Painting Meditation

Seeing what you paint, not painting what you see.

One of many kindnesses extended to me by Hugh Moss (see my post "The Art of Understanding Art") was to outline an approach to painting which has proved compelling, delightful and productive. I call it "painting meditation" because it's about being in the moment, focusing on the act of painting and not the outcome. The general idea is to start painting in a completely unplanned way, with no thought at all of what you are going to create. Obviously you have to start somewhere, so choose a colour, a particular brush or some technique for making the first mark. I find it's best to start out bold and big; if you start with a small stroke you may find yourself having to work round it as the painting progresses and it may get in the way, or end up being painted over (none of which matters hugely, though, so start however you like).

It can appear daunting to make that first mark, but really don't sweat over it too much. Just do it, splash some paint onto your surface, scribble some lines, make a big, expressive brush stroke, anything. Then stand back and take a good look. Turn it around, try it upside down and see what you've got. Resist the temptation to say "it looks like such & such a thing" at this stage. See it in terms of form, space, colour, texture, balance & feel. Think carefully about what you will do next to move the painting forward in some way: balance it, unbalance it, contrast or harmonise, deepen, lighten, darken, add a new texture or detail. Focus only on what is in front of you and how it could be improved in terms of what it is now in this moment. Avoid at all costs thinking more than one step ahead. This is about "seeing what you paint" not "painting what you see". Any thought of a final destination at this stage will distract you from the task in hand.

Proceed in this way, guided only by the process in the moment, your responses, the way you feel. Keep turning it round, look at it in different ways, resist the temptation to rush into the next step; I often spend more time sitting and looking than painting. In fact it can be useful to have several on the go at the same time. You may be working on a picture, only to glance in the direction of an unfinished piece and suddenly realise that the colour you're using would be perfect for that one. Or you may finish a session and have a load of paint left over, so grab a fresh canvas or sheet of paper and spread your leftovers on there, ready for next time.

As time goes on you may find that the image starts to lead you in a particular direction. Perhaps there's an unmistakable likeness of something, a particular effect of light, colour, space or a powerful abstract feel to the piece. Go with the flow, or resist it, as you wish. It may take only one quiet stroke to finish, or it may be a riotous final assembly, but keep looking, turning it around and maintaining your concentration. When you think it's done, or if you get tired, leave it for a while. You may come back to it in a day or two and realise that there's more work to do, or you may decide that it's perfect the way it is, or that it's a piece of rubbish!

In the event that you decide the painting is awful and you can't bear to look at it (any way up, and before you scrap it completely) there are still options. Is there any small part of it that you like, or that works in some way? Could you paint over everything except that bit, either in white or black (or any other colour) and start again from there? Could you cut out the good bits and use them to start a collage? (you may find there are other bits that are useful once you start down this road). If you're working in watercolour on good paper, how about running it under the tap and scrubbing parts of it (or all of it) off? This can give some nicely washed out background tones on which to build a new image once the paper is dry again. Oil paint can be scraped off, dissolved away, or painted over, adding plenty of texture while you're at it. With egg tempera (which I use most of the time) you can add layer after layer of paint, or scrub it back like watercolour.

Keep looking, keep trying and don't give up too easily. It it really can't be salvaged in any way, enjoy the process of final destruction (ritual burning, perhaps?) and think about what a great time you've had and how much you have learned in the process. Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps you won't make the same mistakes again (be warned - you might!). Who knows, and if you're enjoying yourself, who cares? What is certain is that your painting will be different from mine, and today's will be different from tomorrow's and that each one is a record, a "making visible" (as Paul Klee would say) of the interaction between intelligence, emotion, eye, hand and materials in one continuous act. And each one is an evolution, a learning curve, a building of confidence, a step on the path.

Keep doing this and it becomes a kind of purifying ritual with it's own irresistible momentum which you will want to enact every day. You will find yourself organising your life around it, going to bed at 9.00 in the evening and getting up at 5.00 am in order to have a couple of hours of uninterrupted time before the day begins, knowing that whatever else happens, you found some peace and calm this morning. It will gradually seep into other areas of your life, and you will catch yourself giving the same care and attention to making your breakfast, feeding the cat, doing your day job. And one day, time out of mind, you will realise with joy and relief, that the path leads precisely nowhere, and you will pass into another realm without even noticing, where rivers of vast eternity flow around you, brush in hand, and everything you touch comes to life.

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