Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Richard Diebenkorn
Berkeley #19, 1954
The University of Arizona Museum of Art

Before embarking upon what I believe was the most productive and fascinating period of his work, the American painter, Richard Diebenkorn, made a list of ten "guidelines," for lack of a better word, that he believed should drive the creative process.  If you are a painter or some other type of artist, you will probably find, as I have, great comfort and wisdom in Diebenkorn's approach.  One need not be an artist, however, to find wisdom in these words. Through the years, I have come to believe that Diebenkorn's advice is as relevant to the creation of a good life as it is to the creation of good art.  See what you think as you read the document that Diebenkorn simply titled, "Notes to myself on beginning a painting."

1.  Attempt what is not certain.  Certainty may or may not come later.  It may then be a valuable delusion.

2.  The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.

3.  Do search.  But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4.  Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5.  Don't "discover" a subject — of any kind.

6.  Somehow don't be bored — but if you must, use it in action.  Use its destructive potential.

7.  Mistakes can't be erased but they move you from your present position.

8.  Keep thinking about Polyanna.

9.  Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Diebenkorn's advice resonates deeply with me at both an artistic level and a personal level, and my favorite points are the sixth, ninth, and tenth:  the need to use the "destructive potential" of boredom; the need to tolerate chaos; and the need to be careful only in a perverse way.  What about you?  Do find anything in Diebenkorn's list that resonates with your personal or artistic life?


  1. I'm about to sit down to the craft of writing a new poem. I see it in my head, complete. It's both too bad and a good thing that it takes hard work (except in rare instances) to get it to that complete state . . . if poems are ever "complete." #10 is closest to what I think I need at the moment. I want to write freely at this stage and not over-edit myself. In writing #7 isn't true in the sense that mistakes can be altered . . or rather the writing evolves. It rarely looks anything like how it started, but you have to start somewhere.

    Word verification: DROWNES. This is wonderfully synchronicitous at the moment, for I am seeing poems as water, after a conversation with a friend . . .

  2. To Ruth,

    Good luck with your new poem. Hopefully, you will find something in Diebenkorn's advice that will assist your creativity.

  3. Hi George,

    What an interesting post! It is a valuable exercise to apply them personally, as you suggest. We are often too deliberate and hindered by our routines and habits. Diebenkorn's suggestions would help shake up one's approach to art or life.

    I like the same ones you mention, 6, 9 and 10. But #8 made me giggle, so I think I recognized a bit of Polyanna in me that I need to look out for. In light of his #3, I will have to think about his #5 ... search, but don't discover ... hmmmm ....

    I love beginning the day with a point to ponder that is not about depression, PTSD, OCD or self-harm, etc. (btw - I'm not talking about myself in that last sentence, but about what I deal with in my work - giggles - ) Thanks!

  4. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and I'm glad you liked the post. I read No. 5 (Don't discover a "subject" — of any kind) in the context of the previous four guidelines. Diebenkorn seems to be saying that we should remain open to the creative process, letting it take us where it will, and that we should not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by temporary distractions (such as a "subject" or a "pretty, initial position") that offer nothing more than refuge and the comfort of certainty. He seems to be saying that certainty in either life or art can lead to a kind of paralysis, and I am inclined to agree.

  5. Just some spontaneous, quickly written, freewheeling thoughts on Diebenkorn's provoking and challenging precepts...

    Art, life, is always an exploration of the unknown, the uncertain.

    Explore with a completely open mind, not with any pre-conceived ideas about what you are searching for.

    Early incomplete discoveries, creations, blueprints, apparently meaningful experiences can be suspect, misleading. Use them simply as stepping stones.

    Discovery, anyway, can be suspect - the word suggests an unravelling, a meaning to the mystery. Actually complete discovery is impossible, and any such discovery is a reduction of the truth.

    Put even states of boredom, and any negative concepts, to positive, creative use - even if that use can be potentially destructive. The real and the true can come out of the negative; baptism can come out of fire; the lotus flower can bloom with its roots in the muddy swamp.

    So-called mistakes are to be valued and, again, are essential as stepping stones.

    Polyanna-ism is naive, seeing the good and seeing order in everything is partial and one-sided. Life is actually often less than good. It can be destructive and chaotic. So accept this, recognise and reflect this (in a Zen way).

    Being too careful can be constricting, and an impediment to real, true creativity, real, true living. Sometimes you need to be care-less, spontaneous, abandoned, embracing of anarchy.

  6. Quite an interesting list, with far more depth than might be concluded after a single reading. For me, I think #s 1, 4, and 10 are perhaps my favorite points. I'm not sure about the seemingly contradictory stance of points 3 and 5…even if you do find something other than that which initially set you upon your search, isn't that still a discovery, albeit unexpected?

    As a writer, I think I do see a truth in # 7: mistakes can't be erased, but they can, indeed move you from your present position. Yes, you can rewrite a line or a paragraph; just as you can paint over something, or change a note in music. But these acts simply hide or remove the evidence of the original mistake, and are possible in all forms of art, though less easily so in sculpture. Yet the mistake wasn't originated on the page or canvas, but in the expression of the writer, painter, musician, etc. Artistic talent is a given—you have what you have—which is, as such, I think often overrated, though I tend to view it from the opposite end…often underdeveloped. It's all too easy to become comfortable at an adequate level—not at the outer boundaries of the talent gift, but at that point where the expression can be repeated with a degree of ease, gets the job do, garners praise—and at a level noticeably above most others.

    Yet I see point #7 as acknowledging that tendency to rest on our laurels—a mistake in terms of personal artistic integrity, a lapse in striving, in pushing or reaching, taking the familiar road; a mistake in failure to not dip deeper into the well. As a writer, my ideal is not simply to see that mistake on paper and correct it in the first draft, but to grow beyond committing it in initially. All art involves an alchemy of the soul. Good writing is always going to involve good editing and the capability that comes with time to not "flatten" the life from a piece through heavy-handedness. Growth, for me, is moving beyond the point where I make THAT PARTICULAR mistake.

  7. To Robert,

    Thanks for the great, spontaneous and freewheeling comments. You have undoubtedly connected with Diebenkorn's spirit.

    I am especially happy to have your take on Diebenkorn's fifth point (don't "discover" a subject — of any kind) because one could logically assume that the whole point of any journey of discovery is to discover something. The problem with discoveries, of course, is that human beings tend to endlessly circle their discoveries like birds of prey, forgetting that even greater revelations lie ahead for those who continue the journey. As you have aptly put it, all discoveries are incomplete because the truth that we seek is boundless. It is imperative, therefore, that we we always press forward into the mystery, taking pleasure perhaps in what we learn along the way, but never deceiving ourselves into believing that we have "found it." This, I believe, is what Diebenkorn is trying to tell us.

    Thanks again for all of your comments.

  8. Most interesting George as this afternoon my son, my daughter-in-law and I have been to the Great Northern Art Exhibition in Ripon Cathedral here in the UK. The exhibition is an annual showcase of Northern artists of the best quality - (those who choose to be represented of course - and we enjoyed it - liking some pictures, not others. On the way home the 25 miles or so we had an interesting discussion on what makes people paint in a certain way. There were some painting s which we exquisitely painted to look really just like photographs - even to the extent of making all the colour shades of black, white and grey as in a black and white photograph. We wondered why the artist had used such obvious talent to do this, when he could just have taken a photograph. Reading your list makes me think even more.
    As far as my creative process goes (textile art and writing basically) the one thing I cannot tolerate is chaos. I wish I could but all has to be tidy before I begin and has to stay tidy as I continue otherwise I am preoccupied. I see this as a great fault in myself really.
    Jolly interesting read though.

  9. To Grizz,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and generous comments. On the surface, there does appear to be a conflict of sorts between Nos. 3 and 5. In a larger context, however, I think that what Diebenkorn is saying is that we should always be searching, notwithstanding our discoveries along the way. When we "fall in love" with "the subject" "the pretty initial position," or the "initial, fresh qualities," we often lose sight of our larger purpose. I have found that to be true in both art and life.

    I think you nailed it when, in your discussion of Diebenkorn's seventh point, you stated that it's "all too easy to become comfortable at an adequate level—not at the outer boundaries of the talent gift . . ." That's human nature, I suspect, and we all have a problem getting beyond our comfort zone. As you have stated, however, resting on our laurels can be a mistake because we are called "to dip deeper into the well."

    Thanks again for your observations and comments.

  10. To Pat,

    Thanks for the interesting comments, Pat. With respect to chaos versus order, every artist must choose a working method that best serves his or her creative process. In the final analysis, all good art must have both order and variety, order to subdue the chaos and variety as an antidote to the boredom of order. Some artists begin the creative process with order (plans, sketches, details, etc.) and then make a shift to the right hemisphere of the brain to add a little chaos for variety and interest. Other artists, including me, feel more comfortable beginning the creative process with the right hemisphere, which is blessedly free of preconception. The initial results, of course, are chaos, but one can bring order to chaos just as easily as one can bring chaos and interest to order.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  11. #4, yes.. love #1... and for sure Chaos always oversees...

    The farther and more often we delve the more we realize there is always going to be so much more...

    ...things usually start out orderly but soon go into confusion (the puzzling stage, or how am I going to make this say or be what I want it to)... it's the fun part.. when you just can't leave it alone... time melts away and puts you in the zone...
    I also believe the creative experience we gain in one field is easily transferable to almost all other fields.. everything relates in one way or another... it's the approach... we have to look through it.. past it or farther into it... ignore some things.. try other things... change it... see what happens .. look at the work of others.. does it spur on more ideas.. put your ideas together or just take what you need ..

    sometimes I make myself pick a subject that I would normally never go near... the challenge of it gives confidence in trying so much more.. you begin to see possible approaches or solutions to almost everything, everywhere ... and hopefully that urge in us all can make the world or workings of it a whole lot better...

    this whole post, George, make the neurons tingle!!! Thank you, such fun!!

  12. To Gwen,

    Thanks for the spontaneous, heart-felt comments, Gwen. Two things you say really resonate with me — first, that the creative experience we gain in one field is easily transferable to other pursuits; and, second, that the creativity muscle is strengthened when we dare to attempt things we have never done before. These are insightful comments that are much appreciated.

  13. Awesome post, George! I am fascinated by the creative process. The advice is all excellent, but I especially love numbers 1,2,3,6 and 9. I'm not an artist, but all of this applies to my life as a poet and writer. Yes, it also applies to life in general. You are so right!

    My creative process is all chaos, until the end result. It's close to madness (in a good way, if that makes any sense). When I was younger, it worried me. I was afraid of going over that edge. Now I embrace the chaos. Instead of fighting against it, I try to flow with it to see where it will take me.

    #2 is also great advice for a poet or writer. Poets too often fall in love with the first drafts when the idea and words are exciting and fresh. The real craft comes with sweat. Yes, the soul is involved, but in order to communicate that soul meaning to other people, the sweat is essential. Otherwise, it's just a journal entry or talking to the self.

    #6 is also important. It saddens me when a friend with potential to write great words tells me "the words won't come." That is bull. It is also lazy. I don't believe in writer's block. There is no such thing. Sometimes there are lulls. Sometimes, we don't like the words that come. If we stop at that point, we become stunted and stagnant. If we keep pushing, we rise past the mire.

    You always inspire me, George. I could go on and on! Thank you for sharing Diebenkorn's beautiful art and words. This is another excellent and stimulating post.

  14. To Julie,

    Thanks you for the generous and thoughtful comments. I believe that Diebenkorn's advice applies to anyone involved in the creative process, writing no less than painting. I also believe that Diebenkorn has given us a hint that what works well in art also works well in life.

    Like you, I prefer to spend most of my creative process in that place where chaos often reigns, the right hemisphere of the brain. I make the shift to the left hemisphere only at the point at which I need to bring some order and discipline to what I have created.

    I agree entirely with your assessment of those who claim they would like to be creative, but who spend most of their time whining about lack of talent, lack of inspiration, or some other perceived obstacle. In my view, talent is vastly overrated. There are many so-called "talented" people who have never accomplished anything. I would prefer to cast my lot with those who are willing to make a commitment to their passions and to work fearlessly and relentlessly toward their fulfillment.

  15. Hi, George. As I was not familiar with this artist's "decalogue", I appreciate this post very much. All ten strike me as worth pondering and returning to. And I agree with yout that they can be guides to crafting a good life, not just good art. The ones that most resonate with me (on this reading, who knows on the next?) are the gentle command to "tolerate chaos" and the serendipity of the instruction to search, but for something other than what is being searched for. Perhaps I like them because they urge me to abandon my usual "default" approach of planning out my projects, big and small, and being methodical in their pursuit. I know that when I do practice these two commands, the results are always enriching, unexpected and exhilirating.

  16. To Lorenzo,

    Thanks, Lorenzo. I'm delighted that you found something in Diebenkorn's suggestions that resonates with you. We all have a "default" approach to our projects, and it's a constant challenge to break out of those patterns. When we do break out, however, the results often exceed our expectations.

  17. Hi George, This is an interesting list. # 10 makes me smile. The whole shebang reminds me of this quote: The dangers of life are infinite, & safety is among them. Goethe

  18. I've spent a long time reading through
    these guidelines and the following discussion, it is fascinating but my mind is foggier than normal today.
    I get frustrated and impatient when I can't see order. I need to accept chaos. Also for me there is something that rings true about cracking boredom and breaking through it. In life there is need for a basic structure but it leads to a boredom barrier that we need to break through.

  19. To Barb,

    Thanks, Barb. I love that Goethe quote and have been meaning to add it to my sidebar. Have a great day and be careful only in a perverse way.

  20. To Tramp,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tramp. I think a good life, like a good work of art, needs both order and variety. The order can be attained with a certain amount of structure, the bones around which a life is built. As you note, however, order and structure soon become boring if there is no contrast, no variety, no taking of risks. I find it useful to make a habit of always trying something I have never done before, not knowing in advance how I will react. Over a period of time, new experiences can completely reshape a life. As always, however, it's the sovereign right of every individual to decide what works or doesn't work for his or her life.

  21. Thank you for posting this glimpse into this important artist's approach.

    I would say that I would have to pay the most attention to #1. After twenty-plus years of working in a career that combined computers and finance, where certainty is richly rewarded, it is very difficult to stop seeking the security of certainty.

    I find #2 very interesting also because I’ve done it in practice, but I always felt guilty about it. I shall now release that guilt.

    Truly, each and every point is a great reminder that an open approach is essential in creating art.

  22. To Dutchbaby,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As a lawyer in my previous incarnation, I know all to well how one can get addicted to that need for certainty. Thankfully, retirement has allowed me to devote more time to the right hemisphere of my brain, which knows intuitively that the truly creative side of our lives can never be fully realized if we are fearful of uncertainty. Great art, I think, comes from what Keats called "negative capability," by which he meant the ability to press forward creatively through mystery, chaos, and uncertainty. I also think Goethe's quote, set forth above in the comments of Barb, is relevant: "The dangers of life are infinite, and safety is among them."