Should a Painter or Writer Plan the Work?

Let me tell you about a problem I had:  I started to write a prescriptive how-to book for serious creatives interested in becoming skilled craftsmen in their art. It was to be titled A Book for Creative Writers and Painters in Training. But wouldn’t you know it, right away I was in a container of pens, pencils, and highlighters in front of a computer keyboardfix. I was writing what should be an easy section on planning what you are about to write or paint. Now planning is something I know a lot about. For years I was a trainer for a consulting company I founded. I trained thousands of people to use the best techniques of planning so they might effectively plan whatever business or career project they had in mind.

But I couldn’t go on when I realized that it would have been hypocritical of me to tell writers or painters how best to plan an artistic work when I had an epiphany, a realization which was that I never–never–plan  a written work.  I then asked myself a question: “Why don’t you plan texts?” and found myself answering “Because I consider planning unnecessary at least for me and writers and painters like me, of whom I’ll bet there are an astounding number.” It’s not that non-planning is superior to planning or planning superior to non-planning. They just suit people who create differently.

The Habit of Planning

Even as children girls and boys who will become writers and painters when they grow up have been told and taught by teachers to plan the work before they begin to execute it.  They are taught that in grade school, and in graduate school professors or experienced visiting artists and writers stipulate that every work should have a plan. Planning becomes a habit that isn’t questioned because “everyone knows you have to have a plan before you begin. How else will you know how to proceed?”

When these now adults feel that urge that stirs a person to create a work they immediately tell their mind to start concocting a plan that will guide them in making the idea for the work or the painting’s main emotion into a tangible reality, as a finished landscape or a finished novel, for example.  A novelist submitting a book proposal to a publisher must include a plan that the publisher will scrutinize and refer to to judge the potential of the book.

Having made a plan that the creative has thoroughly thought out, the writer or painter can tell anyone who asks what they are trying to accomplish in the work because the plan’s goals and sub-goals and the book’s or painting’s features are precise. Some writer’s working plans are so detailed that they are hundreds of pages long, and some painters make abundant pre-painting sketches and work-ups.

Road extending to the distance with the word start at the beginningSome creatives meticulously plan and think the work to be produced through to the last detail. But some non-planner creatives begin to paint or write without a subject in mind, preferring to permit the work to grow organically and emerge. Some writers, like me, begin without any conscious concept of how to proceed other than, at best, a notion not at all well-developed of what the work should probably be about.

For example, it seemed to me that a “How-to-live” book containing the knowledge, spiritual insights, and wisdom of the Japanese samurai I had acquired could be helpful in many practical ways to people now living everyday lives if it were adapted and written properly. I wrote a brief six -page proposal, it was accepted, I wrote the book successfully without a plan, and from its revenues I bought a house.

Like the speaker in the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, non-planners “learn by going where [they] have to go.” They start not knowing yet what they will create, waiting for an inspiration to guide them.  Writers will write something and then react to what is written, and then without a plan a work begins to take shape little by little. They write a book this way. Non-planning painters work the same way–each brush stroke an experiment.

hand of a child painting vibrant colors Non-planning Virginia Woolf said that her idea for Mrs. Dalloway started without any conscious direction. She thought of making a plan but soon abandoned the idea. She said, “The Book grew day by day, by week, without any plan at all, except that which was dictated each morning in the act of writing.” Had someone asked her what exactly she was trying to accomplish other than to follow a woman throughout a day she would have replied, “I’m not sure.” The planner- writers are sure of where they are going. Their plan tells them.


The research cited in David W. Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creation sheds light on the question this post asks: should a painter or writer plan a work? The answer is that not everyone profits from planning the work because given the methods of creativity of some artists and writers planning a text or a painting is superfluous.

Mona Lisa paintingThe more spontaneous process which non-planning creatives like greats Woolf and Mark Twain (possibly America’s greatest writer) and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci use to complete a work is contrary to the rational goal-setting, plan-making processes.  Following a plan inhibits certain creatives for whom a more spontaneous approach results in better work.

If a writer for whom planning the work is contrary to the way they think and create is forced to develop a plan, doing so will be difficult and stressful because doing so is unnatural to someone for whom planning a painting or a text is unimportant. Such people are dying to omit planning and to get to the keyboard or the easel and create the way they do best, relying on repeated inspirations to guide them to the right words and pigments as they experiment with this sentence or brush stroke, and that until they are satisfied that they have done the best they could, and the work finished.  With regard to a plan before starting the execution of the work they think: how can I possibly plan the death scene, for example, when I don’t know at the moment what my mood and state of mind will be when I reach that section a year from now?

Often in the act of executing the work the non-planning writer or painter realizes that the plan that seemed perfect as they imagined the work will simply and emphatically not do the job. I’ve had that experience with every book I’ve written. I ignored the plans and proceeded in what Galenson would call an “Experimentalist’s” manner. A plan sometimes has to be done because that’s what teachers and publishers want and “grade” you on, but no plan will ever satisfy a writer or painter whose methods of creating works make detailed plans unnecessary.

Planners and Non-planners

colorful abstract paintingGalenson describes two significantly different types of artists. The “everything must be planned” artists are called Conceptualizers: they must have a full-blown concept of the work they wish to create in all its detail before they begin writing or painting the work. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Herman Melville, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were Conceptual writers. Pablo Picasso was a Conceptual painter. Conceptualizers state their carefully- wrought goals for a particular work precisely before the work’s production. For their paintings conceptualizers like Georges Seurat (the best example of a painter who planned)–a very cerebral painter) make many detailed preparatory sketches that may be so detailed and finished that they are works of art in themselves. While painting, they closely follow a preconceived image they hold clearly in mind.

The other type of writer or painter Galenson calls” Experimentalists”–each new idea they set about to write is an experiment. Experimentalists such as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Twain, and Woolf, and painter Paul Cezanne have a totally different approach.  They allow the work–a novel’s plot, for example–to take shape as if it were growing organically on its own because they believe that creating should be a process of discovery.

The extreme Conceptual painter “is one who makes extensive preparations in order to arrive at a precisely formulated desired image before beginning the execution of the final work.” In contrast extreme Experimentalists “make no decisions for a painting before beginning to create what will become the final work” except to have needed materials and a space to work, etc.

watercolor landscape with mountains in blues and purplesOnce Conceptualizers find the crucial problem they advance slowly with a plan, but Experimentalists move fast without a plan. Experimentalist’s goals are imprecise. They have ideas about what the work will be like when it is finished, but are unclear about everything else until the piece is written, the painting mounted on a wall. That imprecision is how Experimentalists like to work, but it creates problems. Not clear as to what they want the final work to look like, they have trouble finishing works.

Because they have trouble finishing a work many Experimentalists often return even after many years to finish works they earlier abandoned. They “hang on” to works rather than being done with them. They have difficulty deciding when the work should be presented to the public in the form of a painting that is for sale, or a book that is ready to be offered to a publisher. It is said that Experimentalists Michelangelo and Da Vinci never really finished a single work. Mark Twain was very slow in producing works and labored over his books’ endings. His endings are never satisfying.

One of Da Vinci’s greatest contributions was his rebellion against the rigid procedures of traditional artists’ training that emphasized the use of careful preparatory studies, advocating in its place methods that allowed artists the freedom to develop their own ideas as they worked.

Which Bloom Early and Which Bloom Late?

orange and yellow tulips with green stems and leavesConceptualizers tend to bloom early, often with a striking new style or innovation or great success at the start of their career. They mature quickly, starting very early, not gradually through years of trial and error as Experimentalist painters like Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet did, but rapidly.  A young Ernest Hemingway’s innovative writing style quickly revolutionized writing throughout the world.  At twenty-six he took over as “the big man” in American literature.

A problem for Conceptualizers is that they may be captive to their early success and develop fixed habits of thought and become too committed to a single way of approaching artistic problems.  They become stuck.  Experimentalists experiment, writing works that are not all the same.  Another problem of Conceptualizers is that like F. Scott Fitzgerald, so mournful in his last auto-biographical short stories, many Conceptualizers spend their last years wondering where their talent has gone.

Experimenters tend to bloom late. As in the case of Impressionist Monet, their skills are not full blown at the beginning of their career as is often the case with Conceptualizers, but develop slowly over the course of a career spanning sometimes decades: they get better and better as time passes.

Is One Method Better than the Other?

It may be thought that non-planners are not as well-organized as planners and may produce disorganized works, but that not true. They organize as they go. Throughout history, both methods have produced superb works.


© 2021 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artists, Creativity, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Experimentalists and Conceptualists, Planning Artworks, Writers

19 responses to “Should a Painter or Writer Plan the Work?

  1. Interesting post. Everyone certainly has their process that works best for them.


  2. This is a curious topic indeed, and one I have always been interested in. As a pantser, I’ve written myself into corners so many times that I’ve begun planning for my latest novel, but I’ve found myself blending the two together by having setting, characters, and motivations in place, but leaving the story open. Anyway, thanks for such a great look into the topic!


  3. I.V. Greco

    Interesting piece. I find I don’t need to plan but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t have deadlines. Unless one considers internal thoughts and thinking about what one will create as planning, then that is about as much planning as I do. But once I sit down to write or paint the work develops quickly. But that is the way I go about creativity. I agree that everyone should approach their work in their own way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. With regard to planning or not, I work the same way as you do.

      I think that when a writer composes without a plan, the necessary qualities that makes success possible are alertness, intelligence, mental flexibility, and a prodigious memory.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a very interesting topic for me. I consider myself to be a spontaneous painter – a direct painter – and yet because I have had to make my own living over many years – I have also learned to plan.

    For example, during the middle of my career for about 15 to 20 years I made my money painting large corporate murals on both sides of the Atlantic.. Hospitals, hotels, banks, etc….good money but a very different way of working. By the way it was the money from these murals that gave me the freedom to paint what I wanted to paint.

    I worked through an agent for thirty years who sadly died two years ago. She would get the job and then choose three artists from her stable to make initial sketches/workups. This meant researching the subject…i.e. in one case when I did all the paintings for the new Cardiff Bay Hotel in Wales – I had to research the tea clippers that came into Cardiff and Swansea at the turn of the 20th century.
    Once the initial sketches had been approved by the board of directors I then was put to work. At this point I was given a one third down payment….the second third to be paid half way through…and the final payment when paintings were installed. All of this took a lot of planning and although the paintings were large free form (no grids) paintings….it was all planned to the last drop.

    Is it any wonder that I love to. paint such spontaneous watercolours?:)

    Naturally I am a spontaneous thinker but I also write down my thoughts and when glimpses of ideas present themselves I immediately put them down. Which is not to say I follow those thoughts or ideas completely, but they for me are an integral part of creative thinking….and sometimes the most complex thoughts can result in what appears to be very spontaneous work.

    As you can see you got me thinking about this:)

    Thank you for getting my grey matter working my friend. Hope you are enjoying a beautiful autumn. Janet 🙂


    • Janet, It’s so good to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your views and experiences on the types of planning of works you’ve done in your career. Yes, I imagine that working on projects with other artists demanded detailed plans. I only once co-authored a book with other writers, and that did require more planning than I was used to. I can imagine how free you’ve felt being able now to approach works in any way your trained judgment tells you is best.

      I couldn’t write this response without commenting once again on how clear your writing is. Clear writing and clear thinking go together. You can’t have one without the other, and a quality written work needs both. You demonstrate that all the time. Your clarity is always so impressive.

      It must be clear that from the beginning I’ve always felt that the one quality writing must possess if it is to be any good is clarity of thought, clarity of expression. When I had a management consulting business my hiring practices were not typical of the field. I didn’t hire people who had majored in business or finance. I hired English majors because English majors are trained to think and write in clear, organized ways, and they were quick learners who could pick up business disciplines quickly.

      I just love the thought of your researching tea clippers–I can picture them.

      Thank you for your comment, and as always, best wishes. Temperatures here are dropping by the day. That means that that season of the year no one in the Midwest wants to talk about is slowly approaching–Brrrrr


      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you David for such a lovely compliment – ‘clarity of thought and expression’. Much appreciated.

        We are experiencing an Indian summer…and so today it will reach 70 degrees….however, it is supposed to get cool next week. I am looking forward to that.
        I know what your winters are like and so can imagine you and other anticipating the extreme cold and wind!!
        For now enjoy the autumn – Janet:)


        • Janet, I must tell you that Diana is wearing a Janet Weight Reed humminbird necklace today. She and it look great. You’re right. We should appreciate autumn now and worry about the winter later. October has always been my favorite month. It’s my birthday month. At the end of the month, after Indian Summer, the leaves on the trees will be gold and scarlet and beautiful. I hope you are enjoying your weekend. We are enjoying ours. My son Evan is coming over with his family today.

          Liked by 1 person

        • How lovely to think of Diana wearing one of my hummingbird necklaces – that makes me very happy:). There have been quite a few hummingbird happenings of late. They are weaving their magic. I love the autumn although it continues to be unseasonably warm here…I would prefer it if cooled a little. The leaves are beginning to turn, but it’s not quite as spectacular as Fall in the States. Happy Birthday David…I hope you enjoy a beautiful day. Janet 🙂


        • Hello Janet.

          I am curious about the hummingbird happenings occurring in your life now. They must be promising of good things. I am not surprised though, because you always seem to be working on something. And it seems to me too that you have no trouble at all activating wellsprings of creativity.

          What you would like we have here. It is October cool. Yep, autumn leaves are blessedly beautiful in this neck of the woods. We live outside Chicago in a place that has been designated as “a city of trees”–old big trees of abundant leaves.

          Thank you for your happy birthday wish. We can’t all get together physically these days. But all our children and grandchildren will be doing a birthday zoom for me.

          You are such a good friend that you can just assume that I am always wishing you well and hoping you are happy.

          Best, David.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Hummingbird happenings. I am feeling very content…especially now that I have the ‘Inspired Hub’ as part of my life. It has been so wonderful meeting new people and having. a palace where I can go and be inspired:)

          Although I am very content with my own company, the addition of the HUB has made me realise that having social contact was missing in my life….and now it is there:)

          My son, Jarrod had surgery – a double hernia on his neck, which has been very successful…something to be very thankful for.

          Plus new workshop opportunities are presenting themselves in place of the wonderful School in Portugal….and so I do believe that the Hummingbirds are weaving their magic….one day at a time, of course:)

          Hope you and Diana have a lovely week. Janet


        • Sorry to be so slow getting back to you, Janet. I’m happy that Jarrod is fine. No matter how old they are, they are our children are we worry about them, don’t we? I am a loner, but I can imagine how good it feels to be a part of a group of people you like, how much they add to your life. The HUB sounds wonderful, and your new workshop opportunites excite me too. You sound very productive and for people like us that’s happiness.

          Another week is winding down and plans for Thnksgiving with the family are taking shape. The baseball season just ended. The team Diana and I were rooting for won the championship. Hooray.

          Stay well and take good care of yourself.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Wishing you and all your family a wonderful Thanksgiving. 🙂


  5. This is a very interesting post, David. I missed it in September. Your blog doesn’t seem to be coming in on my feed, so I need to remember to do a periodic search to see what you’re posting.

    As you probably know by now, I’m a planner. I write a detailed “outline” before attempting to write. I wouldn’t feel comfortable just winging it; however, I’m coming to realize how much time and energy it takes to write a detailed outline.

    I picked up on your comment that conceptualizers tend to bloom early. I guess I’m the exception to the rule on that. I’ve been evaluating my life. I’ve discovered that I tend to plan too much when it comes to planning the day ahead or the week ahead. I tend to think I can accomplish more than is reasonable. I’m definitely a work in progress even at 68 years old. I’m still trying to figure out who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing.

    Stay well, David, and keep posting. I’ll try to do a better job of seeing your posts.



    • Hello Janet,
      I was hoping you would read this post. I wanted to show you that there is an approach other than your detailed planning approach that serves some witers very well. Did you ever seriously try writing without a plan? You might find it much more liberating. Just start typting. I think you would find it exhilarating and possibly a more successful way to write. In the miltary it is said that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy–not all eventualities can possibley be antcipated. In writing a novel, no plan survives the first twenty pages–it’s back to the drawing board. Relying less on planning–as you say–might serve you better in other area of your life too.

      Everyone has their own method that suits them best, but I think non-planners can benefit from more planning–forethought–and planners can benefit from more spontaneity.

      Thanks for thea comment.
      Best wishes, David.


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