Have you noticed it is exciting to start a painting, but you lose interest in the middle? I argue that we never lose interest in a sound composition, whether we are the artist or just the spectator. It is the geometric arrangement of lights and darks and lines of motion that capture our eye time after time as we walk through the gallery, even if we’ve seen the picture a thousand times before. It never gets old.
If this is true, then when you lose interest in something you are working on, it can only be that the composition is not really the one you believe in. Your compositional choices at the very beginning were a lapse into a second-hand, or borrowed, aesthetic. You are painting someone else’s picture.
The watercolorist Mary Whyte points out that it isn’t enough for the artist to simply feel something, even something forcefully, about the scene or the composition. She must understand her reaction in a highly detailed way: what, precisely, do I like about this specific sunset? If the colors, what about the colors? Haven’t I seen them before? Why is this sunset different from every other sunset I’ve loved?
If I know myself deeply enough, I’ll be able to name (for a writer) or frame (a painter) the utterly unique quality of each aesthetic shiver. “Thisness.” This sunset, this flower, this smile on a child is different from all others. But the truth is that the inner clarity to articulate Thisness to yourself is rare, even among hard-working artists.
I feel the first moment of delight from the inside, standing too close to the sensation to circumscribe it with intellect. I feel beauty wherever it is inside me that beauty feels, and my mind and heart are engaged in a unified feeling intellect. But, caution: in the second moment, distinct from the first, I will start making compositional choices, and it is likely that the precise element that delights me is ambiguously buried within the larger visual field in front of me. It may be one shape in the clouds, one color bumping against another, or even a color that I’ve never seen before. Whatever it is that caught my eye about this specific sunset is what the painting should be about. It often is not. It is surprisingly hard to know the precise, granular, unique object of delight in the second moment, the cognitive moment where I capture something useful about the sensation, as the first moment rapidly fades. It is hard to know because, among other distractions, the subconscious offers memories of previous artists’ compositions. Those subconscious templates will offer themselves as frames for your picture, and actually get in between you and the…Thisness.
This second moment might be only a nano-time from the first, the time of electrons between neurons, but it is so artistically distinct as to be a world apart. We are fooled by how much fades in that split instant of time. The mind immediately begins to work, and it is beginning in this second moment that I believe the entire inherited store of images comes rushing in to supply conventional templates for ordering the feeling and the memory of the image. Most compositions actually belong to someone else that the artist doesn’t know. So: boredom, halfway through the painting. The good news is that you are not bored by your own creativity (impossible); you are bored by the ghost images obscuring your own creative vision.
I don’t want to sound too Zen a note here. I believe many are bewitched at this point by the tone of Zen which has tinctured the literature of artistic practice, and head in the exact wrong direction. The mind is not the enemy. Nor does it it necessarily falsify the original vision. It is a dead end to get this first flash of insight and move into the second moment at all suppressing or subverting the mind, or in any way treat the compositional impulse as some corrupted addition to the initial vision. The mind is not the enemy, the compositional impulse is not the enemy; the enemy is to not know your own subconscious store. The enemy is alienation; alienation is when we are moved or affected by internal factors that we do not know. The enemy is not that the mind is too active; it is that it is not active enough, not rigorous, clear, and disciplined enough.
The First Moment is very “zen”; every moment after is the opposite. These two distinct moments with their distinct movements each have their own set of practices, and they feel – this is crucial – opposite. To confuse the two is to hopelessly confuse your own self. The key to the First Moment is to know nothing. The key to the Second Moment is to know yourself.
This First Moment / Second Moment pattern has been recognized in widely disparate bodies of literature. For example, Wordsworth famously described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’m using different words – “delight” and “composition”, and so on, to translate into the language of the visual artist, but I think this is the same double movement of the soul. Wordsworth’s “emotion” is the First Moment, the instant of “inspiration” (how I hate that word.) Wordsworth’s “recollected in tranquility” is the poet’s hard work in the study, in the Second Moment, and beyond.
Writers have developed their insights into the differences between these distinct internal operations, and the “How to write” books are full of un-alienation wisdom. I can’t rehearse all that they know here, except to observe that what works in one stage of artistic response is the opposite of what works in the next.
Back to painting. I believe as artists grow in their knowledge of themselves they prune non-essentials from the compositional frame. As they come to see more clearly their own eyes they zoom in, and throw more and more out of the frame. Now this not new advice. “Simplify”, we are told in a hundred different ways. But few realize the advice to “simplify” is not just a technique of composition, a matter of craft; it is a matter of soulcraft. Know nothing, then know yourself, then, and only then – forgive me for this – be the painting. Workshop instructors would do well to consider that the key to composition is not “the golden mean” or “movement through the picture plane” or even “blocks of value”, but… moral courage. When the artist loses interest before the work is done it is a sign he is working on someone else’s painting.
Every painter experiences how mysteriously hard it is to hear the counsel to “simplify” and then to do it. There is a resistance. There’s a stubborn resistance from within that puzzles most of us for years.
Practical advice: if you can, sit perfectly still for 5 minutes and look at what caught your attention, doing nothing else. Notice the track of your own eyes around the visual field. Your own eye movements will draw the center of attention for you. Wherever your gaze wanders, that and that alone is what interests you. So draw or put the brush only on the one thing you like the most – it will amaze you how small it is – and then blow that up to fill your entire picture frame. 90% of what you see can be thrown away. If you do this right, it will give you cold sweaty palms, like working without a net. And that’s you that you finally feel.
I’m giving advice to artists, as if I actually know something. I’m talking to myself.