Why I (still) bother painting

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.

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Work in Progress (Oil on Panel)

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?

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My studio and my dog

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…

23 thoughts on “Why I (still) bother painting

  1. I enjoyed the post. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to play the music video. I’ll do a little Googling/browsing on my own and see what I can come up with. More and more, I’m seeing art and meditation as conjoined, and I think music adds immensely to the experience. Thanks for sharing your personal reflections.

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    1. Thanks for the kind comment. Try Googling “Dennis Sheehan Yann Tiersen”. That is how I found the video. I checked the link and it seemed OK in my browser – it is a YouTube video.

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  2. Oh yes – on art and meditation – I cannot agree more. Meditation is a game changer for me, I have been doing it for many years and I feel it impacts every aspect of my life – art is one of them in a big way. Thanks again for visiting.

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  3. Really enjoyed learning more about your painting story and am very glad that you’ve come back to it, for painting is a wonderful tool for experiencing life. I’m glad also that you’ve found mentors/teachers whose approach matches your needs. There are many paths into painting and finding the ones that suit you is a blessing.

    Re: meditation, your paintings seem meditative to me–that’s the way I experience them. This one above is especially beautiful, visually, and seems also particularly resonant with emotion and awareness — almost philosophical — like the sound of a bell rung when the sound lingers in the air and time seems momentarily suspended.

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  4. Dear Fruitful Dark. I think your paintings are wonderful. I would like to hang each and everyone of them on my walls in my house. I also enjoy your reflections on your paintings and emosions experienced while painting. It gives me insight into your soul and you must be as beautiful a person as your paintings are- if somewhat dark (or fruitful😉)?

    Please keep on painting and keep on reflecting on it and sharing with the world!

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    1. Many thanks for your kind words, I really appreciate it. I will mosey over to your blog and have a look. I hope you have a great day. I hope you are happy and content. 🙂

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  5. Reblogged this on Fruitful Dark and commented:

    I went back last night to this post that I wrote some months ago. Now that I am working more in pastel, I wondered if it was still relevant. I think it is – for me – it was worth reading again if only for that quote by painter Albert York. I hope you find it useful.

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  6. Love the York quote. I question why I paint almost every day and his answer is good. I sell very little and the paintings are beginning to pile up on walls and in closets and the attic. I don’t mind, I’m not in it for money, but I don’t want to burden my wife and children with all the panels, sketchbooks and paper. I know how that can feel because an artist friend of mine (former instructor) tried to make me responsible for his work as he was getting on in years and I was very, very uncomfortable, since I have my own work to look after. Fortunately, fate intervened and I had to move away….

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    1. Thanks Andrew. I find it so sad that you sell very little paintings – it is a sad reflection on the state of the world, but then it has been so for ages. I sell nothing (but then also I have not tried much) so my panels and paper is forever standing around like hungry children. I end up painting over most of them. I try not to think about it too much – read some advice to artists a while ago to not even think about selling your art until you have at least several hundred completed paintings behind you. So that allows me to procrastinate any thought about how/where to sell my work.
      I guess this is an age-old question for artists. All the best to you Andrew.

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      1. It is sad that painting and visual art in general are not as prominent in our culture as they once were. Even knowing that, it was sobering to read that the new addition to the Tate contains little or no space for “pictures.” It seems that all the space is reserved for sculpture and installations. It’s a good thing that I love everything about painting and drawing, otherwise I should become discouraged. Thank you for your thoughtful words.

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  7. great post!!!
    these quotes are at the very core of art. one must love the act more, than the result. the bit about ‘not’ hearing the brush. Brilliant. This was a very enjoyable read Fritz, thank you for sharing your paintings and these quotes.

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