Contrast -- it’s what makes a painting work. The lightest light juxtaposed against the darkest dark.

For example, sharp contrast draws our attention to the eyes of the girl in Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or the black-and-white attire of the Dutch noblemen in “The Night Watch.”  Even modernists like Picasso use the high-contrast technique, and abstract expressionists could not escape its power to attract attention. My own paintings sell best when there is a focal point of high contrast, as in “Bringing in the Catch” with the gold beach set off by the dark aubergine shadows of the fresh sailfish on the line. 

I have another version of contrast on my mind: the inspired working artist vs. the would-be artist who waits for inspiration that never seems to come. Friends, clients and patrons ask all the time, “What is your inspiration for that piece? How do you get ideas of what to paint? Are you ever blocked or afraid to work?” 

I feel like I have to tell them a rather soft version of the truth: the ideas just come to me. They suddenly appear, as though from the ether, when I sit down to the canvas. But that is not the whole truth. Successful artists will probably agree with me when I say that, actually, the work comes first, and the inspiration follows, like a high-speed Matatu careening out of control. But it always follows.

My first step is standing at the canvas and getting ready. If I don’t stretch some canvas, squirt generous gobs of paint onto my worktable, and start painting, the ideas may never come. I have to try a starting point, often simple and random: a vase of flowers, my son’s infant face, or a series of squares or triangles. From that a fully-formed notion develops, and much quicker than I would have feared.

I spent about 10 years in New York City’s East Village in the 1990s, and I did a lot of drinking in a lot of very cool watering holes with a lot of artists and would-be artists. You can always tell the difference. Would-be artists talk ad nauseum about the book they want to write, about the series of paintings they would do, and about the sculpture that they should build, if only they had the money, time, space, etc. The actual artists don’t make excuses for their planned work,: they just work. They will socialize when the work is done, to drink afterward, to soak up ideas, inspiration, and magic for their next project.

If you have that fire in you, and you truly want to make something creative and artistic, I think you should get to it, with all the energy you have. I don’t believe that everyone can be an artist, or a writer, or a musician; not because all people aren’t creative and gifted, but because some potentially gifted souls are afraid of working hard and failing. What if that novel, much to their distress, doesn’t read like Ernest Hemingway or N’gugi Wa Thiong’o on the first draft? 

The contrast between the artist and the would-be artist is the fearlessness of doing the work, and the persistence to finish the piece that he or she started. Now, would-be-artist, get to work!


Elaine Kehew is hard at work in her Nairobi studio. Her paintings are currently on exhibit at Lamu House in Lamu and atwww.elainekehew.com. Twitter: @Kehew. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Elaine new bio: Elaine Kehew is hard at work in her Nairobi studio. Her paintings are currently on exhibit at Lamu House in Lamu, and available via her website athttp://www.elainekehew.com/www.elainekehew.com. You can connect with her @Kehew on Twitter, or via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.