"The Bazerman Effect"

Why is it so hard to throw in the towel and admit defeat when we're on the losing end of a mighty struggle with a really BAD painting?

The "Bazerman Effect" explains how, when we're in a deep hole, we just cannot seem to stop digging.

Every artist I know has faced the thorny problem of throwing away their precious time, money and energies trying to save a painting that is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot ever be saved.

Here's some serious insight as to why we do this over and over again.

Note that I have illustrated this post with a collection of compellingly bad portraits from MOBA which began in a humble basement (pictured below):

"Know what you like, paint how you feel, and show it at The MOBA."

A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.

I’ve worked on paintings that are fundamentally flawed and the worse it gets, the harder I try to save it.

The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.

A cross-gender interpretation of the daVinci classic.

We’ve all experienced the pervasive pull of investing our time, energy and money in a particular project or poured our energy into a doomed relationship, it’s difficult to let go even when things clearly aren’t working.

As difficult as it can be to admit defeat, however, staying the course can be totally irrational.

A work of undisputed tenderness which places the spiritual above the physical through careful disregard for details of the human form.

Independently, each of these two forces – prior commitment and aversion to loss - has a powerful effect on us. But when the two forces combine, it becomes much harder to break free and do something different.

Here’s a great example:

The compounding effect of prior commitment and aversion to loss is most evident in this experiment that Prof. Max Bazerman does in his negotiation class at Harvard Business School.

On the first day of class, Bazerman announces a game in which he offers up a $20 bill for auction. Everybody is free to bid; there are only two rules. The first rule is that bids are to be made in $1 increments.

The second rule is a little trickier. The winner of the auction wins the bill, but the runner-up must still honour his or her bid while receiving nothing in return.

Careful placement of Christmas poinsettias adds an Easter Island element to this remarkable portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln....a painting that could have changed the course of the Civil War.

At the beginning of the auction, the hands shoot up quickly, with a flurry of bids following. As Bazerman describes it, “The pattern is always the same. The bidding starts out fast and furious until it reaches the $12-$16 range.”

At this point it becomes clear to each of the participants that he or she isn’t the only one with the idea of winning the $20 for cheap. Everyone but the two highest bidders drops out of the auction, and without realizing it, those two students are locked in.

Up to this point, the students were looking to make a quick dollar; now neither one wants to be the sucker who paid good money for nothing. This is when the students become committed to the strategy of playing not to lose.

The motion, the chair, the sway of her breast, the subtle hues of the sky, the expression on her face -- every detail combines to create this transcendent and compelling portrait. This is my personal favorite from the MOBA Collection.

Like a runaway train, the auction continues, with the bidding going up to $18, $19, and $20.

From a rational perspective, the obvious decision would be for the bidders to accept their loses and stop the auction before it spins even further out of control. ..right?


The students are pulled by both the momentum of the auction and the looming loss if they back down – a loss that is growing greater by the bid.

The two forces, in turn, feed off each other: Commitment to a chosen path inspires additional bids, driving the price up, making the potential loss loom even larger.

Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.

And so students continue bidding: $21, $22, $23, $50, $100, up to a record of $204. Over the years Bazerman has conducted this experiment, he has never lost a penny (he donates all proceeds to charity).

Regardless of who the bidders are – college students or business executives attending a seminar – they are ALWAYS drawn in.

Now you know that the all-too-human irrational fear of loss linked to the time & energy already poured into a project makes you continue to squander EVEN MORE of your time, money and energy into a lost cause...

...so maybe you can stop the insanity quicker now that you know you've slipped into the infamous "Bazerman Effect?"

And this is just art we're chatting about - the Bazerman insight applies to everything; like continuing a losing war, tossing huge amounts of money into badly managed businesses and standing there as you watch your stock portfolio tank.


A Happy Thanksgiving To You All!

I couldn't decide whether or not to make spiced apple cider today
...so I mulled it over.

And now, a little (silly) story...

John received a parrot as an early Christmas gift. 

The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. 

Every word out of the bird's mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity. 

John tried and tried to change the bird's attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to 'clean up' the bird's foul vocabulary. 

Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. 

John shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even ruder. John, in desperation, threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and shoved him in the freezer.

For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. 

Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. Fearing that he'd hurt the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer. 

The parrot calmly stepped out onto John's outstretched arms and said 'I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. 

I'm sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.' 

John was stunned at the change in the bird's attitude. 

As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued....

"May I inquire as to what the turkey may have done?"

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

And I cheerfully close with another groaner....

Did you hear about the X-rated turkey?
It’s served with very little dressing.

More about Zinc White Oil Paint

TITANIUM WHITE is an opaque non-yellowing white. Most brands contain some zinc white to aid in mixing (even if the label doesn't tell us that). Pure titanium white is chalky and hard to mix. Pure zinc white is a little too transparent for most uses. 

I avoid using Lead White, Flake White or Cremnitz White, all of which contain toxic lead. But maybe now I'll have to rethink this. 

"JOHN MORSE: Then back to your own techniques, you mentioned that only one painting that you know of of yours has had to have some attention, Nighthawks in Chicago. What was the occasion there?

Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"

EDWARD HOPPER: Well, I think it was because in order to get a greater whiteness and brilliancy, I had used zinc white in a certain area of the picture. I think that had cracked or scaled, whereas the parts where I had used lead white did not. This is my remembrance of it.

JOHN MORSE: Was that due, do you think, to an inferior quality of the zinc white or to the nature of the materials?

EDWARD HOPPER: No, I don't think so. I think that zinc white has a property of scaling and cracking. I know in the painting of houses on the exterior, zinc white is apt to crack and scale, whereas lead white merely powders off.


EDWARD HOPPER: So I think that the same would be true in pictures.

JOHN MORSE: And since that experience you have avoided zinc white?

EDWARD HOPPER: Yes, I use only lead white now."

Edward Hopper's "Pennsylvania Coal Town," 1947

Then I got an email from Hylla Evans (who really knows her paint chemistry) and have posted her remarks in green below:

"The problems with zinc white have been known for a long time. You know I like lead/flake white for oils and don't get it on my skin (or wash it quickly if I do).

The article casually mentions the interaction of the zinc oil paint with acrylic (presumably underpainted). This screams for the same attention to be published about reactivity of other oil paints with acrylic emulsions.

Here are my over simplified and obviously personal thoughts:

All oil paintings crack; it's just a matter of when - not if.

Painting on a rigid substrate will make for less humidity-related cracking than comes from expansion and contraction of canvas.

Stick to materials and practices that have been time tested. Meaning don't include acrylic in any aspect of your oil painting. It might be okay and it might not - but why have your art be the experiment?

Fat over lean; thick over thin, etc.

Linseed oil is good but will yellow over time with most whites (titanium especially). It's the oil that's yellowing. Put a yellowed painting in sunlight for a day or two and the yellow will disappear.

Except for the above, keep all oil paintings out of sunlight - direct or indirect - to extend the life of the work at its best.

That said, and other pigments not addressed, museums are best able to control environments for art.

True though that zinc is not a good paint ingredient and really never was.

Also, most drying agents that come in and out of fashion put paintings at high risk. As convenient as they are, they are a serious compromise compared to allowing drying time and natural resins that have been successfully used for hundreds of years.

I'm afraid we are all taking chances with alkyd and other modern resins."

WARNING: Zinc White Oil Paint Problem


This post is merely an introduction to this problem and I urge you to read the entire study on the link above.

Zinc white oil color has a BIG drawback; it makes a rather brittle paint film. 

Zinc whites' brittleness can cause cracks in paintings after only a few years, if it is used by itself and in excess. 

Should artists toss out their tubes of white oil color containing zinc white? 

The answer is YES . . . if you want your work to be archival.

The above detail of a painting by Henry Cliffe, painted in 1959, shows severe cracking and peeling (from rolling the painting) in paint containing a combination of both lead white and zinc white.

The majority of white oil paint available today includes zinc white. 

Even "Titanium White" or "Flake White" may likely contain Zinc White (not always listed on the label). Ouch.

Of course, not every painting containing zinc white will crack and its paint fall off the support.

Ophelia (1852-97) by John Everett Millais has areas of zinc white priming. Remarkably, the painting is in generally good condition and does not show problems.

So why is zinc white is so commonly found in white oil paint today?

Zinc white is transparent, nontoxic, doesn't darken and offers a brilliant white allowing artists to obtain highly saturated colors.

In the past I have used Zinc White in small amounts because of its transparency and ability to "cool" an area. 

Right now I am using "Titanium White" and hope it doesn't have much (unlisted) zinc in the ingredients. I use a very small amount of Titanium white in Liquin (or any medium) as a  thin scumble to replace the zinc white paint I used to use.

So, if any reader knows of any high quality artist's white oil paint that does not contain lead and/or zinc, please let me know.

Tickling Your Punny Bone

A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion. 

Sorry guys, I just cannot resist an awful pun once in a while. Maybe it's the paint fumes...

Two Letters: from The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia & another from North Africa

I have a friend who passed on a letter that she received from two former students in the Foreign Service in Saudi Arabia.

The following thoughts are from one of them on the election of Barack Obama:

Dear (Name withheld),

"Wow. I never thought I'd see the day that Americans would vote for a black man. I knew it would happen eventually when the minority numbers sufficiently outnumbered those of the white populace but I just couldn't believe it would happen in my lifetime. 

I've never been so proud to be American. I had been awake for 32 hours planning the embassy party with 1400 invited guests from midnight our time to 9 am.

At the party, I stood around for hours with Saudi Arab men and women who've never experienced a democracy or elections because they've lived for generations with a monarchy under an authoritarian regime. 

They were as glued to our giant screen televisions as the Americans and people from other countries -- Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Egypt, Ireland, Italy, Britain, Germany...they came from everywhere. 

They sat amazed when they saw so many American diplomats and business people at the party -- even traditional Republicans -- with tears in their eyes. 

After McCain's gracious concession speech and Obama's acceptance speech, our Chief of Mission gave parting remarks to the crowd at our party and he just couldn't get the words out through his tears. 

He may have even been Republican but he talked about how people of his generation -- 50-70 year olds -- grew up with racism and for years have witnessed the devasation it causes on a nation and the fabric of its people. 

It was a very powerful moment for us diplomats who try to explain to other countries what it means to be American -- how, despite some differences, we all believe in some common values like democracy.

I don't know how this is all playing out over there in the states but over here it is very profound. We even had mock elections at our party so the Saudis could cast pretend votes to show them how its done. 

They really got into it -- going into the booth, proudly wearing their I-voted stickers over their robes...the whole thing. 

But they kept signing their ballots - they couldn't believe that we allowed confidential voting. 

Obama won here too -- 127 to 25 before we got too wrapped up in the real vote and quit counting (Ralph Nader got 4 votes). 

Incidentally, it was a little sppoky that here in the desert where it hadn't rained for two years we suddenly had ferocious thunderstorms. 

What was supposed to be an outdoor garden party had to be moved (TVs, stereo speakers, computers, cabling, tables/chairs) indoors at the last minute due to the freakish rain that wouldn't let up. 

The 50 carpets we had laid on the ground were soaked in puddles of water. What was even more freaky is that two minutes into Obama's acceptance speech, the sun finally came out in all its glory. It was very surreal... "

- P. (Name withheld)

This is an old map of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (above) and a vintage (c. 1885) map of Africa (below).

I really love how small the world has become! 

I have a friend whose son is working in North Africa - he passed on the Saudi letter posted above and this is the reply he got:

Dear Mom and Dad,

"The international news is full of similar stories. We had dinner here last night for 12 local teammembers (11 Pakistanis and 1 Iranian) and the conversation did eventually turn to the election results. 

Everyone was so positive, so happy, like a gloom had suddenly lifted. Keep in mind that these are citizens of a country Obama said he would carry out uninvited attacks on. 

The people and the press here are not universally impressed with Obama and his policies, but rather with the system, with the seeming re-birth of the American Dream. 

A poor person can make it to the top; millions of whites can vote for a black man. 

One editorial in the local paper ended by asking the question if his readers could imagine the son of their servants become president. 

Only in America, but the rest of the world wants to believe it eventually possible in their countries. The world is happy to have the hope and example that is uniquely American.

Whether you like Obama or not, it was a great feat and it makes me happy to be an American.

Love, (Name withheld)"