* When there’s no turning back to the cushy existence you enjoyed before rowing away from shore, you have only your goal to go.

When it comes to his goal, the captain is “all in.”

Think of Ahab and his pursuit of the great white whale. He could have cut bait, steered the boat back to harbor, propped up his feet and puffed on a fat cigar. Instead, nothing would deter him from that final face-off with the great Moby D.

Of course, things didn’t turn out pleasantly for the captain. But there’s no arguing that it made for a more striking obituary.  And herein lies the point. It’s the story you wind up with that’s important.  Lashed to a monstrous mammal with your own rope? Now that’s the way to go!

Joe Heller wasn’t a whale hunter, but he did warrant a memorable send-off.

Who wants to die sitting in an easy chair trying to digest another big meal? Achieving a goal requires a climb up a steep, steep mountain, even at the risk of leaving behind a job, a relationship or a soft, comfortable couch that beckons to you when the pursuit becomes difficult in the extreme.

*Of course, you can also use the expression “break the kettles and sink the boats,” an ancient Chinese saying that refers to Xiang Yu’s order at the Battle of Julu in 207 BC.  

1. Travel to your local library.

2. Closing your eyes, walk down an aisle.

3. Pull a volume chosen at random from the stacks.

4. Without looking at the book, turn to a random page.

5. Now open your eyes and read the right-hand page.

6. Whatever is on the page, allow it to inspire an action corresponding to its contents.

They say “when you look good, you feel good.” So what change can you make to improve how you feel?

According to scientists from Harvard and Boston University, applying bright color to the lips not only makes the wearer feel more confident, others will perceive you to be more reliable and competent than those going without.

Researchers also discovered that students who wear makeup actually score better on tests. Wearing cosmetics apparently leads to overall enhancement in self-esteem, attitude, and personality that carries over to the exam room.

Now while these studies were conducted on women, we’re confident in this age of experimentation and fluid gender roles, men can also benefit from a bold choice of color.* After all, guys weren’t shy about applying foundation a few hundred years ago. An 18th century gentleman usually owned a dressing-box that held his razor cases, scissors, combs, curling irons, oil and scent bottles, rouge and powder. Even  soldiers wore wigs throughout the 18th century.

A hundred or so years later, androgenous rock stars of the 1970s (and 80s and 90s…) weren’t shy about accentuating their attitude with makeup. The New York Dolls made red lipstick the cornerstone of their first album cover.

So if you want to give your day a boost, score better on multiple choice tests, and provoke discussion on that next zoom call, you may just find dabbing on some Tom Ford Scarlet Rouge provides the spark you’re looking for. **

*The market for men’s cosmetics is predicted to grow $49 billion this decade.

**Of course, if you prefer using your natural gifts to win friends and attract people, remember the words of Dale Carnegie: “A smile costs nothing, but creates much. It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give.”

 

Celebrities

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