Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 13, 2010

Stuff d’Artiste

You’ve seen those images. The Artist in the Studio: Jackson Pollock flinging paint out of a big gallon can with a housepainting brush, while all around him are canvases stacked against the walls; Picasso staring insouciantly (or name some other vague French adjective) into the camera amidst the clutter of his warehouse of a studio. Yes, you think, that’s the artist’s life: entering that world that consists of jars full of brushes, stacks of canvases, boxes of paints close at hand — I could create something there, if I weren’t tied to this computer or fixing meals or paying bills every day. One can also visit some famous studios that have been preserved and get an even closer look: Pollack’s house on Long Island is still there, or you can see Matisse’s last studio in Nice or Giorgio Morandi’s tiny world-within-a-world in Bologna. What we amateurs know for certain is that one big reason artists can do great art is that they have those rooms full of brushes and paints and, well, indescribably creative STUFF all around them. One pictures oneself wandering into one’s atelier after a cup of espresso and a cornetto, gazing around, reaching out one’s hand and… oh, so … here’s an impasto knife I’ve grabbed hold of. Well, then, I’ll just start smearing big whorls of paint onto this canvas here and create yet another MASTERPIECE!

I get that feeling, but never in a gallery or a museum. I have stood in some of the great art collections of the world, looking at the absolute thing that was painted by Manet or Cezanne or, my god, DaVinci or Giotto, and have only been able to gape open-mouthed that they could do that. It would never occur to me to try it, because I don’t have the first skill — drawing — let alone the layers and layers of adjunct technique and knowledge and endless discipline and practice to accomplished anything like art.

And, yet, put me in an art supply store, and leave me to wander among the shelves of brushes, paints, papers, clay, canvases, pencil, markers, pastels, exotic media like stand oil and special dyes for fabrics and other materials, not to mention the amazing doo-dads that I don’t even know what they’re for (does that make them don’t-dads?) and I start thinking, MAN, I’m gonna load up a basket o’ this stuff and make something! Somehow, I know that I’ll dump all this stuff out on a table in my atelier (as soon as I get one a’ those) and, buddy, just STAND BACK!

I have the opportunity to wander around these places while The Counselor is spending half an hour deciding on whether to get a new filbert brush or to just stick with the one she has and buy another fan brush for dry-brush technique. All that art stuff just grabs me. Big rack of pastels? My fingers itch to get a couple of dozen of those greasy little sticks and start mixing up maybe an evocative scene of the New Mexican high desert at sunrise. Sculpting clay? Absolutely. Take a big hunk o’ that stuff and carve out, well, I don’t know what, but it’ll be great. And pencils. I’ve held a lot of pencils in my time. In 6th or 7th grade or so, I could draw some pretty darned compelling scenes of cavemen fighting dinosaurs. Also, inspired by “Sea Hunt,” incredible scenes of carnage involving divers fighting each other while giant sharks hovered nearby. Even the smallest of art stores has maybe a thousand different pencils of varying hardnesses, colors, thicknesses and … I just know I could really do something great with those pencils (and the associated sharpeners, erasers; they even have electric erasers for those really BIG jobs. Honestly, once one knows they exist, how can one do without one of THOSE?).

Always, though, reality does take hold. Not only have I not practiced any drawing, I know from watching The Counselor that I can’t even hold a pencil correctly. Scuplting clay? I like the idea of slicing through a big block o’ clay with one of those wire thingies but… what would I make? Ashtrays are definitely not in demand these days, unless they have a groovy logo or something. Besides, as I read the details on the clay package, I realize I don’t know anything about which clay needs to air dry or oven dry or kiln-dry (and The Counselor might wonder about the delivery of a big gas-fired kiln to Rancho Retro — Hey, look what I bought!).

The same thing happens to other people wandering around Guitar Center or Sam Ash. Just buy up a mess o’ guitars and amplifiers and special effects, never minding that you can’t tell a flat from a sharp. It’s just such NEAT STUFF. (I previously wrote about the common guitar-collecting ailment and its aftermath HERE.) Sure, I’m a total hack and I can barely form three chords, but if I had that groovy BC Rich electric guitar with the totally bitchin’ angles, I’d be the next Yngwie Malmsteen! It happens, also, god help us, in the golf equipment stores. Your drive always slices off to the right? New driver! Your fairway shots always flail into the trees? New fairway wood. Your putting stinks? NEW PUTTER! There are three shifts working overtime at Callaway and all the other golf companies, turning out products that will prepare you to compete.

But, really, the art store is something different. It’s a category unto itself. Perhaps some of you can wander into that music store or golf store or even the tool section of Home Depot and imagine yourself doing things that you’re in no way prepared to do. I doubt it. At least you know how to hold a hammer, or how to swing a golf club. And though you’ve watched “This Old House” on TV or seen the professional golfers, you must KNOW that there’s a gulf that separates you from greatness. So, why do I stand in front of the sculpting clay and … yearn? It’s a kind of romanticism, I suppose.

It’s not mere consumerism. I don’t want to fill up my closet with fancy shoes or nifty shirts or load the house up with expensive furniture or knickknacks. When I’m standing in front of the calligraphy brushes and ink, I SEE myself bending over the broad sheet of paper and deftly limning some esoteric cursive character. I don’t want the brush, I want to DO that. Of course, I know not the first thing about calligraphy, its techniques, equipment, or even, ultimately why one would do it.

I did make a purchase on the latest trip. I bought a pen. Three bucks.

My new pen

My new pen

It’s a really cool gel version of the Uni-Ball pen I’ve been using day-to-day for about a year now, my latest fave (I wrote about my history of writing instruments HERE). Three bucks. Maybe I’ll write something great.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Brad, you have what every artist has: feeling, emotion, desire, whatever you want to call it – to do something tactile with materials and to create with them. That’s always the first thing that motivates me before I start a new painting. I just “get an itch,” and it won’t go away til I do something about it.

    Technique is really secondary, so don’t get caught up in “paralysis by analysis.” I wanted to draw and paint (and did so) decades before I ever went to art school. So don’t fret about not having a studio art education. Hey, just go for it! Start creating! I’d take imagination over perfect technique any day.

    BTW, I really enjoyed this article. Made ME imagine I was in a Paris atelier, too. Bon chance!


  2. but bard! you paint such great word paintings, is that not enough? i do know what you mean, same thing happens to me, except no way am i going into a golf shop, i have a couple of them shirts already, in an art supply, hardware, or musical instrument store, and i know 5 chords! (still in search of that lost one though)


    • No, not enough for a Renaissance Man! Art, Literature, Multimedia, Sports. He does it all. And he want more, more, more!!!


  3. I was cogitating a bit more on your trip to the art supplyl store. It occurred to me that, as you already are blessed with a creative instinct and capability in letters and music, this certainly can carry over into the plastic arts.

    If you want to express yourself by painting, you don’t have to be a superior draftsman. That skill is appropriate for renaissance and photo-realism artists. However, precision in drawing began to lose favor, and thus erode, in the early 1800’s, as artists found more interest in expressing themselves through the texture of paint, and/or by a preference for color over form.

    For me, color has an emotion-inducing quality. So, I prefer looking at, and doing, paintings in that realm, over those that exhibit highly-skilled drafting techniques (which while I admire them, they don’t necessarily move me). Think: e.g., Van Gogh, Gauguin. What color! What expression! What emotion! You can see the artist in his paintings.

    So, as you seem to be “drawn” to the tactile quality of art, why not go for something with color and/or texture that moves you?

    You could be an Abstract Expressionist like Pollock, or a Color Field Painter like Rothko or Ellsworth Kelly. They preferred the conceptual over the representational.

    Or, you could go for blend, like Georges Braque, who melded a suggestion of reality with the imaginary. Now, THAT was an interesting combination. He was never known for great draftsmanship; but he was a major innovator in the history of 20th C. art. OK, get busy!


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