Don’t Lick The Paint

Don't Lick The Paint-Nancy Hillis MD | Make each brushstroke count. Wield the power of constraint, just as Mozart did with musical compositions. To learn more, click through to watch the video.
Don’t Lick The Paint. Work with constraint. Make each brushstroke count.

I was in rapid fire communication with my editor Yolande McLean this morning.

I told her that I needed to read through the entire manuscript of my forthcoming book The Artist’s Journey again. This would be the zillionth time I’d pored over it since I began writing it eighteen months ago.

Yolande’s response was to mirror one of the things I’ve written about in the book:

Don’t lick the paint

Years ago, when I was painting impressionistic oil landscapes in Palo Alto, California, my teacher Jim Smyth advised me to not lick the paint.

Jim, who draws and paints like an Old Master, knows that the magic happens when you stay intuitive- when you express immediate and raw work rather than overthinking and second guessing your painting.

The same holds true for writing.I’ve been working with a masterful writing coach, a fiction writer in Edinburgh, Scotland named Ramy Vance. Ramy encourages me to write daily for two hours without editing. He insists that the most wondrous work emerges not from thinking but from allowing the imagination to roam freely.

The best writing, just like the best abstract painting, comes from your intuition. It comes from letting go. It comes from allowing the brilliance of your unconscious express itself. It comes from stepping into the ineffable, the place of not knowing.

The most wondrous art does not come from following a recipe, rules or strategy for creating a “successful” painting- nor does it come from trying too hard

The world does not need formulaic, predictable art.

The world needs art that is fresh and surprising, art that reflects YOU- as you dig down deep and express your most audacious, outrageous truth.

So what do we mean by licking the paint?

A good analogy is that of a house painter. Licking the paint is painting as if you’re painting the wall of your bedroom. When you paint your bedroom wall, you generally want to create a smooth, unified surface unless you’re texturing it. You’ll probably use a roller brush to apply the paint. You don’t want any bubbles or bumps because you want it to look perfect- perfect for a bedroom wall at least.

As artists, licking the paint is when you go over and over your painting, as if adding more brushstrokes will somehow transform your work.

This reminds me of the Mozart character in the movie Amadeus. When asked about the rival composer Salieri’s music, Mozart replied: “Too many notes”.

The problem with too many brushstrokes is that you end up with a mushy, ambivalent, overworked and overwrought painting.

So what’s the solution to this dilemma?

This is where constraint comes in.

Not licking the paint is about employing constraint in your painting. It’s about working intuitively. It’s about making each brushstroke count. It’s about laying down a mark or a shape and leaving it alone.

Lay it down and leave it alone

There’s a freshness, rawness and immediacy to minimal brushstrokes.

It takes an attitude of allowing as well as trusting yourself to lay down a brushstroke or mark and then leave it alone.

I challenge you to try this in your work.

There are two exercises that I find particularly helpful in playing with the concept of Don’t Lick The Paint.

  • Creating many starts
  • Six Maquette Exercise

Creating many starts

In this exercise, you simply create many painting starts (5–20 or more on separate sheets of paper) by activating the canvas with stream of consciousness mark making.

Activate the surface and then move onto the next one. Create from a place of intuition. No editing.

If you’ve never tried creating painting starts before, you might register for my free Video workshop and learn about it HERE.

Six Maquette Exercise

This is an exercise I developed based on a lesson my wonderful sculpture teacher, Adrienne Duncan, taught me for creating little studies with clay maquettes. I extrapolated this into a lesson in abstract painting. We explore this more deeply in The Artist’s Journey course but here’s the basic exercise:

  • Take a piece of paper
  • Mark off 6 squares or rectangles
  • In each area, make 6 moves or marks
  • Be decisive, no editing
  • Make a mark and leave it alone

Some of the most astonishing work comes from the creative impulse that resides in your body waiting for you to release it.

The world is waiting for you to express YOU in your art.

In gratitude from my studio to yours,


P.S. Scroll down and leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on this concept of not licking the paint. I’d love to hear from you.

Originally published at Nancy Hillis.