In ceramics, there is always the kiln. Half-baked and half-made, the objects enter the kiln in slips of brown and grey. Later, after the Gods of Fire have had their way, they emerge ultramarine, ruby, golden. They appear as a miracle, seemingly unbidden, like some sort of magic or alchemy. “There is nothing in a caterpillar,” said Buckminster Fuller, “that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
Most art goes through such a transformation. Even a symphony lies flat on the plainest of pages until it is sent out onto the air by an orchestra.
On the other hand, unless we plan for it, a lot of visual art doesn’t benefit from this sort of process. The painter, in one sitting or ten, may merely unfold a vision without the crucible of becoming. Creative failure and visual boredom are the frequent result.
For visual artists, directing the torch of our imagination is our main art. Art happens when alchemy is found. One, two and multi-step systems modify reality and create what has come to be called “style.” Art without style is yesterday’s laundry. Here’s how to direct (or redirect) the torch:
You need to see your art as a state of becoming. Vigilance and attentive observation during work-in-progress provides the opportunity. The process takes place with individual works, and over a lifetime of trial and error.
We are the clever inventors of ourselves. Opportunities include nuances, conscious and unconscious mannerisms, evidence of unexplainable magic, flinty zips and happenstance gradations, strokes, splodges, slubs, bumps, bubbles and colour changelings. They may be gentle or violent. They may be planned or accidental. They may be lines or they may be patterns. They can be fat or lean, thick or thin. You need to look out for elements that change in front of your eyes, things that become something other than that which they just were. The artist lives by awaiting these events; and they are expected. “Becoming,” said Paul Klee, “is superior to being.”
PS: “The labor of the alchemists, who were called artists in their day, is a befitting comparison for a deliberate change of style.” (William Butler Yeats)
Esoterica: Last summer I was out and about painting in my ’26 Austin “Chummy.” On the way home I had the dogs in the back seat and a half-finished painting blew out from beside me. Still wet, I saw it miraculously land face up. My joy was immediately diminished when somebody’s motor home ran over it. Going back to get it, I realized my ordinary sketch now had cubist tendencies. After replacing a smashed stretcher, I decided to keep it more or less as it was.
A slap on the head
by Sally Martin
I am still reeling from the main body of your letter. Honestly, I feel like I have been slapped upside the head with a barrage of angles, suggestions, possibilities and permissions to play… I now can’t wait to vacate my office and head out to the studio and just a few minutes ago I was feeling lacklustre and squished from today’s ‘do it’ list!! Thanks for the turnaround!!
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Spontaneity of watercolour
by Georgie Davidson, Birdwood, Australia
After reading your letters for almost three years I now feel compelled to respond. “The art of becoming” connected deeply with the spontaneity I feel when I paint in watercolour. At times it feels like magic that has me asking, where did this painting come from? Pots of Magic seemed to just paint itself and it even had a butterfly!
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Our peripheral vision
by Kathy Hirsh, Beijing, China
Your comment about “elements that change in front of your eyes” brought these articles to mind. A student of mine (she’s a PhD in neurosciences — a nice sort of student to have) sent me this link. The two articles are “The Scientist at the Easel” and “How Artists See.” Both are quite interesting.
From the first article: “The fact that our vision isn’t consistently sharp may also explain the enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile, says Livingstone. Our peripheral vision is only good at picking out big details, while images projected right on the center of our retinas can discern sharp details. That’s why we move our eyes as we read, she notes. When da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, he hinted at her smile with big brush strokes, but he put her more neutral expressions in the painting’s fine details. So if you look at Mona Lisa’s hands, for example, you might see her smiling out of the corner of your eye. But as soon as you focus in on that smile, it evaporates.”
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Who do you think you are?
by Margaret Rooker, Mendocino, CA, USA
I had a bunch of my (few) best life drawings getting ready to be framed, stolen from my car just for the large drawing pad paper they were spliced between. One had blown out of the car several weeks before and a truck tire rolled over it. I thought it was a “sign” as in: “Who do you think you are — trying to be an artist? ” But I now see that was foolishness. I love your painting and your wonderful dogs! By the way… how do you paint outdoors with dogs? Are they super well-trained? Tied up, very old (they don’t look it) or??? The photo alone could win a prize!
(RG note) Thanks, Margaret. Stanley is four and a bit rambunctious. Dorothy is eight and settles down as soon as she sees me settle. Stanley sometimes takes queues from Dorothy, but not always. Squirrels are our major hazard. A dog is an artist’s sure companion who never criticizes. “If you need a friend in Washington, get a dog.” (Bill Clinton) You can see Dorothy helping me out in the video Forest Spirit.
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Husband bakes painting by mistake
by Ruth Bodycott, Brookline, NH, USA
I had a particularly detailed and, I felt executed wonderfully, full-figured husband/wife wedding portrait (11×14 oil) scorched to sepia when I put it in oven w/pilot light for faster dry, a habit I had. My husband later in day without looking in oven, turned it on to preheat for our evening meal. We rescued it soon thereafter when an odd burnt smell permeated the house. Too late for salvage and customer. Had to start from scratch and repaint, saved the first for reminder of bitter lesson. I learned from this episode: even though I got more experience chalked up on my scoreboard, no matter how cautious we are, there is always room for more caution and more importantly, put a sign on outside of oven door when using for such purposes.
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by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
As (almost) always, your letter reaches me here in the north of Scotland at precisely the right moment, with precisely the right subject matter. Is it alchemy or are you actually inside my head? I’ve been thinking of changing styles recently, but a bit nervous about it, as I’ve invested a lot of canvas hours working in an abstract expressionist (I prefer process-led) way. How do I go back to the landscape? As with you in Canada, we have a lot of it here, maybe not on such a big scale, but ours is probably more accessible. So why the long pause, as the barman once said to an Airedale. Why not just get on with it? Partly because I am surrounded by other painters who do landscape, and the market is skewed somewhat by tourists looking for rather wee souvenir paintings of the Scottish Highlands. Aye, they do!
You have given me sudden hope and an idea — to bring happenstance and my “process” to the landscape. Oh yes, and just enjoy the doing of it. So here goes. I’m off to the studio right now.
P.S. Presently in Scotland there is enough snow to host the Olympics.
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With just a little help from me
by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA
Yes, there is a magic that happens when the hand and the mind are allowed to work together without preconceived end. It’s almost like being in another state of consciousness where the work itself transforms itself. Images take shape, are changed by additions or subtractions, but all as part of a purely visual piece of the whole. The ideas come as the work unfolds, until finally it makes sense, probably only to me. Just trying to explain how this happens for me so difficult, but the process is the most fun I’ve had painting in years. To realize that what is pleasing to me in the end is the result of many decisions made without regard to the whole, but to each part, which somehow can say here I am, like it or not. The piece becomes its own, with just a little help from me.
Phases of creation
by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
To illustrate the art of becoming I tell my adult students to think of the art process in this way… art goes through a series of phases, much like that of a human being. This process can take minutes, or months, depending on your individual practice; it is as follows…
When you first think of an idea to create, it is like a new Baby… fresh, exciting, wonderful, scary, and full of all the possibilities to be had. You nurture it and you coddle it and you await what you imagine to be the greatest outcome of all time… and then you begin.
Next, there is the Adolescent or “teen-ager” phase… this is when the work gives you grief no matter what you do, and then in the next minute you love it with of your heart despite the drama of growth, and once in a while, you just need to get away from it so that you can both cool off and re-evaluate the steps needed to bring it to a successful adulthood.
And finally, the Mature painting… it’s not perfect… it’s possibly not what you had in mind when you first started it, but it is done… and it is what it is with all of its beauty and imperfections.
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Creating an intuitive state
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Painting must have magic, and that cannot be self-consciously contrived, it has to ‘happen” as you say. When I was a teenage babysitter, I found an issue of Art in America which featured the events of Allen Kaprow, original inventor of the “Happening” in the early sixties at a New York gallery. It was the beginning of early conceptual art of that time, and I was fascinated. I bring this up because all art-making should be a “happening” as you say. How to create this intuitive state? Apart from alcohol and drugs (which worked for some artists who inevitably died young), how does the artist assume the transcendental state that allows the painting to paint itself? I’m sure you have a checklist for this, but here’s mine:
Music and other forms of total immersion in the senses, like being on an empty beach or beside a gurgling stream (with easel/sketchbook in hand in the moment).
Meditation or some form of physical exercise before entering the studio (again, outside in nature for achieving optimal ecstatic mood).
Not trying, not contriving, not working. With supplies at the ready, have fun, be playful, set time limits, pick themes, i.e. blind contour drawing, etc., or limited color palette as per your past letters.
Grab old paintings, sand and turn upside down, then watch as the unconscious makes connections and color combos come out of the ether.
Also, pre-prime canvases in abstract color blocks with nothing in mind, let them sit around for months or years before starting to paint.
Did I mention music?
The bottom line is achieving an altered state without poisoning the mind/body too much and creating without judgment. Like you say: becoming.
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Lost painting used as frisbee
by Sarah Clegg, Knutsford, UK
On my way to see a client I made the fatal mistake of putting a canvas and my order book on the roof of my 4×4 whilst I loaded the dog into the back. I clearly recall actually making a mental note ‘not to forget the stuff on the roof’ as I did so, but having the memory of a goldfish, realized I had left my mobile phone in the house. Finally, I drove off at some speed…
Some 25 miles down the road, on arrival at my client’s house, I announced that I had a lovely new hunting painting in the car to show her and… as the sentence trailed from my lips, the awful realization dawned that I hadn’t in fact put the canvas in the car at all. In a panic I rang a friend and neighbour, who kindly dashed off to look around the street, in my driveway, etc, but all to no avail. The painting, and the precious notebook with all my contacts, clients and their details, had simply vanished. Undeterred, on my return home I set about retracing my journey, looked everywhere then knocked on every door in the neighbourhood, put a ‘lost’ notice up in the local supermarket, told the local paper (even bad news is good news when you can get some PR out of it) and generally gnashed my teeth. My ego, I’m afraid, somewhat got the better of me and I began to imagine that one of my neighbours was beaming like a Cheshire cat at their good fortune in having discovered an original Sarah Clegg just lying in the road… I rang all the local framers.
It was a bittersweet moment therefore when a couple of weeks later there was a knock at the door and one of the local kids was standing there waving a very battered canvas at me. Being one of my son’s schoolfriends he knew the painting had been lost and had found it out on the middle of the playing fields at the local leisure centre, where it had apparently found its true market worth and was being used as a frisbee.
Like yours, my painting had also been driven over. One side of the canvas was ripped right through, the stretchers were crushed and there were dings and dents all around it. However it was salvageable, and after cutting it down to within an inch of its life and mounting what remained carefully on a board, I ended up with a rather pleasing little 8×10 oil portrait of a local huntsman, looking better I think than the original. I put it in a nice little English frame and it sold for a good price not long afterwards. Later, I also managed to recover most of my equally battered notebook from the hedge of a nearby garden.
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Yellow Banks, Santa Cruz Island
oil painting by Laurel Mines
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Martha O’Brien who wrote, “I thoroughly enjoyed your letter and it put me in mind of a quote: ‘I like a state of continual becoming, with a goal in front and not behind.’ — Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
And also Susan Roach of Angus, ON, Canada, who wrote, “A motor home running over your canvas. Now, that’s funny!! I’m still laughing as I write this note. The dogs look, TOTALLY IMPRESSED. The tire treads make your trees look like they have sails, nice touch! Oh to be a fly on the wall, OR, a bird on a fence. Thanks again, keep your letters coming.”
And also Janet Morgan of Brooklyn, NY, USA, who wrote, “Your delightful letter reminded me of my love of clay and a poem in part:
‘Earth to bake, air to dry, fire to fire, water to wash.
Add time and deities and vessels, cups and homes are born.'”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art of becoming…