I have been drawing ever since I can remember, and it is an obsession that brings me both great agony and tremendous pleasure. After decades of practicing the craft, I’ve come to understand why it is said that the process of making art is a spiritual practice.
At the entrance of my studio hangs a note titled, “On Beginning a Painting,” which lists ten thoughts Richard Diebenkorn (printmaker and painter) wrote to himself. I read the list as a reminder to trust the processes of making art and living life. It also reminds me to stay with the ugliness I am about to experience, both inside myself and out on the canvas.
As I look ahead to a new decade, I read Richard’s note as a source for broader guidance. Sometimes all I want is for things to be certain, but we live in uncertain times. Uncertainty torments me, so I have come to use certainty as a way of creating a sense of safety. I want something I can count on, even when I know the only thing that is certain is change. I head to the studio to create something I think will give me a sense of control, solidity, and beauty.
Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may be a valuable delusion.*
The first mark on the white canvas is the most difficult one to make. Resistance sets in—resistance over the color palette, subject matter, brush size, or anything that keeps me from disturbing what has been perfect. White space is intimidating. Once the canvas is violated, the movement begins. The mind interacts with the strokes of the brush. Emotions tumble with visual images of perceived perfection. The fight leads the creative process for hours, days, or even years, until the conversation with the piece finally begins to flow. The lines and shapes at last cooperate with one another to form a piece that works. The stopping point is the artist’s call.
This interaction with the inner and outer experiences is painful and sometimes fun. Over the years, I have found that self-remembering is at the heart of any transformative artistic process. Each time I stand before a white piece of paper, my experience is shaped by how I interact with the paper, pencil, and light. More importantly, it is shaped by my presence.
Gurdjieff said that being present is the act of self-remembering. This involves maintaining attention both on the body and on what is happening outside the body. Drawing a still life can launch my inner experience into a frenzy. My chest begins to tighten; my arms feel heavy. I become agitated. My breath shallows, and I sense a pouncing pain in my lower back. It feels almost impossible to create graceful lines on the page. All of this happens as I look at an orderless clump of lines on an expensive piece of paper. But when I stay present to what is happening inside my body, something begins to transform. The image on the page may not be any different, but my relationship to what is happening changes me in ways that may not be evident.
The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.*
Still, again and again, as I line up the brush, a color palette selected, my mind begins to plan the end result. That’s when I turn to Diebenkorn’s notes to remind myself of “the pretty” which can be addictive. My inner critic participates in every artistic process. It tries to convince me to create an organized, clean, symmetrical work that will impress. When the critic is at work, I’m warned by familiar signs. My focus narrows, and I start second-guessing myself about everything–from the color palette to the size of the canvas. I tell myself that I’m giving up. “What’s the use?” If I stay with the resistance and stay in touch with my body, I can move through the struggle and transport the painting to another level. If not, I leave my studio tired, with a backache, and disgusted with what remains on the easel.
Over the years, with presence, I’ve begun to experience a different relationship with myself and with my artwork. I can now be curious about what will happen on the white page and enjoy the process. It’s amazing what happens when I stay grounded in my body, remaining curious about what occurs in front of and inside me. The process becomes enjoyable. I call on internal grounded energy that is open to the mystery of what is possible. I discover colors, textures, painting methods, or new things about how I interact with myself. I find myself in a more expansive space for anything that wants to emerge.
The creation process is messy, unpredictable, and sometimes downright ugly. It may even feel like a waste of time. I try to remember that internal energy mirrors itself in an outward image.
Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.*
Art may inspire the viewer, and yet the process transforms the artist. Art has helped me to deeply expand my understanding of myself. It has called my attention to my need for structures, models, and hypotheses as a way of providing certainty in an uncertain world. Art has been my refuge and my sparring partner.
On another level, art can be a personal narrative that connects us with the larger community and is regenerative beyond measure. Since the blank canvas provides the space to experiment and be curious, it also allows for an alchemic process that connects us to a source larger than ourselves.
The world is in a constant state of flux; that is for certain. But by employing our creative energy, we can tap inner resources that nourish us and bond us with the collective desire to make sense of our time here on earth.
*Quotes are from Richard Diebenkorn’s “On Beginning a Painting.”