I am contemplating contemplation, as I struggle once again with the underpainting for a complicated subject. I often paint subjects that I find challenging. If I decide a certain photograph I took that would make a nice a painting, and then I think it looks way too difficult, I know I need to paint it for certain. Now, all artists have mental blocks we have to fight to keep the creative process flowing. One of my mental blocks is thinking that I should do everything right the first time. Please note the heavy dose of irony in my impossibly conflicting goals.
It helps to contemplate why I paint in the first place. What is it exactly the artist (in this case, me, since I can’t necessarily generalize about every artist) gets out of this labourious process that may lead to satisfaction sometimes, and other times down twisting paths of self doubt and frustration? What exactly is the good in anything worth pursuing?
These days I think the mass media would have us believe that what people are supposed to want is entertainment in the form of distraction, sensory overload, a lot of information at a rapid pace with no depth, and plenty of jittery, over-caffeinated jumps from one thing to the next. To me, that is so irritating I don’t watch television because it actually gives me a headache, so I’m pretty sure that has nothing to do with what I’m after- except that perhaps it’s the opposite-?
Then I recall that when I was much younger, I used to think the greatest thing in life was to be the very best in something. I’m not much of a naturally competitive person, so I must have been just reflecting the culture. Then I would start to worry about it. What if a person was finally, indisputably, the best in the world at something or other, but next year, somebody else was? Would it all that striving be for nothing, then?
Now I’m not trying to be simplistic and nail down a single answer about why I paint, or why anyone should be motivated to paint. I just know one thing that helps is to realize how much I value contemplation. Contemplation is being in the moment, completely grounded in the immediate experience of where you are and what you are doing. Animals have that all the time- except they don’t create art. They also don’t exactly have language in the way humans do, and language can get in the way, because it takes the mind out of that contemplative state of being and into the world of collective concerns.
Living in a world of fast paced distractions means it takes a conscious effort to shift gears. Living in a world that places such a high value on being the “best” means it takes a conscious effort to let go of that. Letting go is being aware that I have a tendency to twist myself into knots when I don’t do something right the first time (I suspect that I’m not alone in that)- and that gets directly in the way of one of the biggest things that motivates me to paint in the first place.
What I really love about painting is that the more I work on something, the more times I have to go over and over the same section of the painting, the more I see- a mesmerizing world of shapes within shapes, unfolding slowly in changing patterns.
In this way painting is like meditation- it can be a meditation on the world of nature, or humanity, or simply colours and shapes and the texture of the paint. Not every painting has that sense of meditative reflection in it, because artists paint for many different reasons. Yet for me, it is what I am most attracted to when I look at paintings in an art gallery, and it is what makes me want to spend my life creating my own. It is a state of being that is not easy to put into words. It just is.