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Painting America: A Meditation on the Creative Process

Barn-Emerging-From-Oklahoma-Prairieby Arthur H. Gunther III
It may sound obvious, but each person’s creative process is suited to that individual’s sensibilities. There’s no right way to create. Personally, when I write a column, I may have an idea on the spot, or it may gestate in my brain for ages, but I always try not to think out the piece until the moment when I put pen to paper–or fingers to keyboard. Otherwise, the creative moment will have been lost.
Painting is the same for me. When I paint, I don’t think rigorously about the details before the act; I only have a vague notion of the basic concept. I may think color, line, form, but I don’t make the piece in my head, for, again, the creativity will have been spent; what follows will be a photocopy. The process is like dipping into a stream of running thought, grabbing this or that word, this or that color, and building the piece.
I mention the process because of a painting I finished recently, “Barn Emerging from Oklahoma Prairie.” The piece began on a 24×24 plywood sheet as a red field. I then had an image in mind of a working barn, perhaps for horses, perhaps similar to the one behind my parents’ rented house in Tallman, N.Y., from back in 1949. My brother and I would run off after supper and look at the horses, chickens, and ducks, pretending that the big field next to the barn was the Wild West and that we were cowboys.
Images exist is in our heads forever and inform our daily life.
But back to the painting: With a barn image and a red field in mind, I began to add the colors I wanted, taking them straight from the tubes, mixing others until a mood developed and a story began. I left the painting untouched for a time (which I rarely do when I write), and then returned to it; the process repeated, and the painting became layered with colors, or chapters you might say.
Eventually, I was finished, and I realized I had painted—“written”—the story of an empty barn from the Oklahoma dust bowl of the Great Depression. I can see the Okies’ anger in it, their resentment; but I notice their pride too,  in the land, in that fine building, in the color of the prairie. Perhaps such a barn is still there, even now, decades beyond the Depression, after so many battles and recessions.
When I thought about it this way, the painting unlocked my internal optimism. It makes me think that there will always be a barn to come home to, that the world is more good than bad. Maybe it’s just the world I’ve created.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at

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