The Blank Canvas: Inviting the Muse

The Blank Canvas: Inviting the Muse

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by Anna Held Audette

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Blank Canvas

offers solid advice for everyone who struggles with artist's block or other problems of creative expression, including: drawing subject matter from unexpected sources, mining one's daily visual responses for images, overcoming self-doubt and criticism, making choices when torn between several ideas, and getting started on


Blank Canvas

offers solid advice for everyone who struggles with artist's block or other problems of creative expression, including: drawing subject matter from unexpected sources, mining one's daily visual responses for images, overcoming self-doubt and criticism, making choices when torn between several ideas, and getting started on assignments.

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Seeing depends on knowledge

And knowledge, of course, on your college

But when you are erudite and wise

What matters is, to use your eyes.


Every art student will, at some point, be faced with a blank piece of paper, an empty canvas, or a lump of clay and must respond to the daunting question, "What shall I do?" Suddenly the teacher's supportive, descriptive pictorial assignments have stopped. There is no instructor to give the subject or framework of what must be done, leaving just the specifics to be filled in.

At first it seems as thought the longed-for moment has come when you are finally free to do your own work. How quickly the joy of this prospect turns into frustration and even despair as it becomes apparent that the index file in your vast imagination contains only a few cards with boring, worn-out ideas or,
worse yet, blanks. At the same time, limitless choices are overwhelming; it's impossible to know where to begin. Art teachers often say there is nothing more inhibiting than an empty canvas. This situation is not quite the same as writer's block, which is mostly caused by an overly critical internal editor.
Artists are also afflicted by their private censors, but if only the initial idea of direction could be found, the beastly critic within would make way for them to grow, a job that is largely hard work. How to deal with these moments
(which, by the way, may be recurrent) is the subject of this book.

It is written for beginning artists and art students when they start to realize that they must fly on their own but can't guess how to accomplish that miracle.
The ideas, suggestions, and conclusions contained here have come out of many years of college teaching. I've touched on the problems of choosing subject matter with virtually every student I've taught, sometimes briefly, sometimes in great depth and repeatedly. The visual consequences of our conversations have contributed in turn to my thinking about these questions.

In the end, all the discussions about how to develop ideas have revolved around the critical issue of what makes an artist, what accounts for special insights or personal visions. Yet if one approaches this question in such general terms, it becomes too enormous to deal with. This small volume will therefore be concerned with simple steps and concepts. While it will not provide you with specific answers, it will equip you to deal in a conscious way with some of the essential questions about how to get started on your own. I hope you will also find it supportive and encouraging.

Many professional writers have written extensively about the problem of getting started. This is only natural, given their chosen mode of expression. Artists cannot make images that explain the origins of their ideas, at least not in a didactic way. (Art historians may speak about the sources of an artist's work,
but the practical manner in which these sources led to an image, made perhaps hundreds of years ago under very different social and artistic conditions, may not be evident to a student today.)

Much of what I have to say is based on a representational approach to imagery because most students seem more comfortable initially with tangible rather than abstract forms. It's easier to talk about the qualities of an egg than about a hard, ovoid mass. As the verbal exchanges with my own students proceed along with their work, abstract concepts and images are likely to emerge, so from time to time I shall also mention abstract issues.

Wherever possible, I've tried to talk about ideas in terms of drawing because it's the medium shared by most artists. I've also attempted to make my examples widely representative, and so I regret that the individual artists referred to or quoted are preponderantly male painters. Those who are printmakers, sculptors,
or devoted to other art forms will, I hope, be able to adapt or translate these ideas into your own medium. Although contemporary art includes a great many new forms of expression, such as performance and installation art, I've intentionally limited my references to the traditional media taught in colleges and art schools.

In my references to artists, I've generally stayed with established masters simply because we cannot be certain whether the great lights in today's artistic firmament will turn out to be planets or shooting stars. I also realize that my readers' level of experience is variable, and therefore my comments will not always be equally appropriate to all. So here, too, I ask for your accommodation.

finally, at the risk of sounding too apologetic, I've intentionally erred on the side of simplicity in talking about a subject that is not quite so tidy or so amenable to explanation. I'm assuming that you need easy access to immediate help, and that is what I shall try to provide. Later on, if you wish, you can explore on your own the more complex aspects of deciding what to do.

"Knock on Silence"

have not worked at all . . . Nothing seems worth putting down—I seem to have nothing say—It appalls me but that is the way it is.


Just dash something down if you see a blank canvas staring at you with a certain imbecility. You do not know how paralyzing it is, that staring of a blank canvas which says to the painter: You don't know anything . . .

Van Gogh

. . and I thought, enough of this, I'm not an abstract painter, what the hell am I going to do? Should I get a job in a shoe store, sell real estate, or what? I was really depressed by the whole thing, because I felt like a painter,
yet I couldn't make paintings.


As the artists quoted above so vividly attest, discovering that you have no creative ideas is a devastating experience. It calls into question some fundamental issues about who you really are. Perhaps you are not the creative person you thought you were—after all, here's the terrible immutable evidence.
Maybe you're a fraud. Between your inability to make anything and your doubts about whether you've got "the right stuff," you're caught in a vicious circle.

there's no quick fix, no sure way to order up the flash of inspiration. What you can do, however, is create a set of circumstances that will increase the likelihood of its happening. They are, by and large, quite straightforward,
apparently hardly worthy of being parents to a moment of revelation. Yet if you think about it, you'll realize that the building foundations of even the most dynamic architecture are not very exciting. They make possible, but do not foretell, the imaginative structure to come. What follows are some discussions of (to put it another way) things you can do to load your creative dice.

would like to suggest that you read this book with a pencil in hand and make notes whenever a thought occurs to you. Your creative processes are possibly so elusive at this point that if you don't record your ideas at the very moment they happen, they may very well escape.

Meet the Author

Anna Held Audette is a painter, printmaker, and photographer with works in numerous collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery. She is Professor of Art at Southern Connecticut State University.

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The Blank Canvas 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This little book really helped me overcome the 'blank canvas' syndrome. Just meditating on the writing and following her suggestions really helped me break through and get my paint on the paper!