The Painter’s Notion of Noticing

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

Organizing Fleeting Glances Into Painterly Consciousness

Darting, constructing, deconstructing, organizing and reorganizing patches of colour based on brief glances as the lens of my eyes send focused light to my retinas which then sends electrical impulses via the optical nerve, in an upside down image, to my brain is the first parts of seeing. After turning the images from both eyes covering the areas from my darting glances right-side up and placing them in some kind of recognizable pattern, under the influence of surrounding sound, tactile sensation, smell and memory I can SEE. I trust this visual reference to be tentatively true until such time as new information is provided. As I write this explanation, I reach out, without thinking or even really focusing my attention, and pick it up my coffee cup without hesitation and take a sip. My mind remembered exactly where the cup was placed, how far it is from my body and my glance tells me it is still there, sitting next to the two books that have been on the desk for months and on top of a few papers. My brain did not need to think about the cup, the books or the papers. It could “see” at a glance that the image it had already stored for reference was still relevant. This same process happens over and over all day long. These are the sensory clues that allow my brain to protect and engage my physical being in the world around me when primarily relying on the use of sight.

I am fascinated by this mystery of seeing and how we construct tentative realities as we go about the process of living an ordinary everyday life as a seeing person. But what happens when we see something that is so puzzling or intense that we have no immediate way to recognize what we are seeing or any reliable references to be able to categorize it? I describe these moments as – every cell in my body becomes focused on making sense out of all the information that is available to me. We all have these moments. These are the moments where you hear better, smell better, sense the temperature of the day, the direction of the breeze and the colours and shapes of everything are more vivid. These heightened sensory moments can be induced by fear, pain or pleasure. Or drugs I suppose, but I am most concerned with our natural interaction with the world around us. These temporary moments of sensory intensity are the places I most desire to capture when painting. I want to capture a landscape as if we are seeing it for the first time and need all our awareness to make sense out of what you are seeing. As you might guess this is not an easy task.

First, I must use every bit of conscious information I can discern, combined with all of my intuition and unconscious strength, when I set brush to canvas. Second, in our current overly stimulating daily lives gaining anyone’s interest in the resulting landscape painting is an almost impossible task. We so often will only see trees,

11. Plum Blossoms Japanese Garden 20 x 16 inch oil on canvas by Terrill Welch 2016-03-09 IMG_9315

and more trees.

arbutus-on-mt-parke-12-x-16-inch-oil-on-canvas-by-terrill-welch-reworked-dec-11-2016-img_9103

There will be an ocean,

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and more ocean,

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and even more ocean!

sea-and-sun-cox-bay-tofino-bc-24-x-48-inch-oil-on-canvas-by-terrill-welch-july-15-2016-img_7138

Our brains say to self – been there, done that, moving on. For many of us then, we can no longer experience our natural world in its fullness – neither in a painting nor in real life. A wave

on-the-rocks-in-tofino-24-x-30-inch-oil-on-canvas-by-terrill-welch-2016-03-30-img_2079

is just a wave.

last-view-chesterman-beach-tofino-tsunami-30-x-40-inch-oil-on-canvas-by-terrill-welch-july-15-2016-img_7167

Our brains and our memory tell us that we have no real need to know. In this situation, the metaphorical moon is no longer there. The moon becomes identifiable by a collected set of irrelevant references, unrelated to our safety, our well-being or our need for engagement with our ordinary everyday life. There is no blame. There is no fault. It is just us humans sorting out what we most currently need and what is most important to our tentative truth.

So it is a fair question then to ask – why do I bother? Why do I turn my home into a painting studio

great-room-studio-space-by-terrill-welch-img_1735

and spend the majority of each day following the light across vast landscapes

impact-on-the-reef-by-terrill-welch-img_1372

through intimate views of trees

woods-after-the-snow-by-terrill-welch-img_1759

and over the edges of clouds?

winter-morning-sky-mayne-island-bc-img_1803

What is it about this driving practice of observation that gets me up early, clambering over slippery rocks, kneeling in the cold water, standing barefoot on the deck in the snow or sitting shivering waiting for the moon to rise? What is it that keeps me standing at the easel for hours without noticing the strain in my lower back until I lay down to sleep at night? What is it that keeps my brush moving across the canvas recording these fleeting remembrances of sensory information when, possible, the work is irrelevant to anyone but me? I am not sure I can fully answer these questions to either of our satisfaction. However, I can still see the moon and it is magnificent!

Mayne Island Blue Moon rise July 31 2015 by Terrill Welch 2015_07_31 170

What full sensory memory of our natural world do you most often revisit in your mind’s eye?

 

© 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