The need and desire to summarize and dismiss information is a necessary skill for survival, comfort and freedom. Yet, the development of repeating and overlapping patterns of knowing is often my least helpful skill when painting. However, noticing repeating patterns within a specific subject and within its context is a useful skill to the painter. This second skill gets me into the overreaching and granular similarities, differences and unique aspects of my composition. In contrast, it is the layers of “knowing” the painter has for a subject that sometimes can be challenging. So though these approaches to seeing are related they are not the same. The layers of knowing collected from past observation tend to filter and distort what is actually before us. This is where trees become straight, flower petals similar in shape or skies become blue in such a way that the immediate experience of the subject fades into something quite cliché or overly familiar. In this situation the painter has lost awareness of the subject itself in favour of everything that they already think they know about it. For example, let’s look at the photograph below. Do you see these specific daffodils or do you see these specific daffodils through the filters of all the daffodils you have ever seen before?
The filters might include the daffodils in the painting above. Or possibly the daffodils you have on your own table. Or maybe even the crepe paper replica you made in your first years of school. You may like daffodils or you may have no relationship with them at all. You may be distracted from the daffodils completely and be more focused on the painting sketch of the Japanese Garden which then reminds you of a trip you once took to Japan. Thus your proposed focus on daffodils is subsumed in favour of the painting sketch. Or the yellow colour of the daffodils may remind you of a spring outfit your mother once sewed for you to wear for a spring pageant. Yes, filters are diverse, insistent and can get messy.
I hope by now you can see how easily the painter can get tripped up and lost in repeating patterns of what they know instead of noticing repeating patterns and uniqueness in the specific subject before them. If you have also had the good fortune to be in a painting class, you might remember how differently each painter’s result becomes while viewing the same subject. As a fellow artist and friend was remarking yesterday – we are sometimes in awe as to what happens to create these differences. So the next question is of course what can we do to address this issue of filters that keep us from experiencing the subject that is directly before us? Here are three activities we can do both to increase our awareness during the process of painting and also to be more present in life in general.
First, sit and observe your subject and do nothing else for 10 – 15 minutes. In the beginning you may need to set a timer so as to keep your attention on the subject for what often seems to be – too long! At first you will want to keep your focus to the point where it passes through a point of boredom. With practice you will become familiar with a kind of internal click where your filters start to fall away. Overtime this “click” happens more quickly until you are able to do it at will. This shift is a little different for everyone but frequently you start to distinguish more variation in the sounds around you. Maybe you start to notice distinctive smells – some you can name and many others you cannot. Sometimes colour saturation and contrasts become more distinguishable. You start to notice variations and see colours you hadn’t noticed before. You begin to discern differences in shapes and textures and so on. After 10 -15 minutes of doing nothing but noticing our whole system becomes curious and we start saying to ourselves – this is important. What is it that we have here? When we become curious and we notice even more!
Secondly, write, draw, paint or do all three to capture what you have now noticed. Or if that feels too structured just create large shapes of colour that represent what you seem to be experiencing. At this stage the gathering of information should be free flowing or raw data about your experience of the subject. The purpose of the activity is to just get the information gathered in some form and if you can, get it gathered before your reductive skills can make sense out of it or begin naming it.
Thirdly, once you have recorded your own personal raw data on paper, in any form that works for you, again sit and notice. This time, look for repeating patterns and how various aspects of your subject relate to one another. Look for clues about the spaces between various elements. What is there? What is dominant and what is supportive? What sings to every cell in your body? What is changing? What is temporarily constant? What feelings are present? The process is not about finding words for an answer but just noticing. In many ways it is noticing without needing to “know” or without attachment.
Now, after these three activities are completed, you are ready to begin translating your subject into a painting language with some confidence that your filters will, for the most part, leave your subject revealed to the way you are experiencing it – on this specific day, at this specific time. If you find you are faltering or become unsure, repeat these activities again and yet again and as often as necessary to remain present to your subject.
You may remember having had this kind experience before when traveling to a new location that is very different to the one you call “home.” Or when you find yourself in a place where the people around you are speaking a different language. Or there has been a storm that took the power out and so on. These three activities I am suggesting, though more gentle, are designed to take you to this same kind of observation and sensory alertness. They are not new or revolutionary but rather old and tried methods to gain awareness. I am willing to argue, based on my own lengthy experience, that anyone, not just a painter, can gain a richness or vibrancy of experience through these practices.
What subject would you like to use these three practice exercises to experience more fully this week?
I suggest that you are unlikely to feel like “the moon is no longer there” after having applied these three activities to your subject. Let me know if you find this is so.
There is also a new round-up post on the TerrillWelchArtist.com website featuring five new painting releases, noting three recent sales and mentioning two shows coming up for May and July. If you choose, grab your beverage of choice and drop on over for a Canadian landscape painting experience HERE.
© 2017 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.
Liberal usage granted with written permission. See “About” for details.
Creative Potager – Visit with painter and photographer Terrill Welch
From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada
For gallery and purchase information about Terrill’s photographs and paintings go to http://terrillwelchartist.com