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How “No” is Good Art Making


I’ve discovered that in parts of Europe, Italy and France in particular “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer. The French make our  “yes” ridden society look compulsive. One of the first things I learned in business was to never say “no.” Your actions may say it, but you can’t really say it out loud. The French say it constantly and don’t miss a beat in their conversation. No flinching or falling over dead in serious offense. “No” is as natural as mulling over baskets at the Saturday market for basil. But in America (except maybe NYC) the word “no” is a very unpopular word, like menopause or bankruptcy.

A thousand “no’s” go into deliberate creation. Not just of art but just about any really juicy decision.

I recently had my creation plan explode into a heap of dust. I watched my weeks of “yes’s” go through a humiliating turn. A picture book for adults I wrote in December was set for illustration in April, May, June and to publish in the fall. I had all my supplies in and set up. I was excited as I brainstormed with excellent illustrator friend’s I knew. The book is about a coffee going hillbilly who, now turned out on her own wants desperately to be a tea going London socialite. A main ingredient of the illustrations was to be Peet’s Garuda — coffee stained bliss. I couldn’t wait.

My first two illustrations were crap. And then my rabbit got very ill (deathly) and required 3 hours of intensive care daily for 4 weeks, (now turning into slow progress and more weeks ahead). I had this blank sketchbook from the Brooklyn Art Library on the table I had planned to skip in favor of the hillbilly picture book. But my brain was applesauce and my heart was sideways, skewered and mulched about the possibility of losing my rabbit. So I said “no” to the illustrated book I’d planned all winter and instead painted any ol thing that came to my head to take.

What came out of it was several good things:

I finished the project — now mailed to the Brooklyn Art Library for one of the illustrations to go into their Limited Edition book available to the public for purchase. The painting of “whatever” was hugely relaxing — a glass of wine, some flamenco music, my rabbit wrapped up in warm towels (his body temp was dangerously low) and paint, paint, paint. A curative dose of “now therapy.” And I got some much needed illustration practice for the hillbilly book. All I lost was time. And the opportunity for another “no” — to re-shuffle the design of deadlines and priorities.

Now all of this might sound obvious to you. A thousand “no’s” per week get made as we mitigate our lives juxtaposed and balanced by our values, the needs of others and ourselves. But I’ve often “stuck to the plan” creating a predictable outline of time, limiting fluidity and clamping down on other needs I didn’t know I had — like painting practice to the make the book (when I get to it) that much more dynamic.

Instead of automatically saying “yes” — I’m considering the power of “no” going forward as an ingredient for any given project. If nothing else it might change the chemistry of the dance, widen the circle of possibilities and make that glass of wine taste that much better.


— The image in this post is from CLOUD BOOK that is now the property of the Brooklyn Art Library. The rest of the illustrated book is here.

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