I like painting: not art- painting. Art is nebulous. Painting is concrete. It is a discipline with a lifeline that goes back to prehistory. It responds to basic human needs: to work with our hands, to adorn with shapes and colours and to engage in the magic of representation.
Our hands are like the dog’s nose: with the same pleasure the dog takes in sniffing we pick things up and arrange them. In a coffee shop you see people making shapes out of paper, arranging toothpicks or doodling on the edge of their newspaper. With a pencil or a brush in our hands we make shapes and patterns. It is a fundamental human attribute.
No human culture lacks adornment. It can be as simple as deciding what to wear or how to paint your room and it gives gut-level satisfaction. We feel our arrangement says something about us: the cloth, the paint, the ornaments express something unique to ourselves. Organizations- schools, fashion houses, brands- try to make us submit to their arrangements. We refuse: we change the colour of our hair, paint our door a different colour and rearrange our desktop to our own taste. It may not be more “beautiful” but it is ours. This is the triumph of individuality. It is an assertion of who we are in the face of the world.
Besides being an expression going outwards, painting is also a response to the world coming in through our senses. It engages in the magic of representation. When we start this is intimidating: the techniques of the Masters and the intellectual weight of culture; art theory that fills volumes; originality.
Children draw without these obstacles until a well-meaning teacher comes along to direct them. The first task of anyone setting out is to resist the feeling that what you do is not good enough. Resist the idea that good critical thinking involves seeing what you have done wrong. Resist the idea that there are geniuses and mere mortals. Resist the trembling hesitation that comes over your hand when you set to work. The encouraging teacher you had when you were ten will not reappear to tell you what is nice and what is not.
Just as you can walk you can paint. Just as you would scoff at someone who criticised your walking style, you should scoff at your inner critics. They aren’t real.
I am writing about painting as meditation, not meditation before painting. It has three components: the act itself, disciplined practice and the heightened sense of awareness.
The act of painting is meditational to the extent that you lose yourself in it. In order to lose yourself in painting your first concern should be to have things prepared: a surface to paint on, paints, brushes and water to clean your brushes. You also need to prepare the time. It is no good trying to lose yourself in your painting if you are thinking about what to make for dinner or whether there is an urgent email to respond to.
I always paint outside. This gives me complete freedom from the domestic environment. I give a high priority to what I do. If you go to a class you do not run out to load the washing machine or wash the dishes. My painting has the same level of commitment. It takes discipline to assert, and continue to assert, that the time I have reserved for painting stands. It means saying “No”. I can return to cooking, cleaning the car, going to the bank or helping with homework.
Discipline is the lens you use to bring your concentration to bear on the task at hand. It is simple but it is not easy. It could be paraphrased: “just do it”. You know the pressures that prevent you from doing what you want to do. Some will be purely psychological: fears that you are wasting your time; temptations to put the needs of others before your own; an overly-critical inner voice that says you are not doing well enough. Other pressures are circumstantial: other areas of your life will make calls on you; you have too many projects on the go. These pressures never go away, but with discipline you can resist them.
Discipline means sticking with what you are doing. There are times when I am dissatisfied with what I have done. Discipline brings me back to the task, instead of constantly moving on. It bursts the bubble of originality and leaves something more solid, more authentic and more lasting. Accepting both the weaknesses and strengths of my own painting is a part of the experience. It makes me more sensitive to the work of others: less judgemental and decidedly less interested in virtuosity than communication.
The object of meditational painting is heightened awareness. Imagine two hours spent regularly sitting under a tree in a wood. Without painting these two hours become interminable: the mind races and runs, recalling conversations and jobs not done. I can blank out and dull these voices, but then I am not attending to the real world around me. Painting gives me a structure that supports being quiet, attentive and open to the world. The two hours pass in a state of constant interaction. The task demands me to be aware: the painting is what remains of the experience.
The peak of awareness is to feel that your existence, your breathing, the posture of your body, the physical movements- both voluntary and involuntary- of your whole being are connected with the natural world you are experiencing as you paint. The height of meditational painting is to feel union with the natural world.
Don’t do it if you want to make a product to sell.