Guest 1 | The Art of Improv with Patricia Ryan Madson


Patricia ryan madson

on The Art of Improv

Having been inspired by the book Improv Wisdom:  Don't Prepare, Just Show Up, I reached out to the author Patricia Ryan Madson and I am honored that she agreed to share some thoughts on improv with me.  Patricia is an author and an award winning professor Emerita from Stanford University, she heads the undergraduate acting division and is responsible for the development of the improvisation program.  There she founded the Creativity Initiative, an interdisciplinary alliance of faculty  who share the belief that creativity can be taught.  She has given workshops all over the world.  Her corporate clients include the likes of Google, Gap, YMCA, and Adobe Systems just to name a few.  She says she is happiest when she is improvising in the classroom or painting watercolor au plein air.  Thank you Patricia for participating and being the very first guest of The Art of Improv.


What does the ‘Art of Improv’ mean to you?

It’s interesting that you use this phrase.  I’ve never really thought of “improv” as an art.  I experience improv as a way, a process, (and if you want to get philosophical) a Tao. It is the operating system I use to accomplish things.  Improv contains the tools I use to approach life as well as the making of art. Although not all of my art is improvised.  Some of it is highly structured and planned.

If you were rewriting your book with visual artists in mind specifically, would you change or add anything?

I don’t think so.

If you were me, interviewing visual artists about their improv practice or process, what would you want to know?  What questions would you ask?

I might ask:  “How do you improvise? (if at all) 

Or “Are you afraid of improvising?”  (most people are)



You mention a bit about it in your book about how you starting painting and using improv, can you describe your process(es) of using improvisation when you paint now?

These days my preferred art form is a Japanese postcard type “painting”.  It’s not really correct to call it “art” but it uses image and line to create a message that is put on a postcard and mailed to a friend.  I just published an article for the ToDo Institute in Vermont, for their Journal of Thirty Thousand Days, Summer 2018 issue.   In it I explain that when you do an Etegami you are mainly thinking of what you want to say to your recipient . . . more of a greeting card sense.  It does contain, however, some art-like visual image, the more simple or clumsy, the better.  Actually thinking of these as “art” is likely to be an impediment.  (Art is such a loaded word.  ;-) 

Perhaps another example of improvisation is the way my small monoprints are created.  They are in themselves a kind of improvisation, in that after applying the paint to the plexiglass and pressing it onto the card what happens is itself an improvisation.  I have no control really over how the paint splashes. I can mess with it afterward, but the process itself is a very loose technique.

See my YouTube video for this:

I think many of the maxims of improv apply to artists as well:

1. Let go of control over the outcome.

2.  Start anywhere

3. Pay attention

4. Accept what is going on and add to it

5. Make mistakes (or allow mistakes to happen) and then capitalize on them.

6. Be average.  (Give up trying to do “great art”   . . . just DO It.

7. Enjoy the ride

A possible big issue with ART . . . is that I’m guessing most artist have some idea first of what they want to create, and then set about executing that idea as best they can.

With improv it is fundamental that you DON’T have any idea of where you are going until the journey begins. Once underway, the “artist” starts to shape and color whatever is going on in a pleasing way.


How would you finish the question ‘What if. . . ?’?

“What if you already have what you need?”

What are you reading, listening to, or watching?  What is currently inspiring you?


Netflix series:  “Anne with an E”  - one of the singularly most beautiful series I’ve seen.

Thank you Patricia for sharing some of your watercolor work and for your insight into The Art of Improv.  I think we all do have what we need and it is just a matter of believing it to be true, no? I also wonder if as artists we do have to have an idea of where we are going when we start? I think this is why improv is so appealing to me. I loved your book and recommend it to everyone!  To learn more about Patricia and her book, visit Improv Wisdom and see more of her watercolor work on Flickr.

If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.