Notes to myself: Diebenkorn’s 10 rules for painting

Published 13 March 2015

Sometime in his later career, Diebenkorn wrote down ten points of artistic intention. Sharing them here, we also begin a new series of notes, asking artists to share their own creative wisdom.

  • For Richard Diebenkorn, each painting was a search for what he called “rightness.” Revered as one of the great post-war masters in his native United States, Diebenkorn moved from abstraction to figuration and back again, often disregarding the popular styles and trends happening around him, in order to solve complex, self-imposed compositional problems in his paintings.

    Probably sometime during his later, second phase of abstraction, Diebenkorn made the following list for himself – titled Notes to myself on beginning a painting. As the art historian John Elderfield said when he first published them in 1997, these “studio notes”, as Diebenkorn called them, are not so much rules as statements of “artistic intention.” Presumably, they were reminders to himself to observe in his studio, though we know that Diebenkorn did also share them with authors in his lifetime.

    While of course today these notes help us further understand and appreciate Diebenkorn’s work, they may also be useful for today’s artists. Whether they are directly relevant to another practise or not, a master’s own notes on approaching that enduring challenge – how to start making art – may well prove a valuable source of inspiration.

  • "Notes to myself on beginning a painting" by 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.


    4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities 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 from your present position.


    8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.


    9. Tolerate chaos.


    10. Be careful only in a perverse way.



    Inspired by Diebenkorn’s notes, today we launch a social media series encouraging artists to share the creative wisdom they have found. Asking them to reveal their own feelings on what it is to be an artist, and to share advice and encouragement to anyone beginning a creative project, we’ll be sharing #CreativeWisdom on Twitter – and we hope you’ll add your own. Follow @royalacademy and tweet using #CreativeWisdom.

    Richard Diebenkorn is in The Sackler Wing at the RA from 14 March — 7 June 2015.

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