Notes to myself on beginning a painting - Richard Diebenkorn

Like many painters, I was eagerly anticipating the exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn's work, the first major show in the UK in 24 years, at the Royal Academy in London this spring. Described by the Washington Post as one of America's 'finest abstract painters', Diebenkorn's oversized paintings were little known in the UK, yet he has made a huge contribution to abstract art.

When I lived in California, I would marvel at his paintings in San Francisco's de Young Museum and SFMOMA, and was bowled over by the Diebenkorn in New Mexico exhibition at NYC in 2008 and the Orange County Museum of Art’s major exhibition of his Ocean Park Series in 2012.

Diebenkorn’s 'notes to myself on beginning a painting' were found among his papers after his death in 1993. They offer a remarkable insight into his artistic process and the rigor with which he approached his search for abstraction. 

For me, like many other painters, they also offer valuable guidelines on how to remain open to allowing your best work to emerge (“do search, but in order to find other than what is searched for”). He points to the need to swim in the discomfort of not knowing where you’re going (“tolerate chaos”); to avoid forcing an outcome (“don’t discover a subject - of any kind”); or succumbing to the temptation to shut down the creative process prematurely (“the pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued - except as a stimulus for further moves”). 

Taken as instructions for understanding the creative process in general, they could be applied to any creative endeavor - even life itself (“attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion”).  I love that one.

I keep these notes in my studio wall and refer to them when I get stuck. I know them so well now I can recite them as I look at a canvas unsure of where to turn next. Thank you, RD, for sharing your wisdom, a pathway out, and a legacy of truly great paintings. 

Notes to myself on beginning a painting - Richard Diebenkorn. 

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued - except as a stimulus for further moves. 
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for. 
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities of the paint but consider them absolutely expendable. 
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject - of any kind. 
  6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you forward from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.