This is a common question painters are asked, particularly of abstract work. The more important question is what are you thinking as you look at that? What are you feeling? For myself, I say, it often has nothing to do with what I was thinking about and everything to do with what lies beneath the thinking part. The feeling, spiritual process that goes on unconsciously is what I believe comes through to the canvas. I think of an abstract painting like meditation. More experience, less thinking.
Certainly their is a delicate dance between pure expression and critical thinking that goes into a painting. There is evaluating composition, how colors play together, the energy of the lines and forms, etc. and solving problems. Initially, I give those things minimal attention. As a beginner, you may pays attention to the latter focusing on technical aspects which can produces a painting without expression and feeling. Purely decorative. In my experience, strategy plays a role only when it is necessary leaving as much space as possible for spontaneous expression.
Currently, I swing like a pendulum from full expression to careful critique. I paint with abandon and then pull back and evaluate what needs to be quieted, balanced, or eliminated. A gesture, a step back, and again as I refine the work.
There’s also a considerable chance I am thinking about who needs to be fed, taken outside, or driven somewhere. People have romantic notions about artists, most of us show up and do the work just like any other worker. Skill, time, patience, dedication. Repeat.
“Handle with care” 12×12 in Acrylic and charcoal on paper. 60.00
A common question people ask of artists is “Where do you get your inspiration”? Moments of inspiration come at various unpredicted moments. I most commonly find insight, answers, and inspiration in the moment of half sleep and half wake in the morning before I even open my eyes.
The above pictures illustrate a moment of inspiration I had. I was sitting at the dining table with my husband listening to him talk about work when I just couldn’t stop being drawn to this tulip which was hanging onto it’s petals in the last moments of it’s life while the sun illuminated it from within it seemed. Such a moment of fragility was in front of me. I could have sneezed and it would have dropped it’s petals.
While I mmm-hmmed to my husband still listening if only a little bit, I gently stole away to grab my phone and take a picture. It was a fleeting moment of delicacy captured just in time. Moments later petals began to drop, the last bits of strength in it’s fibers breaking away. That was a moment. The next day I painted “Handle with Care”.
Another eloquent life analogy gifted by a flower and observed at just the right moment in time. That’s creative inspiration.
So this is the view from my studio today! Help us welcome 5 new baby goslings to our little paradise on the lake. You can’t detect the mix of delight and dread in my voice right now but it’s here, just as these fuzzy little cuties are here.
Just a week ago a neighbor and his daughter came around in their canoe hunting for Canadian goose nests in the reeds around the lake. We have been here just 6 months and are still enchanted by every little thing that we see going on out our window, including the geese which have some not so delightful habits of eating your lawn and digesting on it at an incredible rate. Yes, goose poop in volumes that are hard to fathom. The reason our neighbors were looking for nests was to put corn in them which I am guessing attracts mammals to eat the corn and the unhatched eggs because once the eggs have hatched in a given location, those sweet little fuzzies will become permanent lawn eating, lawn pooping residents for the rest of their no longer cute lives.
We had been witnessing some territorial goose behavior on our little section of the lake last weekend which made me think back to the visit from our neighbor, but no. Those geese did a pretty good job of keeping things under wrap until those babies hatched because sure enough, this is what I saw out my window when I went to work in my studio this morning. It seems a bit late to do anything about it now. My husband and I are big saps when it comes to any sort of wild life so I guess we will just be getting a goose pooper scooper.
Is this is a question you have ever engaged? At times I have been absolutely convinced it’s made. Then I see or hear something that resonates with my soul in such a way that surely I have found meaning that exists for others and I feel it is found and only occasionally experienced. The search for meaning is surely the quest of musicians, writers, philosophers, and painters. Artists are lost without their art. Creative expression is the avenue to making meaning in a life that often seems nonsensical and superfluous. We are here, then we are not. And what was it all for? Art is an expression of inner knowing. Artists work to make the intangible tangible. It is a painful realization and paradoxically comforting at times to know that everything just continues on without us. An artist uses their creative means to express this devastating truth. “See truth” is the artists call. It exists with or without you. “See me” might also be the artists call as we are so acutely aware of our smallness.
The writer and psychologist Eric Maisel says artists must make their meaning because they seek understanding of a great and ever elusive meaning. This idea, and his book the Van Gogh Blues, was maybe the most empowering thing I have ever read. In addition, he gives suggestions for managing so many of the other anxieties that come with the pursuit of making art.
Meaning is the painful pursuit of the artist. While I may only find small bits of inner knowing in this life, it has been a powerful tool to make my meaning when I feel it’s painful absence.
When we are born there is only knowing what you need and acting on it. Unfortunately and fortunately we learn to be discerning about our needs and wants. Other people’s thoughts and actions take hold. Other’s opinions become a way of gauging our own thoughts and actions. It helps us to be part of a larger community. Feelings have a way of making things messy and as artists we are particularly practiced at feelings and messy. How do we sort our own true inner voice from all of the influence and noise? Continually. It is not the type of thing one masters but can definitely improve on with practice. Mindfulness is the first obvious step. One needs to be aware of the constant narrative running through the mind. I remember the first time I recognized a continual negative narrative replaying itself in my mind. My personal narrative was pretty brutal and if I had not woken up to the experience of seeing it as separate from me I would be a very unhappy person today. Luckily I made this discovery as a teenager and it has given me the power to choose my own narrative many times over.
But how do we know when our own voice is the one to trust? Certainly we don’t know everything! Once I learned to quiet the narrative and recognize my own voice I became better able to hear suggestions and input from others in an objective way that also allowed me to either find merit in it for myself or reject it for myself. I have not stopped listening to others, but I have learned a new kind of discernment which is to decide whether what I am hearing aligns with my own voice.
1. Recognize the narrative that automatically runs through your mind. Is it yours and helpful or simply habitual.
2. Practice mindfulness so that you can quiet or change the narrative when necessary.
3. Listen to others in an objective and studious way before deciding if it aligns with your true self. Respectfully reject or appreciatively accept the input.
If you have difficulty trusting yourself for all the noise I hope these tips will help you practice. As an artist, one puts themselves out there for people to critique and often we are critiqued even when we have not asked to be. I believe others usually have the best of intentions but if I took criticism to heart, it would quickly paralyze my creativity. I practice checking in on how I think and feel about a situation as the voice who gets the final say.
In in my last post “I don’t have a creative bone in my body”, I talked about how creating abstract art is about being brave and letting your instincts come forth. It requires recognizing when the inner critic is lurking and to shoo him away before he starts interfering with your mojo. And some days he is really, really, really persistent. Here are some of the things I catch my inner critic saying.
You’re not a real artist. Art is a selfish indulgence. Why has it taken you so long to come this far? You can’t draw. Now you’ve ruined it. People will see right through you and know you’re a fraud. Your expressions are trite.Seriously, ouch. This is the part that requires bravery. I like to head him off by inviting him in.
I like to think of creative instincts as important impulses to recognize as they come forth. And yes, you have them (see previous post). Now you might be saying I have no idea what you are talking about or I know exactly what you are talking about. When you recognize the creative impulse it’s important not to think too much. For me, it means taking action in my studio and starting the work. I decide in advance that I will not temper the creative impulses that show up and that I will not take heed of my inner critic. It means making random, impulse driven marks with all kinds of materials. It means trusting what you have learned before this moment to come forth at the right time. YES! This is one place where acting on your impulses without thinking it through is embraced! Your work will reward you for acting on your impulses. But not every time, sorry. An art journal or inexpensive paper is a great place to begin this practice. I use materials that I won’t worry about wasting. The creative instinct is curiosity and experimentation.
In retrospect I can look back at all of the ways I have played it safe artistically. Have you learned to be brave and trust your instincts? Are you playing it safe? Are you somewhere in between?
I don’t have a creative bone in my body. How many times have you heard people say it? How many times have you said it? Every time I hear these words, my visceral response is no! Not true! Life itself is a creative act! What I think people mean is “I can’t draw”. For most of us, our evaluation of our own ability to create came when we compared our first drawings against the incredibly practiced and/or gifted students in our classrooms. Our first assignments are to draw from objects. The more your drawing looks like the object the better artist you are, right?
Wrong! I wish every student’s first art lesson was being allowed to explore art supplies. Choose from colors that are personally exciting, choose from media that behave in all sorts of ways. Choose papers with different weights and textures. Create simple shapes, forms, and scribbles and be taught to love the unique expression that comes forth. Discovery unearths our creativity. Linking ideas together in unique ways is finding your creative voice.
My first formal artistic experiences were trying to make a likeness of some thing. When I could not do this on my first, second, or third try, my feelings were of failure and my conclusion was I can’t make art. This was so at odds with the intense pleasure I felt looking at colors of pastels and paints. The experience of each texture was so satisfying. Watching the paint run and make art on its own was exciting and mysterious.
I’m sure there are many of you with creativity seeping out of you any way possible in the meals you cook, the walls you paint, the gifts you wrap, and gardens you grow. In the wardrobes you curate, the fonts you pick, and the things you design and build. And how about all of the daily problems you solve? The way you teach others? All of it is your creative bend. Your unique expression. And it has nothing at all to do with being able to draw a straight line. It has everything to do with being brave and allowing your instincts to flow. And that, is some scary stuff! More on that next time. For now, instead of saying you are not creative you might ask yourself how does my creativity express itself?
I have struggled this week in my studio. Things were smooth sailing when I decided to explore new territory. I have played and experimented with completely abstract works recently. My previous painting technique was to begin abstractly without any recognizable figures and then to add images, patterns, and motifs that I had drawn in my sketchbook. Images anchor me to something I can build on in the painting. The problem began when I started to become bored with my images. My paintings began to look contrived. I felt hollow as I looked at them.
I have been drawn into complex works of abstract expressionists at an even deeper level. The paintings are raw and alive. The images are immediate not planned. There is mystery and depth I would like to make in my work. Abstract expression is inside of me but it is a different way of working. Without imagery for an anchor or a step by step process there is just me and my instincts.
Yesterday I painted about 7 or 8 ugly paintings.
Ugly paintings are self-expression too and that is where fear comes into play. It is one thing to be vulnerable on a canvas when the goal of the painting is beauty. It is quite another to put yourself on the canvas only to discover it is displeasing. I am putting my struggle and my inability to execute what I imagine on the canvas. And there it is looking back at me in all its undesirability and mystery. It’s 100% my work that came 100% from me. Most people never acknowledge the displeasing parts of themselves let alone invite it in. I will tell you it is not pleasant. Most people want to know exactly how to do something before they do it. I am learning to accept all of me in the painting process and to invite the fear of failure.
In the pursuit of meaningful and beautiful paintings there is no avoiding the ugly ones that come in between. If I do not invite the fear and allow it a space I will never feel the freedom and delight of an authentic painting that is well executed. I am continually amazed at the parallels between painting and living.
Maybe you have skimmed the art and formed a first impression. Maybe you have attached some descriptive words to the art. Attaching words to my art is a challenge for me. Giving the art a title for example, or answering questions about what I was thinking when I was painting can be challenging because the language of visual art is the art. The viewer’s inquiry is part of the success of the painting. Representational paintings are objective in nature and replicate something the viewer can readily see and respond “Aha! That looks exactly like an apple!” The artist is translating something they see outwardly on their canvas. Abstract art is made by the artist looking inward for inspiration and allowing each mark to direct what comes next. Suddenly there is something that exists for all to see that did not exist a short while before! There are principals that hold true for all types of work like form, composition, color, and value. A basic understanding of these things is necessary to make good art. I use these guidelines to create as well as evaluate the work I make. You can also use these principals in evaluating abstract art if you are not sure what to look for.
What makes great art? There are a lot of opinions on that. I am constantly in pursuit of creating the always elusive great painting. I may never paint it. How depressing is that? The best I can do is take the knowledge and experience that I collect along my artists journey and allow it to intertwine with my art instinct. Ethereal, I know.
I paint because it allows me to express what is inside and around me in a way that words do not. I love words! I love to read and truly get excited by others ability to eloquently state the human experience in a way that is instantly relatable. Writing is a creative gift! I paint because I am a visual and tactile person who likes to get her hands dirty and create! I put my hands directly in every painting. I paint because each painting is an adventure and an exploration. While making things on a daily basis one develops a relationship with the materials and the subtleties of the process. Like a writer, I also strive to create an experience that is relatable. Does viewing a painting elicit an emotion in you?
What is my hope for my painting practice? To continually learn and express myself visually in a way that (some) people can relate too. I will paint regardless because it gives my life meaning and interest, but it is so gratifying for a person to look at my work and feel something, anything! Aesthetic pleasure, fascination, mystery, disdain, or interest. Do you want to explore the work further? I consider that a successful painting! I strive to make people look at whats been created and wonder how did she do that? Where does that come from? How do I feel in response to it?
If you connect with my work, visit often, comment, and ask questions. And thank you for being interested enough to read this post! If you would like to continue this relationship follow me on instagram @byoungquistart and like my FB page byoungquistart. You can also receive these blog posts directly in your inbox by entering your email below at the bottom of this page. Be assured, I will not abuse the privilege.