Intuitive Painting, part 2—Managing the Voices in Your Head

Managing the many voices of intuition

In the last post in this series, I outlined the three big questions we face when we want to paint more intuitively: 

If I don’t have a scene or photo to guide me, 

  • how do I begin?
  • how do I guide my creative decisions as I work?
  • how do I know when I’m done?

In that post, I suggested an exercise I called “pure” intutitive painting. In that exercise, you answer these questions at each step of the painting by simply listening for the tiny little voice of intuition inside you and acting on that impulse without looking for a rational explanation. 

Most people find that exercise a lot of fun at the beginning, and then more and more frustrating or difficult as you go along. If you found it difficult to use pure intuition to arrive at a finished painting, you’re not alone. The main point of that exercise is not to make a painting, but simply to practice focusing your attention on those internal impulses. But why is it so common to wind up feeling stuck or indecisive when painting purely intuitively (or sometimes even when you’re only making some small edits to a photo)? 

Why is it sometimes so hard to know what you want to do next?

What is the voice of intuition?

It sounds simple to simply keep listening for the little voice of intuition, but if you start paying close attention, you may discover the voice of intution not one pure, unerring inner voice.

For me, it’s not just a matter of getting past my inner critic; I have a whole chorus of internal voices vying for my attention. 

Here are some of the voices that I hear when I start listening for internal impulses about what to do next with a painting:

  • opinions and attitudes of various friends and family members
  • advice from teachers and mentors
  • guidance from books or videos about how this or that should be done in watercolor
  • notions about art and art-making absorbed from our wider culture
  • commercial considerations, if the art piece will be offered for sale or has been commissioned
  • memories of art I’ve seen and admired (or not)
  • my own past experience with things that worked well (or not) in other paintings
  • my personal preferences about what I like to look at
  • my personal preferences and pet peeves about what I like to do in my art-making
  • my hopes about how and what this piece of art will communicate
  • my feelings about the audience I’m making this piece of art for
  • my current physical, mental and emotional state: energy level, hunger/thirst, discomfort or pleasure, etc. 
  • my watercolorist’s “inner timekeeper” reminding me that everything is drying while I’m standing there pondering my next move

These voices don’t always agree. Some of them are happy to chime in all the time, even when their advice isn’t useful. I think some of them just like to argue. It’s no wonder we sometimes feel paralyzed with indecision when trying to paint “intuitively”! (Or maybe it’s just me.)

I’ve used the term “intuitive” painting because thats seems to be the common phrase for a painting process where (at least some) creative choices are made on the basis of internal impulses without necessarily seeking a rational explanation to justify each one. But which impulses? Which of these voices is the voice of intuition? Which of these voices do you want to listen to? 

There’s been a lot written on how to silence your inner critic, as if the only internal voice that creates problems is the one that sounds like the middle school lunchroom crowd from your nightmares. But I find it a lot more difficult to balance the many reasonable voices vying for my attention. 

Setting up guardrails to keep me on course

In the last post, I talked about creating structures or systems to guide intuitive painting. One type of structure I find helpful is a set of guardrails for myself about when and how much I will listen to these various voices. 

For me, it’s not always as simple as just banishing every voice that’s not mine. I’m not sure it’s even possible to know which of our attitudes and preferences are purely ours, but philosophy aside, there are practical reasons to give weight to other voices. If I’m painting something on commission, I definitely want to take into account the things I’ve agreed to do for the client, even if they wouldn’t be my first choice for an artwork to hang in my own home.

1 If I’m painting a postcard to cheer up a friend, I want to put more weight on their color preferences and favorite subject matter than my own. 

About now, you might be thinking, Well, duh, that’s just common sense! It didn’t require explaining. Good point. But that doesn’t stop me from losing sight of it when I get into the painting. 

Instead of (or in addition to) having the kind of plan where I lay out all the techniques I’ll use to paint this part or that part of the scene, in what order, I like to set up some explicit guidance for myself about which particular “little voices” I’m going to listen to most closely while I work on this painting. 

I think of this as creating guardrails to keep me from wandering off in the wrong direction when I get tired or distracted by all the things I have to juggle once the brush is moving. I think watercolorists have a particular challenge with losing sight of plans and intentions once the painting is underway: we don’t have the luxury of pondering each move as long as we’d like. Things are drying while we stand there pondering. 

What do these guardrails look like? Nothing complicated; usually just a few notes in my studio journal or on an index card. It seems pretty basic, but it makes a huge difference to me just to have taken a moment to write down a couple of sentences or phrases about which internal voices I am listening to most closely as I work on this painting. 

It’s tempting to think the reason I’m painting this painting is so obvious I don’t need to write it down. But I’ve learned that it’s really easy for me to start listening to the wrong voices once I’m in the process of painting. Especially as I get a little tired, or when I reach the “ick” stage.


If I don’t re-orient myself to the big picture, I have a tendency to continue after a break (even a short one!) with thoughts of “fixing” whatever was bugging me most at the end of the last work session. It takes less than a minute to write a few reminders to myself on an index card and glance at it before I start painting again. For me, it’s time well spent. 

Substitute purpose for destination

Okay, but how do you know which voices to listen to if you don’t know where the painting is going? One way is to think about why you’re painting this painting. 

If you don’t have a destination in the form of knowing how you want the painting to look, you can be guided instead by what purpose you want the painting to serve. Once you know that, you’ll usually be able to decide pretty easily which voices or internal impulses should have the most weight. 

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Some examples:

  • “focus on MY color preferences, ignore that negative reaction I got from X (this painting isn’t for their house!)” 
  • “client especially wants a sense of drama and picked more monochrome work as favorites; pay close attention to developing strong value contrasts”
  • “the main point is to create an energizing, cheerful painting for Z’s new kitchen; keep the focus on our shared love of citrus-y colors and flavors”
  • “this painting is for learning and exploration! I want to explore some different texture techniques to see which ones spark ideas for future paintings; be bold!”

Not a complete structure

This isn’t the only kind of structure I use to help guide me with intuitive painting, but it’s fairly easy to put into practice, and it really helps sometimes with feelings of indecision when I’m painting. If I’m not sure what to do with a painting, reminding myself of the “why” behind the painting can be a powerful tool for knowing what internal voices to consult.

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