On Painting

The Great Painting Conundrum

I've always thought there must be some deep hidden secret to being a “good” painter, and if I just worked long and hard enough, read enough, looked enough, eventually I would figure it out, and everything I touched would turn to magic, just like all those amazing, seemingly flawless painters out there creating masterpiece after stunning masterpiece.

I thought all those incredible painters had discovered a special key that unlocked all the mysteries of painting, and they just weren’t sharing.

A favorite painter, Joan Eardley!

I think I’m figuring out that yes, there is a secret. Part of the secret is that great painters make bad paintings. A lot of bad paintings. And they never know if the painting they’re about to start, or are currently working on, is going to flop. Really great painters still feel like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing most of the time. If they did, there would be no creativity involved. They would just be following a formula and cranking out paintings.

Another part of the secret is this: no one is sharing the "key" to their painting because, well, they really can’t. They can talk about their process, and it can be very interesting, but they can't impart their process. In the end it belongs to them. One person’s process for getting into the paint can’t be another person’s process. One person’s individual relationship with the paint can’t be another person’s. What one person is supposed to paint is not what someone else is supposed to paint.

A painter can teach techniques, tips, tricks, the physical properties of the paint and the surface. They can show you how to look at things differently. They can teach you the science of things. But they can’t teach you how to make YOUR paintings. You can learn and study with other painters all you want, but eventually you have to go off on your own and find your own paintings.

Great painters know how to let go of the finished product. They learn how to not care if they make a “mistake” in a painting. They’re not afraid to make a move that’s going to destroy hours and hours (or days or months) of work because they know that, without some level of risk, there will be nothing interesting about the painting.

Ah..... Turner

Great painters know what not to paint. They don't paint things because they are easy or marketable or popular. They don't paint to wow the crowd. They know when their ego is calling the shots, and they know how to shut it down. They get familiar with the voices in their heads - which ones to silence and which ones to pay attention to. They know how to create a safe place to work, where mistakes are always welcome and rewarded, where there is no judging a painting for how well it follows the rules, but instead for whether it's real and how well it engages the spiritual senses.

The great conundrum about painting is that, while you have to continually educate yourself, and acquire a sincere reverence for the centuries of painters that have gone before, and spend a lot of time earnestly practicing, eventually that practice becomes less about knowing “how to paint” and more about how to let go of all that knowing. One has to lose the need to control everything and learn to be guided towards unexpected outcomes.

Great painters understand that the more you know, the more you come to understand how very little you know. And the more you think you know, the less interesting the painting will be. The most beautiful moments in painting come from standing on a solid foundation of knowledge and practice, and then leaping out into the unknown. It’s freedom and liberation. It's taking huge risks. It's a twist on the age-old adage of not caring about winning or losing but how much you just love playing the game.

I’ve only maybe just sort of begun to kind of grasp this. Painting in this way is very, very hard to do.  It's like playing golf where every now and then, you hit that perfect drive... you don't really know how you did it, but your mind and body went somewhere else, and you did it. Sure, you practiced and learned and watched for years, but then somehow you let go of the trying. And it's such an amazing feeling that you want to be able to hit the ball like that every time! But you know you can't.

Every now and then I have those moments of true freedom. I need more time. I feel a strange urgency to this madness.