Many years ago, I hated my line of work. I yearned for something that I could do with more passion.For some reason I settled on painting as a possible way out. For years I toiled away at learning to paint. I set myself targets, like painting for an hour a day, or painting 100 “starts”. I got up before work and painted by a dim electric light. I painted at night when the kids were finally asleep.
It was only recently, after I had stopped painting for almost 10 years, that I realized how much I used to hate most of it. I am a slow learner with a perfectionist streak – and that made for quite a bit of doubt and depressing self-criticism. Most of my paintings looked (in the words of Dennis Miller Bunker) “thin and deadly” to me, even when others seemed to like them.
Today I get along better with my profession (engineering) and often find creative outlets in my work. And yet, I keep returning to my home-made studio every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Why bother?
Painting – or the act of trying to paint what I see in my mind’s eye – is no longer a means to an end (a “way out”) for me. Unlike in my earlier attempts, now the act itself is almost all of the reward. This transformation happened partly because I grew to like my profession, so the need for an “out” dropped away.
But the most important reason why I now love the act of painting – and this made a big difference in the quality of my paintings also – is that I stopped slopping paint on the surface in a tentative, fearful but also careless fashion. Yes, I am sorry to admit, that was my approach to oil painting for quite some time.
It changed for me when I reflected on the way that master painters like Richard Schmidt and David Leffel talked about the act of applying paint. In their books and videos, these painters devote so much time to talk about the way the paint goes onto the canvas, how to hold the brush, and how the brush should be loaded with paint. I felt I had been missing something.
David Leffel says somewhere “the brush should not make a sound as it moves over the surface” (this as a way to explain the amount and consistency of paint that should be on the brush). Richard Schmidt talks about making every stroke count – put it down once, then leave it alone.
When I reflected on this, I slowed down considerably while I painted. I started loading my brush slightly heavier, and put more of my strokes down slowly and precisely, as if that was the only stroke I was going to do today. In this way, I looked carefully, meditatively at each brush stroke. To be sure, I have a long, long way to go. But this made all the difference for me.
I found that playing the right music while I worked set a tempo for me that transformed it from a “workshop” experience to a meditative, relaxed experience. I started to look at painting as sacred time, rather than something I had to do. Here is an example of a song I like to listen to by Yann Tiersen, in a demo by the master Dennis Sheehan.
I find now that after each painting session – even those where I dislike the result – it feels like I had been lost in a wonderland. I am filled with gratitude when I walk the green path from my studio back to my home and the world seems wondrous and in focus.
Truly, the act of looking and working in a certain way transforms things, just as James Wright says in his wonderful poem Milkweed:
It is here. At the touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.
The gratitude I feel, being able to look and say – through paint – what I, insignificant creature, feel about having this brief life in this stupendous universe, makes me deeply joyful. It is hard to express.
In the Painting Perceptions interview with Israel Hershberg, mention is made of an interview by Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker with the painter Albert York, who painted alone, unknown and without any ambition to become famous. Here is a quote from the interview. York says it beautifully:
Tomkins writes: I decided to ask him [York] the impossible question: Why do you paint? “I knew this was going to be difficult,” he said, sighing. He put his cigarette out, slowly, and looked at the table. “I think we live in a paradise,” he said, “this is a Garden of Eden, really it is. It might be the only paradise we ever know, and it’s just so beautiful, with the trees and everything here, and you feel you want to paint it. Put it into a design. That’s all I can say. It’s been a rather trying business, this painting.”
My apologies for the long post. I hope my own reflection on my experience means something for someone out there. May you all be happy and content. Let’s pray that the road to Ithaca is long…