Over the past year I have had different people tell me that I have become somewhat spiritual. One person actually said that I’ve become warm and fuzzy! Well, warm and fuzzy I can understand – there’s no surprise there. But spiritual? That’s a different kettle of fish. Let’s take a look.
I think this whole spiritual thing arose because I have been thinking in terms of painting as enchantment. I cautioned against equating my sense of enchantment with the more available sense of enchantment, the la-di-da Ezio Pinza kind that one can access without effort (the kind that can be had by simply setting up a nice little dinner table outside, sipping great wine, and listening to Pinza sing Some Enchanted Evening as the sun goes down). That kind of Pinza enchantment may be great for kicking back and revitalizing happy hour, but the kind of enchantment that makes art both edgy and life-giving is the kind that rips us out of fru fru land and yet has us all a tremble as we watch two shadows come together. That kind of enchantment, following Jane Bennett, turns on a revitalization of wonder.
But there’s a catch. Before one can slip into these moods of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, where we are then in a position to notice sensations, like color, previously ignored, one must find ways of escaping or exiting from our ordinary realms of perception and being – which begs the question: Why must we exit our everyday, ordinary realm? The answer is this: not only do our widely shared ordinary ways of thinking subvert access to the kind of enchantment I’m getting at, they are also celebrated as right ways of thinking at the very center of the good life we embrace (the institutional setting that we have inherited).
Let’s Take A Look
I think it may be useful to explain this kind of spiritualism (if you wish to call it that) by showing you some of my recent work at the same time that I describe my own strategies of escaping the ways of thinking that we all know and embrace. However, I will show you only details of paintings at first (you will be able to find each of the paintings from which the details were taken at the end of this blog) because I want to bring you into the sensual realm with me. The key, I believe, is to see just the sensual pieces of the subject. I will try to explain to you what is happening to me as I respond to those sensations and how I let go of my “ordinary” ways of thinking, being, and seeing that tend to block my passage to enchantment. There are four barriers, as it were, that I must think about getting past: 1) thinking that matter is inert; 2) not staying in the moment and seeing painting as a means to some external end or what is called instrumental rationality; 3) the urge to master nature instead of opening oneself to it; and 4) certain career path strategies that might slip into what is called a calculating rationality.
1. Letting go of the belief that matter is inert
I’ve arrived at my location. My easel is set up. I have two clamps on my palette and a clamp holding the canvas to the easel. It is cold but I wear no gloves. Everything must be absolutely solid; I may have to attack the canvas and I want nothing to move. My fingers must be absolutely sensitive to the handle of my brush. My palette is freshly loaded and absolutely clean. I am anxious. It’s like walking a tightrope, I suppose. There are lots of ways of slipping and falling and, therefore, lots of “absolutes.” I will exit and soar and breathe, see, and be in wonder, or when I throw the switch, nothing will happen. I won’t get off the ground. I won’t exit from my everyday mechanistic, desiccated world where I am separate from everything, where I have “work” to do and ladders to climb, and then I will pack all my gear back into the car, drive home disappointed and look forward to my stupid drink at the end of the day – okay, late-afternoon – where I – oh dear me – yes – unwind. Might as well shoot myself.
I try to relax and to focus. I need to escape and as Robert Henri has pointed out, “Nature doesn’t reveal herself to the negligent.” Nature loves to play, to hide, to tease, to play tricks, to seduce, to capture and take you away. But I must also learn to surrender totally for any of this to happen. I look over there. Ugh! Just silence. So I just start in and begin to mix a color. I feel stiff. Nothing is happening. Everything is dead. I’m hoping that nature will begin the conversation. Without using words, I ask, “Are you there?”
My iPod is now pouring, almost at maximum volume my special “take me away” music – and besides, the music encapsulates me – shelters me from the people who will be watching and hovering about. Interference from them breaks the spell. I’m ready.
In my ordinary realm, I must pay the bills to survive. I’m trapped in the realm of necessity like everyone else. But notice how I’m a different person in that everyday realm than in the realm of enchantment. The imperative to pay the bills introduces a flatness to the way in which I perceive the world.
For example, as much as I love the aesthetic of the house we just built, part of me was thinking resale value throughout the entire time that it was being built. And equally as empty, the glass, steel, cement, and wood used to build the house was just so much inert matter, piled up, waiting to be used.
But now as I hope to enter an entirely different realm – one that is magical and mysterious in ways – I must confront those prior feelings where nature is dead stuff or a simple resource to one where that same “dead stuff” may provide me with a meaningful sensual experience. Now I’m deeply yearning for an affective attachment with glass, steel, cement, and wood. And with some patience and resolve, as I begin to mix paint with an attitude of self-surrendering, I have feelings not unlike the feelings one has as when a drug noticeably starts kicking in. It’s an impulse of color I feel within. Matter has once again become affective. Where do you want to go? – I respond silently.
2. Letting go of an instrumental rationality
A deep yellow vibrates at me. It moves, dances, and seduces me. With a caressing stroke, I try and mix the color back, and as deftly as I possibly can, I drag and turn and push my brush around, following nature’s lead. I want to vibrate too. My own trillion molecules and that of those yellow vibrating photons seem to merge. With a deliberate swirly stroke of an olive greenish color, I respond to an olive greenish prompt. I’m being drawn in. I feel my brush being pulled up, delicately and off. I am welcomed. We are one, dancing. A silly thought passes through my brain: who needs a Porsche?
An intensely entrepreneurial friend has pressured me to embark on a failsafe project (we have replaced the term bourgeoisie with the euphemistic term entrepreneur; it sounds so much more – well – superior): we would organize weddings on Lake Como. But I don’t care about weddings, I protested. Nobody does. But think of the money you could make. Great. I make money and die in the process.
Let me see if I’ve got this: I do things for an external reward and the doing part of the activity means nothing to me. Isn’t that the definition of meaningless? Ah, but the meaningless activity, the instrument, gets me the reward and with the reward I can buy things like, say, a Porsche.
Instrumental rationality, with painters, is like some furtive stalker. Nearly everyone is compelled to paint for an agent of one kind or another. Therefore, a painter is under pressure – and I mean right during the process of painting itself – to think about results, or what will please the agent. The act of painting then becomes like the act of eating a sandwich. Each beginning is a kind of starting gate where one chews through the process until one reaches the end – all in one go. If I were to approach painting like that it would be impossible to sink into and get lost within pulsating moments because I would be riveted to that future moment called finished. If nature is to speak with me, I must never look for results, or know where the painting is going, or whether I will continue with it after the spell is broken, when I am finished (my emphasis). I have to push all those ordinary modes of making – a cake, a car, a house – and all the respective agents out of my head and escape from the sense that what I am doing is production. “Begin everything, finish nothing,” Sargent reminded us. I am there, with brush in hand, only for the purpose of savoring magical moments. Did you see that? A whisper of purple twirling. Yes! I’m alive. Possess me, then. I’m with you. Carry me away. You see, for me the payoff isn’t the pat on the back, the sale, or the freaking prize; it’s the pleasure in the moment of creation, where I’m fully whole and vibrating with what I see. If I weren’t getting these little surges of pleasure as I painted, I wouldn’t be painting.
3. Letting go of the need to master nature
It’s not surprising that they call the financiers on Wall St. “masters of the universe.” Making tons of money mastering stuff is where the action is, I believe. They use algorithms you know. Very bright people. But the mentality that is about mastering is the mentality that shuts down my oneness with the subject that I so enjoy, need, and feed off of. Suppose I were to say to myself: I’m bright too and capable, just like those mastering types. Okay then, let’s master this thing: I am not particularly interested in the color of the lake I see today – rather drab; I want the color “to pop” (a common motivation it seems) so I add in some white with a perky blue. Well, if I move in that direction, I might just as well paint from a photo or out of my head because I would then be separate from the subject anyway. Either way, the subject is objectified. Goodbye oneness, seduction, goodbye getting carried across the universe, and goodbye being able to see beyond the ordinary. (No wonder the color that I saw bored me.)
Look, one doesn’t have to be one with nature to be a painter but I do. I often push colors or if there are 3 or 4 colors swirling about, I may choose just the one that I seem to be tasting more. But when I manipulate nature in some way in the service of an idea, my ability to see deeply into things simply dies away because my feelings have died away. I’m totally in my head. Moreover, if I spend 10 seconds mastering the results and downplaying what I see, it’s ten seconds not really seeing. I must let go of mastering nature as an approach. Absolutely. One lifetime is not enough time to go very deeply anyway. As many artists have said at the very end of their lives, Degas being one of them, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!”
4. Letting go of a calculating rationality
Remember Hillary? Sigh. She was a calculator. And what was the line on her? She was inauthentic. We all know the feeling when we are in the ordinary realm, networking, maneuvering. Air kissing. The perpetual frozen smile. On the make constantly. We are not ourselves. Look at Damien Hirst. The cow’s head covered with maggots. Was that inspiration or calculation? Now he is the highest paid “artist” in the world. No wonder Matisse and so many other artists have been so hostile to the practice of calculating out strategies to succeed.
If and when I’m calculating out my super career path, here’s the big problem: I’m never the person who is able to get drunk on pink and blue photons dancing before me. I would be too busy thinking about what particular painting direction will advance my career. It took me years to even begin to feel a twinge of color. Now I use all my energy to slip into that realm where I can see a twinkling and seductive lime green. I crave for it to propel me. I want it to curse through me. I’m a color junkie. Or maybe I’m a color tripper? Who knows? If I become a hoop jumper, a contest competitor, a super-duper award winner and resume builder, great. I will move step-by-step up the freaking ladder; but again, I let go of all that for the simple reason that seeing more deeply – which is to say becoming a better painter, is not something that is or can be calculable. There is a greater imperative: I need to believe in myself where I am now. I’m too obsessed at the moment with being unnerved by that orange that seemingly keeps twinkling at me.
I don’t know if any of you still think I’m spiritual. I hope I’ve made it clear that whatever my “ism” is, it is not the kind that sits off to the side of or is disengaged from the success treadmill, or something that I can access at will or with ease. When and if enchantment happens it is because I have developed a bit of a strategy to access it and, apart from the music, it turns on consciously confronting and then letting go of those ordinary ways of being I have inherited. It requires, I’ve learned, a sense of anxiety. Not only am I unsure that if I access enchantment I won’t fall off my little tightrope, I know I must be a different person during those few precious moments when I am painting, that is, a somewhat different person than the person I am when I’m navigating the choppy seas of basic survival. I have a foot in each realm. This can be joyous to be sure, but it is also tormenting.
Bennett acknowledges this tension. She notes also that moving out of an atomized and predictable routine and into a realm where we are enamored with existence and able to feel moments of pure presence, creates within us a sense of being charmed but also a sense of being disturbed. The feeling of wonder is never far from the feeling of unease. This kind of spiritualism, if that is the correct word, for me at least, turns on a scraping off, a starting over, a letting go of what I already know, what I already can do well (especially as a painter); it is a kind tearing away, an uprooting, a dislocation, a resisting, a disobeying, a being bad! Eugene Bodin, Monet’s teacher, once said that when he painted the clouds it was “such a joy and such a torment.” Manet also used those exact same words to describe his realm of freedom. Funny, huh?
Let me end with a brief description of Cèzanne to re-enforce these points. He deplored competitions and awards. Many who knew him said that his only friends were trees and, therefore, would feel compelled to buy property when an entrepreneur saw in the respective trees only a resource and was prepared to chop them down (Renoir did this too). He constantly talked about sensations (as did Monet and Pissarro), vibrating and germinating with nature, and he regularly conversed with the nature that he painted. He declared again and again, that he would never allow entrepreneurs or to use his language, the bourgeoisie, to get “their hooks” into him. In fact, so hostile was he to those who lived exclusively in the realm of what I have been calling, following Bennett, “ordinary perception,” that he never simply used the term “bourgeoisie” by itself. He would always say instead, “the dirty bourgeoisie.” And why was there that burning hostility? It might be because he was obsessed with “realizing” (his word) who he was most. In other words, painting for him was, at its most fundamental, an activity of becoming. And so he would say, “With each canvas, I’m never the same man but I’m always Cèzanne.” “With each stroke I risk my life.”
Definitely a serious guy. And, I don’t know, rather spiritually engaged, don’t you think?
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). It is Bennett’s concept of enchantment that I have been working with and it isn’t a stand-alone idea; it is part of a pairing with the concept of disenchantment, which is a critique of modernity advanced by sociologist Max Weber. When I read Bennett I was stunned by her use of language and by the fact that her articulation of what she calls “sites of enchantment” bore an uncanny resemblance to what many great painters and writers have been pointing to as the realm we painters need to enter if we are to have half a chance at making art. Hence my desire to identify the activity of painting, when properly understood, as enchantment. All the italicized words in this blog unless otherwise noted are taken from Bennett.
 I’m referring to the ways in which we make and distribute our work in the larger art industry without thinking much about it. For example, if a private dealer wished to exhibit Monet’s work, he would have bought the work outright. Today, we beseech gallery owners to allow us to provide them with a free inventory so that they may sell our work on consignment. The difference is significant, but it is an inherited way of selling our work that we don’t think twice about and, worse, consider the practice to be just fine.
 As Monet once stated, “What people do not understand about my work is that it is a total self-surrender.”
 “If he’s sincere, if he’s entirely taken up with what he’s researching, he can’t do painting that flatters art lovers. If he’s concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling he neglects his gifts and eventually loses them.” Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, Tate Publishing, p. 56.
 “….where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfillment or wholeness.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 425
The following 27 slides represent a powerpoint presentation that I gave to my winter classes in the US where I explored the notion of painting as enchantment. The notion that there is a “mood” or “extraordinary moment” or “state of being,” often described as a “thrill,” a “rush,” childhood “innocence,” or a sense of feeling “larger” that enables a painter to feel “more intensely alive” or “see beyond the ordinary,” has been talked about by painters for quite some time. The notion especially intrigued me ever since I achieved the ability to produce correct paintings that were dead on arrival, decades ago.
For example, Manet tells us that we are not painters unless we are “moved.” Monet reveals that his orientation as a plein-air painter turned on a “total-self surrender” before the “sensations” of nature, so much so that he tried his best not to see the thing (as a thing) before him. Cèzanne explains how nature talks to him, how he “vibrates,” and at times, “germinates” before the “sensations” of nature and “realizes” who he is. Renoir and Matisse emphasize how the expressive process is driven by various feelings and pleasures. Picasso, Baudelaire, and Henri, in this regard, make reference to the sense of wonder one experiences as a child. Mallarmè speaks of the virtue of feeling “pure presence.” Henri goes so far as to suggest that entering into this mood makes art “inevitable.”
It was with delight, then, that I found Jane Bennett’s (whom I’ve referenced before in this blog) thoughts on enchantment. Although Bennett is not telling an art story but a story about the liveliness of matter and the “peculiar mood” of enchantment as it “erupts amid the everyday” in modern life, and especially as it relates to ethics, her descriptions of this peculiar mood, what might induce it, or what the experience might be like, struck me as instruction, reaching back across the decades: this is what you painters (as opposed to the writers) have been trying to say: “give greater expression to the sense of play;” “hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things;” become “enamored with existence;” stay in the “moment of pure presence;” and “you’ll discern details previously ignored.” Thus the powerpoint presentation (made into a video), before you now, contains a good deal of Bennett’s lush and nuanced use of language, unattributed, given that in the presentations I was able to explain Bennett’s contribution verbally.
One note of caution: Monet implored his followers to understand that the “excitement and ecstasy” he expressed, or “his passion for nature,” was not rooted in some sense of a “fairyland.” Rather, he emphasized that the “joy” that he derived from painting was not separate from a kind of “torment.” Bennett, herself, suggests that the experience of enchantment is both one of feeling “charmed and disturbed,” one of feeling “wonder and unease.” We will come back to why enchantment, when it is engaged with other orientations of modern life, carries with it a touch of discomfort.
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001)
 Eugene Boudin (Monet’s primary teacher) and Edouard Manet both used precisely these same terms; namely, that “joy” and “torment” were linked.
I feel remiss in not writing more about craft. I worry that for the non-painter, the subject of craft may be boring. But alas, with workshops on the horizon, I feel compelled to wade into the craft-weeds, so to speak!
When I demonstrate the way in which I move from a white canvas to a complete painting, probably the one concept that students have most difficulty with is the concept that is called the “separation of values.” That’s a mouthful, I know. It’s painting jargon for the word “line.” Hang in there. I will tie this altogether in a moment, but let me toss in one other aspect to painting that is not talked about enough, if ever, especially in the context of craft.
The wonderful thing about painting from nature is that one is able to feel the liveliness and energy of the world in which we are born into and surrounded by, if only we take the time to examine the thing we are looking at with a degree of interest. If we slow down and open ourselves to nature, nature responds; it suggests things to us, reveals specificity that we all too often do not notice. This is what is meant when Robert Henri says, “Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.” But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s get back to the notion of values, first, and then move on to the lines that emerge when values separate.
1. What are Values?
Above are six blocks of color. Below are the same blocks in black and white. You can see how the colors move from the lightest to the darkest. This is what is meant by the value of a particular color or thing; that is, on a black and white scale, how something is either dark or light in relation to something else.
2. Our Still Life (Note: it isn’t “still;” it is very much alive!)
This is our still life that we wish to construct; therefore, we need to see and feel where values separate. Value separations and lines are the same thing!
3. First, We Must Squint
Whenever we paint, we must squint and then compare one thing against another. This is because we need to see relationships: what is darker or lighter than something else. (The same is true for judging color, by the way). So I have made the image blurry to convey the sense of squinting.
Squinting also enable us to see the whole or the emotional dust called atmosphere. Squinting enables us, then, to pass into a different realm of sensory perception.
4. Seeing and Feeling Value Relationships
As we squint, we want to feel all the parts as one thing, the whole. In the image above I have eliminated color so that we can better compare values. With the letter “A,” I am pointing to two areas, for example, where I see values separating. We now see that a separation occurs where there is an abrupt change in value. It’s a kind of boundary. So, I place a line in these places, and the more intense the separation, the more intense the line.
In the areas marked “B” there are changes in value, but the changes are gradual; but there are no separations and hence no lines.
5. Placing A Line Where There Are Value Separations
6. The Construction: Where We Perceive the Subject as Line
The image on the left is the Construction; however, it is computer generated from the above photos so it reads rather mechanical; which is to say, without feeling. Keep in mind that each stage is also a way to move into a realm of seeing where we experience just one part of the subject before us.
7. An Example From Real Life
This is a photo of the still life I used in a demonstration.
And this is the final painting from that demonstration. Obviously, there were other steps along the way, but I want to show you that we begin with a line drawing based upon value separations. Once we understand the concept of value separations, the key is trying to be one with your subject.
Remember: our subject matter is lively. It is not inert. Therefore, it is possible to feel the lines that nature reveals or suggests to us. Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.
A similar discussion can be had about color. But we will save that discussion for another day.
Okay, so now I’m standing on the shore of Lake Como looking at the water, mountains, and sky. My easel is set up. My palette is loaded with color. And I’m there with brush in hand, squinting at what is before me. Then what? Just what am I supposed to do?
Well, if I were doing this during my first ten years of painting, I would muster all the skill and knowledge that I possessed and I would basically make a copy of what I saw. Then I would, if I thought it were good, bring it back to my teacher for a critique – anticipating kudos, of course – and I would hear him say, with a tone of disappointment, “You need to get past the facts.”
What he meant, without having to say it, was that my painting, while correct, was dead. Way too literal. I realized, as time went on, that I would have a reasonable chance of creating something that is alive if I were alive, if instead of seeing water, mountains, and sky, I saw a tangle of line and color only, as would a visual artist opening to the music of visual sensations.
So why was not I getting this simple admonition during my first ten years? Because I just didn’t hear it. I assumed that what I was doing (and suppose to do) was making a painting, in effect managing a production process, with no emotion, and guided mainly by the desire to do well by some external measure. So naturally I focused on results and the method I used, which breaks the process down into line and color, became nothing more than an assembly line. My thinking, my assumptions, my approach were fine for making a cake, let’s say, or a pair of shoes, but in terms of injecting a life into my canvas, my approach was, to put it bluntly, ass-backwards.
Getting Past the Facts
Allow me to construct the necessary paradigm shift. The painting process is not an assembly line because the point of it all is not production. Think of each step as an invitation to – as Baudelaire implored – be drunk with visual experiences, the movement of things or the veils of atmosphere in which the subject is enveloped, for example. Then each step of the process is simply a prompt to look for visual pleasure. Each step is an invitation to not just express an emotional response but to realize a larger sense of self. That’s the payoff. I can illustrate this by showing you how great artists have responded to such prompts.
In the image above, we see how Degas responds to the movement or gesture of the model. Notice that he cares not about results. There are two heads, several arms and legs. And yet the lines are varied and lyrical. I can feel his feeling. The drawing is alive because he is intensely alive as he gets lost in gesture. Does he go further? into color? No. He stops. He has realized feelings that he wishes to leave in place. Is it finished? Wrong question. He’s not making shoes. The only appropriate evaluative question for a work of art is, “Is it alive?”
The work above is by Manet. It is a painting of Monet and his wife. Look at the face and the hand of Monet. They are messy because, for Manet, there is no face or hand. Manet is squinting, not looking for results, getting past the facts. He seems to be lost in the tonality (atmosphere) or harmony of the thing. In the detail on the right we see reconstruction lines. They are done with verve and authority. Clearly these lines are not mechanical, or assembly line steps to the painting stage. They are pleasure driven. Is the work unfinished? Wrong question. It’s complete and it’s alive. It’s a realization of who Manet was precisely in that moment of intense feeling.
The work above is by John Singer Sargent. On the left is a drawing of an orchestra pit and on the right is a painting that follows. Is he copying the facts? No way! In both, he simplifies the darks, the middles, and the lights into three distinct values. He gets the orchestra pit through line, both with gesture and with value separations. He also is captured by the sense of atmosphere: the people farther away are a bit lighter and they melt into the space around them. Does he get into the painting stage much? Not at all. The variety of color is played down. Could he have gone further? No doubt, but he chooses not to. It’s not about finishing a product or about producing a picture of the facts. It’s an expression of the feelings of the artist. Therefore, it’s not a painting of an orchestra pit. It’s a Sargent.
The above painting is by Robert Henri. He has gotten well into the painting stage but a literal fact cannot be found. The faces are just barely faces. The people further back are executed in the same way as are the flowers to the left: just strokes of color. Do you suppose he was bored when he did this? Or was making a product to please someone or to sell? Or did the visual menu before him simply invite him to get high?
The above image is a detail of a painting by Joaquin Sorolla. When the method invites him to reduce everything into three values, he doesn’t see a barrel, bushes, or flowers. He sees shapes of color, which then makes it easy for him to place these colors on the canvas in a scumbling-wash type manner. The darks are greenish but notice the subtle variety of the greens: some are slightly warmer or darker. Could he have seen those subtle differences were he not delighted by them? The red flowers are just spots of color. The bright yellow flowers are not flowers but simply a mass of light. Simple. Simple. Simple. But I don’t think he could simplify like this unless he got past the facts and got into opening himself to what nature was whispering to him. If he were not moved, do you think he could have reassembled the parts of his vision in such a powerful way? If he had simply copied the facts, do you think the work would compel us, not just to look at it, but to stare?
The above landscape is by Wolf Kahn who is now in his late 80s. Given his unusual use of color, I asked him if he made it up or if it were based upon what he saw as he painted in plein-air. He said it was the latter. As with so many painters he has made it clear that his work is not driven by external concerns or career. “I don’t need a feeling of success,” he once stated. “I just need an appetite to work to feel alive.”
The floral above was done by Jacques Truphèmus. He is a living French painter who is over 90 years old. I suspect that for many of you, this painting may be a tad too messy. But if that is the case, understand that the flowers were only a prompt for him to show us the feelings he had and that he realized as he looked for color.
Let me end with Monet. The image above is a detail from a painting which itself is 10 feet high and the full painting is also 30 feet long. What is it a painting of? Well, on one level I think the appropriate response would be, “What does it matter?” But for the record, it is a painting of his lily pond. Notice how Monet is combining line and color. His strokes of color (the last stage) are also gestural lines (the first stage). This makes the important point that a painting method is never an end in itself but a vehicle that empowers us and sets us free.
 William J. Schultz
I’ve always hated theories…My only quality is to have painted directly from nature…. – Monet
As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that? – Monet
My teacher, Bill Schultz, was as gentle a teacher as one could find. But when he demonstrated, questions about color use would drive him up the wall. Once, when asked what color he was using, he responded uncharacteristically tersely: “If you were listening to a concert pianist, would you ask what note he had just played?” Why would one of the gentlest and supportive teachers of all time snap at a student asking about color?
Questions about color are understandable; why wouldn’t I want to know what colors someone uses so that I may achieve similar results? But notice how quickly answers to such questions create problems. For example, I could respond by saying, “With dark pine trees I use ultramarine blue with a touch of deep cadmium yellow. Or, in blue skies I generally add a bit of quinacridone.” The student, then, is apt to go out and mix the “correct” color but in so doing she wouldn’t be feeling the colors. Instead she would be thinking the colors. The danger here is that the process, so wonderfully articulated by the Impressionists as one driven by sensation, would be transformed into a formulaic production process, driven by thought. The life-giving experience where one truly learns to see beyond the ordinary could possibly be lost. This is sacred ground. As Picasso once said about making love to a beautiful woman, “You don’t begin by measuring her arm.” We don’t begin seeing color by recalling some mixture someone else used in an entirely different setting!
Here’s a better way of asking someone about color use. “How do you see those colors?”
Robert Henri reminded us that the point of making a picture is not to make a picture. And why? Because for him, the crucial endeavor, beyond all else, was to visually get into an “extraordinary moment.” So many great painters keep coming back to the same point. Manet: you first have to be moved. Picasso: I do nothing except for pleasure. Hawthorne: find something that makes you “tremble.” Monet: “I’ve simply looked at what the universe has shown me, to bear witness with my brush.” And later, “It’s a total self-surrender.” And so often, “It’s all about the sensation.” Or Cézanne: “I vibrate with nature.” Or his wife noting, “He would halt and look at everything with widened eyes, ‘germinating’ with the countryside.” What are these artists suggesting? What’s going on?
Moments of Enchantment
Based upon my own experience, I would say that these artists are suggesting that nature is speaking to them and then, with their brushes, the artists are speaking back. They seem to be one with the subject. Think about that for a moment: to be one with something means to be entangled with something, to be drawn in or even captured by that something. This oneness, this capturing, may be thought of as moments of enchantment. Have you noticed the reversal that I’m suggesting here? Typically, commentators will say about Impressionists, “They wanted to capture the fleeting moment.” Or, “They wanted to capture the light.” But this is crazy. Why not capture butterflies? Or wild animals? Or escaped convicts? Such explanations make no real sense. First, I get a big net and then I run around capturing things. Why? I don’t know, I just do.
Notice what happens when we prioritize and pay attention to what happens to the artist in this process: for example, we could say that Monet, et al, were captured by the light. They were moved by the sensations of the moment. It gave them joy. The sense of wonder gave them pleasure. At least if we frame the moment or the capturing this way, it begins to make sense, doesn’t it? Oh, I see why someone would do that. It sounds like fun. Like joy. Like wonder. If I paint in this tradition, then, maybe I should be thinking more about the ways I might get into that joyful state, that state of being captured. I get it.
Here’s what happens to me: sometimes when I go out to paint – not always, but sometimes – and often midway into my two-hour outdoor session (generally), I find that I have drifted into a different state of being. Little sparkling colors begin to appear. I don’t want to confuse you: these are really tiny hints of color, very subtle, kind of like those “sprinkle” things people put on cakes. Tiny, tiny bits of color sprinkled around, that vibrate, that appear and disappear. Little tiny bright flashes. I only see them when I’m carried away, so to speak, when the visual sensations – line, tone, and color – capture me. And when this happens, I feel capable (more powerful?) and in the painting stage, in the proper order, I begin to paint them, one by one – here, there, everywhere. I feel good, alive – connected to something. Nothing else matters, and to put a fine point on it, if someone came up to me at that moment and said, “I will give you a Porsche of your choice in exchange for your ability to be captured by the sprinkles,” I would say, “Please. You’re going to break the spell.”
Now, believe it or not, there is much written on this subject – the seeing matter as affective in western philosophy, which is suggestive, given that we can then connect many of these thoughts to the ways of thinking that shaped the approach to painting found in Paris toward the end of the 19th century. A recent book that discusses this sort of thing is Jane Bennett’s, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics.
Let me conclude this way: I will explain to you how to see color (and line) in a way that has zero to do with mixing colors or color theory by offering four suggestions. Everything in italics is the language of Bennett; she’s not writing about art or painting, but rather the way matter has been understood to be affective. But to borrow her language is a great way to talk about entering into the realm “that makes art possible” (Henri).
Suggestion #1: Look to be charmed or captured by or enamored with existence. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism; that is, the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature. Painting (as opposed to production which turns on external evaluations) requires that we experience moments of pure presence, conditions of exhilaration, caught up and carried away, so that our mood is one of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example, noted this liveliness when he argued that Cézanne wanted “to make visible how the world touches us (Ponty’s emphasis).”
Suggestion #2: Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.
Suggestion #3: Long to become otherwise. We aren’t encouraged to feel color (or line) because it’s not a priority in our way of life. There’s no external reward for it; certainly not in contemporary art where language has displaced “the sensation.” Therefore, we must step outside that world. We must extend the limits of [our ] current embodiment; escape the confines of biography, culture, training, [and] expand the horizon of the conceivable. Open to an enhanced capacity to identify exits, escapes, passages. Art that liberates, it seems to me, is co-mingling, straddling two realms of being.
Suggestion #4: Think of the activity of painting not as a way of making an object but as a state of interactive fascination that propels us into a crossing, a metamorphosis, a becoming. To become is not to achieve a final state of being; it is to give more of a chance to that which rumbles in you, but you are not. At least not yet.
“As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that?”
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). Bennett is responding to critiques of modernity as “disenchanted,” an understanding most often associated with Max Weber. Bennett makes quite clear that her interest in “sites of enchantment” has nothing to do with “new age” spiritualism or theism. Rather she is interested in what may be thought of as the agency of matter itself and the way in which the experience of enchantment is related to ethics. To wit, she positions herself vis-a-vis a number of theorists, past and present, whose work makes contact with her understanding of the “liveliness” of matter.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” p. 7; http://faculty.uml.edu/rinnis/cezannedoubt.pdf
I stumbled onto a nice YouTube video called Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview. In it Tyler Green interviews Serge Guilbaut, a favorite writer of mine, so I spent some time with it. It turns out that the “lost interview” was a 1941 book-length interview with Henri Matisse that was never published because Matisse, in the end, rejected it. Luckily the lost interview was finally published in 2013.[i]
To be honest, I’m not crazy about Matisse’s work; in some ways he’s like Picasso for me. I certainly can recognize the authority in their work. They are true masters, but I’m not especially moved. However, what does excite me about the both of them is this: they are both absolutely brilliant when they talk about what it means to be an artist. So I ordered “Chatting” and was not disappointed.
Here’s the thing: when I articulate what it means to be an artist (as I was taught and as I have since come to believe), I’m often perceived as a curmudgeon, too political, or worse, airy-fairy. For example, one of my favorite concepts and one that I eagerly proselytize is that of “becoming.” By this I mean that the activity of painting ought not to be driven by external rewards (sales, prizes, or pleasing everyone from friends, lovers, and the endless army of gate-keepers that make up the art-industry); instead painting as an activity ought to be an unfolding, a discovery and expression of who we are most. Cèzanne and Monet, to site obvious examples, became who they were most by the end of their lives but only because they were free, for the most part, from the army of gate-keepers who normally direct and control the careers of artists for purposes of their own.
Now listen to Matisse articulate the same view. He explains that it was at the ripe old age of 21 that he was given a paint box and “the moment I had that paint box in my hands, I felt that this was my life. Like a cow given a sight of grass….” What a nice way of saying that he was not just discovering who he was but who he was most. The paint box, like grass for a cow, was something he needed to become Matisse.
Regarding the need to be free from gate-keepers, Matisse continues:
“You must come out by your own means….to express that sense of falling head over heels for a thing…to express the impact the object made on [you]….I understood…that I had no business painting to please other people….If [a painter] is concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling. He neglects his gifts and eventually loses them….[painters painting for prizes] were lost souls….they were studying…how to win medals….the great failing…was that the students thought technique so important…”
Inveighing against the tendency of painters to use words to explain what they wish to say with paint, Matisse told his students: “Listen: do you want to paint? Well start by having your tongue cut out because from now on you should express yourselves only with the brush.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!
And how might an artist view the art market? “The public is not the buyer: the public is the sensitive material on which you hope to leave an imprint….If you work for others, you never get anywhere….” Okay, got it: one must become who one is most, regardless of trends, experts, sales, and prizes. In fact, all the expert-directors out there (think Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst) “make you do” the things that get attention, but “you don’t need to feel, you don’t need to be an artist….”
But just as I was feeling validated in my ranting, I came across a letter by Kurt Vonnegut, the great American novelist, that really nailed it for me. It seems that Vonnegut, was invited to speak at a high school, but given his age and infirmities, he wrote a letter instead. It read, in part:
“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow (emphasis in the original).
“Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood [the high school teacher]….Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
“Here’s an assignment…. Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net…. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody….
“Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
Oh, the insights of these two. I liked the part about the “net,” suggesting that art requires structure. To the “young British artists” – directed at every turn, or artists like Warhol whose ambition was to be as rich and glamorous as his jet-set pals, there’s no “need to feel,” no “need to be an artist.” And to the throngs of art students in higher education, compelled to make the most superficial social commentary with their work, “cut your tongues out.”
Plein-air painting will never be exhibited at the Venice Biennale and what many of us do will be thought of as a charming anachronism, off to the side – way off – of what “important” artists do. But visual art without us, simply put, would be a mistake.
And so it goes.
The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and colour…. genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.
A few weeks ago I was in Amsterdam. Seeing Van Gogh in the flesh, as it were, was a big part of the trip. The big take away for me was this simple insight: if I want to be a good painter, maybe even an artist, I need to get out of my head more!
Part 1: Enter Charles Baudelaire[i]
Baudelaire might be the perfect guy to help me get out of my head, to see and feel the world sensuously, to treat every line and color as a visual and sensual prompt to which I am compelled to respond emotionally. Look at the way he urges us, as artists, to do this:
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way….But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes…in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.[ii]
Or here, where Baudelaire in reviewing a painting by Eugene Boudin,[iii] suggests that paintings don’t need people in them. They don’t need to tell stories. Why? Because if you can get intoxicated by simply savoring the sensuality of form and color, then:
….all these clouds with fantastic and luminous forms, these yawning furnaces, these firmaments of black or violet stain….mount to the brain like a heady drink or the eloquence of opium….[iv]
And here’s the good news, according to Baudelaire: we are born relating to the world this way. As kids we are little intoxicated sensuality addicts (see quote on top). Kids are always drunk! Just look at the little painting by the kid above. It’s a flower but you would never know it. The kid is drunk, it seems, with the colors green and purple. I don’t think she even sees “flower.”[v] My teacher would always say, “Get it through the color.” Charles Hawthorne long ago urged us to paint “Color first, house after…not house first, color after.” But I prefer Baudelaire’s simple admonition: “Be drunk.”
Now imagine seeing and painting like this not just as a child but as an adult, and forever. Baudelaire describes such an adult as someone “who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood – a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale….[She has]…insatiable passion – for seeing and feeling….” Insatiable passion for seeing and feeling? Whoopie! This could be the ticket. Good-bye living in my head.
George Breitner George Breitner
Part 2: Enter the School Teacher
‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.
‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.
‘What is it for?’
‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.
‘What is this?’
‘What do cows give us?’
‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.
‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’
‘It’s where people live.’[vi]
In this example, suggests Stephen Parrin, students are taught “to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience (emphasis added).”[vii] Sensory details don’t exist. And after 12 years of education, Parrin believes, “the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them.”[viii]
Floris Verster Floris Verster
In other exercises, Parrin found that even when students were on a walk, exploring blindfolded, as soon as they identified an object as “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore “the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual.”[ix] It is not surprising, then, how now as adults – and even as painters staring for hours at a subject matter – we “wholly bypass personal experience.” We have been taught to live in our head.
Part 3: The Exhibition
The one thing nice about visiting new museums is being introduced to new (albeit long since departed) artists. In addition to Van Gogh, I’ve posted images from the work of George Breitner, Isaac Israels, and Floris Verster. Breitner and Verster were contemporaries of Van Gogh. Verster came along a little later. I was impressed by their authority. It just jumped off the canvas. They were really in control of their craft. And I loved their amazing simplicity and tonality.
Van Gogh, Potato Diggers
It was nice to see some of Van Gogh’s famous paintings but I found the work of his that I had never seen before to be even more powerful. An example was his Potato Diggers (above). Lose. Simple. Direct. What impressed me most about Van Gogh was how even in the work that didn’t make my list of favorites, the charm and sincerity of his personality was powerfully present. As much as I like the other painters mentioned above, their passion for seeing and feeling is less on display, hidden to a degree by skill and convention. Not so with Van Gogh who makes himself entirely vulnerable, with all his against-the-rules way of painting.[x]
He really puts himself out there, like the painting below (VG2). There is a lot about this painting that seems off or wrong. And yet, the more I looked at it the more I got drawn in. Everywhere on the canvas he is alive, intoxicated, drunk. The painting just follows. It’s a by-product of his intoxication.
Van Gogh, VG2
Part 4: The Question of Talent
Baudelaire was critical of the concept of genius and/or talent shared by most at the time – namely that it is a rare thing, genetically endowed. It is a concept that still haunts us and inflicts enormous self-doubt upon everyone. Do I have talent, we all wonder? Am I good enough? Baudelaire’s insights alter the equation. For visual artists, it’s not about measuring up to some arbitrary standard; rather it’s about the ability to retrieve that state of innocence and sense of wonder that comes from engaging the world, not just through categories, but sensuously as well. Or to put it another way, instead of the concept “talent,” substitute “sincerity” or “freedom” and ask: am I sincere? Am I really free to be who I am?
The good news then is that there can be no one who anoints or announces or declares an artist to have talent. It is the province of everyone. Each of us feels fulfilled and exhilarated as we exercise and discover our power. Every human being begins life with the intense passion to see and feel. And then as we develop our ability to see everything through categories, our ability or freedom to savor our sensory experiences is neglected. It withers. Van Gogh seems to have escaped this trap. He was drunk his entire short life. No talent. Never a martyred slave of time.
[i] Baudelaire, as you know, was a writer-critic who was very close to Manet. He wrote a lot about a new way of being in the world that was changing the way writers and painters made art. The Impressionists, I would argue, very much expressed that way of being in the world.
[iii] Boudin was probably Monet’s most important teacher.
[v] This is precisely what Monet is getting at when he tells us, as painters, not to see the “thing” before us.
[vi] Stephen Parrin, Reflection 149: The Blind Walk, October 6, 2009 http://onmymynd.wordpress.com/tag/gerald-edelman/
[x] For example, we are told to not draw with the color but rather we should place the color. Or we are taught that our strokes should go against the form. Van Gogh ignores all this. Plus his values are clearly off in his very dark blue skies. But it works because the force of his personality is so uniquely Vincent. It is as if he is shouting “this is me” everywhere you look.
I made a painting trip to Venice in early November. The only constant was the constant change in weather – fog, clouds, sun, rain, flood. Not ideal conditions for a plein-air painter. But the challenge was fun. The crowds congenial. Only one critic stepped forward, a man who stuck his head into my space, to tell me that my composition would be better had I left more sky (see composition below).
As many of you know, I use the Impressionist method of breaking down the painting process into 5 stages, each complete in itself, which is to say there is no endpoint in mind or finish except in the sense when I have nothing more to say, I stop. And in that sense the painting is finished. For example, the painting below is the third stage or “Underpainting” of the painting above. In this stage, I’m looking for color only. At first I “scumble” in just the dark values, then just the middle values, and I leave the light values open or plain canvas. Therefore, in this approach, I never see the subject as buildings, water, etc – just veils of atmospheric color in this stage. In this stage then, I establish the tonality of the thing that I’m looking at.
There are many artists who believe that cranking through such a structured method is confining, that the very creative process is being controlled, or dictated in a sense. Teaching such a method, it is argued, stifles the little genius within. I remember Wolf Kahn articulating a philosophy somewhat akin to this point of view. In fact, when he taught, he steered away from anything that had to do with “how to.” He didn’t really demonstrate. It all turned on expressing yourself and then a critique of the results by Wolf would follow. Methods, as such, were little cages to be shunned. In such classes, “coaching” displaces teaching; specific structured methods are not taught, nor should they be.
Sadly, only visual artists seem to have made a principle out of this “just express yourself” belief. Dance, theater, cinema, writing, and music are art forms steeped in rigorous instruction. Music may be the one art form in which it is easy to understand how creative expression and intense study of structured methods are symbiotic. Improvisation exists within a structure, for example. And in music and unlike in the visual arts, one can do “important” work and express oneself creatively through a mode that is centuries old. Structured modes, rigorous demands regarding keys, harmony (or not), timing and the like are not understood as so many cages but a language that enables expression. Hence, playing Mozart is still relevant.
Given all this, I was tickled to read about Matisse’s views on this given that he is a favorite of Kahn’s and emblematic of unbridled expression. Matisse himself was a product of rigorous academic training; however, he thought that his particular academic training was “deadly for young artists.”  But Matisse didn’t confuse Parisian academic training (that served the interest of a ruling class) with rigorous training per se. In 1908, when he formed his own school, he noted the following:
The few exhibitions that I have had the opportunity of seeing during these last years, makes me fear that the young painters are avoiding the slow and painful preparation which is necessary for the education of any contemporary painter who claims to construct by color alone….
An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythms, by efforts that will prepare the master which will later enable him to express himself in his own language….- everything that will let him become one with Nature, …that arouse his feelings.” 
And in a criticism of a student Matisse said, “The model must not be made to agree with a preconceived theory or effect. It must impress you, awaken in you an emotion, which in turn you seek to express.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The inference I draw from Matisse is this: there are some structured and rigorous methods that are deadly, largely because they are intended to control the product and therefore the process. There are also structured and rigorous methods that liberate, that awaken in us emotions and provide us with the ability to express ourselves in our own language. Our task, then, is to know one from the other and not to throw the method-baby out with the bath water. Or to make the case from a painter’s point of view, I would never have learned to see and be moved by atmospheric color if, when I painted, I were not asked to see the thing as enveloped by the most seductive atmospheric color – each and every time I painted.
Here’s the real kicker: structured and rigorous methods are necessary, yes. But also important is what Matisse’s life example teaches – and as my teacher would always ad as a caveat to his teaching: at some point, take the method and throw it out the window. By doing so, Henri eventually became Matisse. It’s all about becoming the people we are most, you know.
All of which begs the question: so when do we chuck the method? I think one would first have to master it before tossing it out the window. And it would have to feel constraining, I suspect. But I’m not sure. I haven’t gotten that far.
Flowers are great to paint. I love painting them. But, and this is a big fat BUT, if you are not careful, they will quickly destroy the artistry within you. Let me explain.
I should alert the reader that I am writing from an Impressionist point of view. So let us recall some basic principles of Impressionism. Virtually to a person, they were explicit in their condemnation of the literal, which is to say, their paintings were not intended to be stories or social commentary (despite the gazillions of books to the contrary. The tendency is to assume that all realism is a kind of photo-journalism; hence, it must be literal. Or the converse, that if it is not literal, one must paint out of one’s head. Students of Impressionism would do well to pay more attention to what the artists themselves said. Pissarro lamented, for example, that most people only see the “subject” in his paintings. Monet talked endlessly about his need to convey his feelings. “We paint not to paint the subject,” Cèzanne reminded everyone, “but to realize sensations.”
So here’s Principle Number 1, so often articulated by Monet: Don’t see the thing before you. Or to put it another way, there are no flowers, just line and color that become prompts for us to respond to emotionally and realize feelings in the moment that our brush touches the canvas. If one loves flowers and wants to paint flowers, one is already in trouble because one will try like crazy to make a picture of flowers. So challenge Number 1, when you paint flowers don’t see flowers.
The second challenge in painting something that one is so focused on is that one is apt to neglect everything else. Principle Number 2: there is no such thing as background or tabletop or vases that play supporting roles. There are none of those things. There are no supporting roles. There is just line and color. Every square inch of a canvas ought to look as though the painter was fully involved with that square inch. Challenge Number two: everything else in the painting ought to reveal a fascination and an infatuation equal to the blasted flowers.
Principle Number Three: We are artists so do not paint what everyone else can see, ie, the obvious. Degas said that we don’t paint what we see but what we make others see. Okay, everyone can see the beauty in a sunset or a young child and, you guessed it, the “beautiful colors” in flowers. So what is an artist going to make the viewer see beyond the obvious? Challenge Number Three: say something about flowers that most people don’t see, and about that which moves you.
Let me give you some examples. First, I will show you some of my work (not the best example but it’s handy) and then I will show you some images by Monet.
The details on the left were taken from the image above. I chose these to show you that I was not seeing flowers as much as color and movement. In other words, I didn’t draw with the color but placed bits of various colors on the canvas as I engaged the subject emotionally, not seeing flowers, not looking for results but just enjoying my vision and moving through the process. Notice also that I have left parts of the canvas open in order to kick up that sense of light.
In these details I wanted to show that I did find other parts of the subject matter fascinating, certainly as fascinating to me as the flowers. Wait, there are no flowers! You see, and this brings us back to Challenge Number three: I am saying to the viewer, I want to make you see the beauty of the cloth and the colors of the grass and the reflections and colors in the vase: they are not separate from those red and white things in the vase. It’s all alive. It’s all dancing. And it’s all there, available to everyone. But if you think you are painting flowers, you will see none of it.
Now let’s go to a real painter and look at details of some of his work. Okay, Claude, you’re on:
It’s pretty obvious. Monet isn’t seeing flowers but realizing feelings. He’s intensely alive, which comes first, and so is his work, which then follows as a by-product of the experience.
Second, you can see even in these details how he is enamored with everything around the flowers. No supporting roles here. It’s all one thing. And it’s in virtue of his non-literal approach that he is showing us something we may not have seen had we been standing where he was: flowers are movement. They are swirling around, dancing, along with everything else.
I hope you don’t misinterpret all of this as instructions on how to paint flowers. You paint flowers the same way you would paint a nose or water or pavement on a city sidewalk. You see, painting is not about the subject matter. Painting is an activity where one lets go in her own particular way, realizing feelings that only she, as specific individual, could possibly realize given her age and experiences and needs. Yes there are techniques to learn, a craft to learn, but if you were only to get very good at those things, your work would look competent and probably boring. Painting is about learning new ways to be free and by that I mean new ways to be more you, more sincere, even if that means marching to your own drum.
Let me leave you with Monet’s thoughts that make contact to what I’m trying to suggest here:
“Paint as you see nature yourself. If you don’t see nature right with an individual feeling, you will never be a painter, and all the teaching cannot make you one [emphasis added].”
This is the third blog in a three-part series: one of the thoughts that I have been suggesting, implicitly perhaps (as so many other artists have), is that the “subject” of a painting is never the subject (at least it ought not be), that painting as an activity is the expression of self and, therefore, a process of self-realization, a process of “becoming.” This process at its best, therefore, is joyful given the sense of fulfillment one feels as one realizes one’s powers and unique shape – and yet it is always fraught with degrees of torment given that it is a kind of rebirth, where one keeps shedding skins, keeps growing. So we find, for example, Monet’s most important teacher, Eugene Boudin, explaining his love of painting skies this way: “To swim in the open sky…what a joy.” And then he adds, “…and what a torment.” To understand what Monet is doing we must probe further this linkage between exhilaration, triumph, and joy on the one hand and torment on the other.
One of my favorite insights of Robert Henri is relevant here: “The drudgery that kills is not half the work that joy is.” I made mention of the Henri quote to a friend (a non-painter) once, as we were sitting at a café on the shores of Lake Como while we were both sipping prosecco (the Italian version of champagne but not considered hoity–toity in the least.). The weather was perfect, the day glorious. My friend, seemingly with great ironic pleasure announced, “I’m feeling rather joyful right now and I have no sense of working, let alone a sense of drudgery. ” Somewhat deflated, I responded, “Well, there’s joy and then there’s joy.” Unimpressed, my friend smiled back at me and ordered another prosecco.
I was trapped by the very language we shared, a language that has but one word for all the possible kinds of joy one might experience. Let me then make a distinction that American English, at any rate, does not admit. The joy of which Henri speaks is not the joy that arises when we are passive and something pleasurable happens to us: sitting in the sun and drinking prosecco, or going shopping, enjoying a grand meal, or receiving gifts; rather it is the kind of joy that comes from not only acting in the world, but a kind of acting we might call resistance, a clarifying of who we really are. Our true shape, our unique spirit or being comes into clarity when we push against our surroundings, when we “let the world know and feel who we are.”
This isn’t easy. When we push against what surrounds us – a kind of “putting ourselves out there” – we are not only made more visible, we are made more vulnerable. And yet, this is the stuff of creative expression. This is what Manet meant when he reminded us that “one must risk oneself entirely and anew each time.” Yes, of course we make paintings. But let’s get the order straight: more fundamentally when we paint, we are making ourselves, allowing that song from within to be heard. The paintings follow.
Okay, back to Monet. Take a look again at his own descriptions of what he is feeling as he goes through the process of painting:
I get disgusted by what comes too easily at first try, I am literally driven mad by the need to render what I feel.
I am feverishly engaged in what I am doing, and every evening I am eagerly waiting for the next morning to do still better….
It was all bad. I have erased what I did…the approach was wrong, the feeling was wrong too.
I have been working every day on the two same canvases and yet have been unable to achieve what I wanted, it will have to come but with what pains and labor.
I always want to do better…and yet I simply cannot, I keep trying.
I have been working on fourteen paintings today….If I were living in Rouen, only now would I start to feel my subject.
I think it would be a terrible mistake to read these passages and infer from them that Monet is simply frustrated, as anyone might be, in not achieving a certain result. Over and over Monet keeps saying how he wishes to “render” his feelings. In fact, he is “driven mad” by this need. But to render one’s feelings is to realize one’s feelings and to realize one’s feelings is to realize and come to know one’s powers, one’s shape, to really begin to see and feel – to clarify – who one is. Thus it follows that if the painting comes easily, there is no real clarification and the feeling is one of “disgust.” When he says that he must “keep trying” and “do better,” in the context of this intense need to render and realize his feelings more profoundly, he is telling us that for him painting is a process where he, Claude Monet, as a unique being, is emerging. The process is a kind of unfolding. Stated another way, Monet is telling us that his commitment is to become more Monet, to the person he is most.
Monet may paint haystacks, cathedrals, and water lilies but the subject is always Monet. We say “that’s a Monet.” But here is what I’m trying to draw your attention to: that to become Monet is to become Monet as against the values and constraints of the way of life that he inherited. He is not “becoming all that he can be” (to quote that American TV jingle) where achievement is measured in the standard sense, where the institutional set of opportunities made available are adopted or identified with unreflectively. On the contrary, he is explicit: the accepted understanding of what it meant to be an artist for him was “unhealthy.” Were he to have accepted the standard measures of success, he would have had to become less Monet, he would have had to die a little in the process.
I have recounted my own experiences along these lines to students many times. After a decade of rather serious study, I had mastered, as it were, the mechanics of painting that I had been taught. And yet, my work, while correct, always struck me as dead on arrival. My problem, I discovered later, was that I had viewed the act of making paintings much like everything else I had done – or made – in my life up until that time. As a kid, for example, the measure of any work I did that had been assigned to me was the evaluation – by some authority – of the results. Did I do it well or not depended on meeting some unquestioned external standard that I, personally, had nothing to do with. Perhaps it was my father’s judgment of how I cut the grass. My self-worth too was tightly woven into these measures. Ditto with school work. Grades were everything – the feelings I had during the course were essentially irrelevant. Results were everything. Production was everything. My place in whatever hierarchy in which I happened to be implicated was everything. So when it came to painting, I was results-driven, focused on the product, desperate for some measure of approval by my teacher or that implicitly granted by the almighty sale or by the acceptance to a gallery; and from there a new hierarchy would insert itself. Was the gallery a good gallery? Was my way of painting considered by “the experts” to be important or was it (and me along with it) considered passé? Was the job a good job? Would the position be sufficiently worthy of announcing it to friends and family or was it evidence that I was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy that women everywhere would shun? Would my salary be sufficient to purchase the sorts of things that proved that I was not the person I feared I might be?
The threads of a way of life run through us, envelop us, shape us and are largely invisible to us. As those same threads carried over from a way of life organized around ever greater horizons of production and ever more interwoven sets of hierarchies found their way into my process of painting, I was utterly oblivious to the fact my autonomy had been eviscerated. And, frankly, had someone explicitly pointed this out to me, I know I would have shrugged the whole thing off. I mean, why probe such nasty, inconvenient truths? Why rock the boat? Why stop the music and dig around? It won’t help me, right? To hell with it. My little career path was unfolding properly. Yet the cancer that devours one’s personal and independent creativity was, for me at that time, at about stage 4. I had become, to use the parlance of psychiatry, a “production freak.” Well, there you go. I was normal.
Now, to become conscious of all of this, to understand, to cite just one example, that my feelings during the work process mattered – over and against the results or product, what do you suppose I had to do? I had to become aware of all those social threads that ran through me. I had to stop and reflect upon normal ways of doing things. I had to dredge up my assumptions and see if, in fact, they were valid. I had to push against my surroundings. I had to get some distance from the myriad values and expectations that I had inherited and had embraced as my own.
When, for example, I read that Picasso argued that the concept “finish” is an inappropriate category in determining when we stop painting – it’s just fine for making a cake, a car, or a house – do you think that that was an idea “I got” straight away? What was worse was the fact that to pick away at one idea invariably brought into question yet an array of other ideas, each linked to one another, each now percolating up to the surface. There was always a sense of relief as this happened, as in “I don’t have to carry that baggage around anymore,” but at the same time, as I began to slog through the examination of one idea after the other, the more powerful feeling was one of opacity and anxiety. What am I doing? Where does this lead? Am I sure? My family is going to go beserk.
When my teacher implored time and again to not look for results as I paint, that the pay-off comes in the moment of creation, in that moment when one realizes that he or she actually does see more, it was simply not possible for me to respond by saying, “Oh yea, sure. I get it.” It was not possible to simply become more on the spot, to jettison ways of being overnight. To jettison the ingrained compulsion to get into a good gallery or a good anything, to disassociate selling from self-worth, to see the ever present insistence, coming from every direction, to market my brains out as problematic or hollow, as a misdirection, or as a danger, really – is like the drudgery that kills. The transition to a more fulfilling way of approaching painting – that kind of joy – is unlike the rather quick simple joy that comes swiftly and easily. It is not like the joy of having found a better way, for example, when I dumped my desktop computer in favor of a laptop. The difference for me was that as I slowly grew out of my inherited way of being in the world and into one that was more of my own making, I had to risk putting myself out there “entirely and anew each time.” “To be free,” Henri reminds us, “…can only be attained through the sacrifice of many common and overestimated things.” But to cross all those thresholds! Ouch, the pain, the indignity. Crap, I was no longer normal!
And here we come to the crux of it all: when I was disgusted too with cranking out absolutely correct and acceptable work, I understood, deep in my gut, that my paintings were dead. I knew at some level that I had to get off the track which had been the track of my life since the first grade, a track I had been moving down breezily, a track that had been delivering to me those wonderful pats on the back for each and every little triumph. In short, I had to slowly but surely stop the music. I had to question. I had to drop out of the great success-competition-be-all-you-can-be-achievement-rat-race. I had to walk through the looking glass, leave that great journey of moving from working-class-ville-to-success and enter into that space where one is looked at – well let’s just say – askance. Oh, the torment. I can still hear my mother saying, “It’s really a shame. He did so well in school.”
* * *
“What would make a successful workshop for you?” I ask students when they arrive. “I would like to learn new techniques,” is the most common answer given. Do you suppose that that response is shaped by a culture that rewards innovative technology and efficient production? And when I respond, “It may be more fruitful to learn new ways to be free,” do you suppose that this competing notion is something that can be readily understood? Or will ever be understood at all?
What impresses me about Monet and his peers is the degree to which they were embroiled in the turbulent politics of their day, the way they met regularly to discuss strategy in the context of philosophy, literature, theater, and the history of their own profession, and how they identified with artist struggles past: “We followed on the heels of the School of 1830,” Pissarro noted in 1900. I also liked that they were influenced by a new understanding of what it meant to be an artist, one that was articulated nicely by Charles Baudelaire, in his The Painter of Modern Life, an essay that some have referred to as the “philosophical manifesto of the Impressionists.” An artist, suggested Baudelaire, is “a man [woman] of the world…who…wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe.” Artists toward which he felt scorn, instead, were those who were “no more than highly skilled animals…[whose] conversation, which is necessarily limited to the narrowest of circles, becomes very quickly unbearable…to the spiritual citizen of the universe.”
Whenever I see my friend with whom I was drinking prosecco that day, I say, “now remember, the drudgery that kills….” And I stop. And we laugh. It may be a rather elevated or dry or arcane or difficult conversation to jump into, particularly if all we want to do is to slip into a dreamy alcoholic buzz while sitting in the sun. But for anyone who wishes to render their most incredible feelings or realize their deepest creative powers and, thereby, become “spiritual citizens of the universe,” “drunk” like the child who “sees everything in a state of newness,” then, in that case, it is a conversation that one ought to insist upon having, don’t you think? We are trying to paint our own special poem – the poem of our lives – after all.
 “I’ve always said the subject is not the subject.” Wolf Kahn, ARTnews, December 2001, 89.
 David Viscott (May 24, 1938 – October 10, 1996), was an American psychiatrist, author, and media personality. While his commentary on creativity was brilliant (I possess old cassette recordings of a workshop he gave on creativity) I don’t believe there is any written or recorded material from this workshop that remains. If you go to Youtube you can see him do his on-air therapy, which interesting in itself.
 The quotes by Monet can be found in his letters; I took these from Claude Monet at the time of Giverny, edited by Jacqueline et Maurice Guillaud, Guillaud Editions, distributed by Rizzoli, New York.
 Monet is also explaining to us that the measure of his paintings are the feelings that he realizes as he makes them.
 For this reason we often refer to works of various artists according to their stage of becoming. Paintings by Monet of figures or streets, for example, might be called the early Monet. Whereas his water lilies would be called the later Monet. Much of this phrasing, “the self you are most” comes from Viscott.
 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, 206.
 Quoted by Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, 4. The “school” in this context would be the artists pressing for democratic control over their work in the revolution of 1830.
 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 6-7. If you google this essay, you will be able to download the relevant passages.
 Baudelaire, 8.