Paint Your Shirt


“Billie’s Bounce”
© 2019, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on Canvas


Over the years as an art student, an art history major, artist, and simply one interested in the lives and work of many artists, I’ve read a lot of books about art – technique, color theory, design principles, marketing. I’ve acquired some of the books and picked up others at one library or another.

But two of them, always within reach, mean most to me and neither have much to say about technique, color theory, design principles or how to sell a darned thing. Both have a lot more to say about exactly what their titles promise.

One is Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland, also subtitled An Artist’s Survival Guide.  The other is the now-classic 1923 book by Robert Henri, The Art Spirit. Even though Henri worked and wrote long before the heyday of abstract expressionism, his thoughts and advice resonate.

The message in both books is pretty simple and certainly similar:  Do your own work. Trust your work. Learn from others, but find your own path. Look around you at the larger world. Learn from that world. Study many things.  Live fully.  And bravely. Take risks.

The message to look around and study other things is a strong one for me.  I’m a poet, a jazz aficionado, and someone who finds meaning, for better or for worse, in almost every subject.  If you’ve read my posts here before, you’ll know that paintings in my current series are titled with the names of jazz tunes.  I’m not trying to paint the tune or the message in the lyrics (if there are lyrics) or represent it in any way.  I just like the names of the tunes and I like giving them fresh air in a different venue.

I also subscribe to a site that offers advice to jazz musicians learning to improvise.  And what, after all, is abstract expressionism but improvisation with paint?

In one recent post, the advice to a young musician stuck in technique and expectations was: “Play your shirt.”  Wha?  I offer similar advice to painters stuck in technique and expectations:  “Paint your shirt.”  Shake off what you should be doing, what others are doing and paint what comes.  Your work. It’s a great all-purpose line to shake us out of our doldrums and our “knowledge” about what’s “right” in our painting.  The rules of art, like most rules, are meant to be broken.

Think about it.  Who’s going to come by, look at your painting, and tell you “That’s not your shirt.”  And you’re not going to tell yourself, “My shirt isn’t like that.”  The little voices in our heads, the critics – who are, after all, usually pretty small, anyway – won’t know what to say if you paint your shirt.  And that’s a good thing!  I’d like to have a show to see what a dozen artists come up with when the only requirement is to Paint Your Shirt.

If you’re reading this and wondering “What the hell is she talking about?” let me give you a few other challenges.  Paint a line from Emily Dickinson.  Paint Time. Paint the sounds of making love. Paint the feeling you had when your youngest child went off to college. Paint hope. Paint loss.  Paint the melody of your favorite piece of classical music. Or any tune by Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Don’t bother looking at anyone else’s easel.  How they choose to do this exercise has nothing to do with you.  This is between you and your work.  Or as Bayles & Orland put it:

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly — without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.”

Paint your shirt.




2 thoughts on “Paint Your Shirt

  1. “…without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes.” YES! great post, Molly! Paint that shirt!

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