After my recent letter about talking on the phone while painting, several emails came in from folks mentioning possible pathological conditions. Anonymous wrote, “When I’ve been painting for long periods in the studio, especially when I’m really concentrating on a project, I find that I have trouble speaking at the end of the day. Hesitation and pronunciation make it like I’m translating from another language. I get that ‘deer in the headlights’ feeling and clam up. My wife says all I need is to go out and get socialized.”
This painter is 38 years old and has no significant health issues. When I was younger, I suffered from post-painting bamboozlement as well. At the time, I loftily described it as “atrophy of the verbal faculty during non-verbal work.” I even disclosed my self-diagnosis to my psych prof. He told me to stop thinking and stick to painting.
My condition faded with the adoption of telephone chat and listening to the radio. A primitive form of Karaoke helped too. Also, as my painting confidence grew, my methods moved toward a more relaxed state of intuitive automatism, bringing about a parallel fantasy life. In my contacts with seasoned painters, they often report great thoughts, great inventions and great conversations quietly verbalized during painting. In other words, they talk to themselves.
Absorbing as art-making may be, it seems the most evolved artists are what I hesitantly call, “balanced.” Whether introverted or extroverted, these folks have enriched lives studded with interests and passions beyond the brush. Human relationships are high on the list. Artists need to guard against losing those other faculties that truly define our humanity.
“Silence,” said Lao Tzu, “is a source of great strength.” It is in silence that we steadily learn the language of art. “It is not the inert silence of a stone,” said Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “but creative silence.” Having sat near the Maharishi a few times I noticed that his lips moved — even in meditation. He may have been doing a quiet Karaoke to himself, but I have the feeling he was inventing a more gentle world that had no borders.
PS: “People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
Esoterica: The Indian mystic, Meher Baba (1894-1969), was voluntarily mute between 1929 and the end of his life.
He communicated by means of an alphabet board and various hand signals. Secluded and often fasting, he held public gatherings and engaged in works of charity with lepers, the poor and the mentally ill while building a worldwide spiritual empire. His passionate followers would argue otherwise, but it appeared the longer he remained mute, the less sense came out of him. We speaking animals need to keep speaking. As in the techniques of painting, it’s another case of “use it or lose it.”
Left brain, right brain; different functions
by Eve Bennett, Leicester, UK
Being a comfortable speaker in public I looked forward to sharing my work and views on painting by doing a demonstration. I set up my easel, canvas and paints and placed the model. I started with a short preamble explaining my set-up process and then turned to my canvas. I was puzzled as I tried to continue for I couldn’t talk and paint simultaneously. I tried many times to explain what my thought process was as I made choices of color or decisions of brush strokes or how to see relationships. But each time I became mute or stumbled on my words. If I stopped and spoke, I had to be very “detached” from the canvas as if it was distinctly apart from me. It was only then that I was able to be lucid.
The chart below explains my inability to speak and paint at the same time. I paint in a thoughtful and immediate manner and try to stay away from a “slick, stylized approach.” Therefore, I am processing in a fresh way with each brushstroke. We paint with our right brain and have verbal skills with our left brain. That explains, for me, why I found it impossible to paint and speak with reason at the same time.
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It could be the stuff in the air
by Kathryn Ikeda, Lafayette, CA, USA
As a neurologist cum painter, please be sure that you have adequate ventilation or a filter to remove the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) from your studio and be careful of heavy metal exposure. There are problems that solvents and other toxins can produce in short order and definitely cause chronic problems over the long term. In Whistler’s time it was referred to as the “artist’s malady.”
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‘You have to talk to yourself’
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Some time ago I used to watch Bill Alexander on PBS, a program called “The Magic of Oil Painting.” In his German accent Bill always said, “You have to talk to yourself!” To this day I find myself instructing myself while painting, as if the one talking is instructing the one painting. It’s a form of imaginary socializing sometimes, when I imagine a whole class is there in my studio and I’m the teacher.
“Now we put the glaze over this whole area… like this… good… and now we wipe it down like this…
“But you see, the composition is wrong. The coins and the moon should form a parabola… So we put a bird here — Not there, you idiot!…”
And like that, along with a healthy mixture of expletives. I never say anything about “happy little trees,” but I must confess that at the end of a painting session I sometimes say, “Thank you for watching me!”
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Intense right and left brain work separately
by Kay Wolfe, Minneapolis, MN, USA
After a long painting session of keen concentration, I also seem to lose words. I think after so much intense “right brain” use, it is hard to switch back to “left brain.” I cannot talk or carry on a conversation while painting — I need to stop and then speak. I am surprised that you can! Whenever I have taken the phone with me into the studio, I end up just listening to the other person, and only responding when I stop painting. I have noticed my painting instructor doing the same thing when doing a demohe stops talking while he is painting. I also stop talking when driving the car — if I have a passenger — when I am maneuvering through tricky situations. I thought all of this was naturalthat we cannot do intense right and left brain work at the same time.
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Revealing one’s soul
by Stephan Chmilnitzky, Canada
When I was in my early twenties and was painting full time I slipped into deep periods of inner concentration lasting for months at a time. I found myself living in an inner world of creation and endless possibilities. Speaking became a problem but more than that was my failure as a husband and father. Somehow my life’s difficulties resolved themselves but not for any better or productive reasons. It was the early seventies when art in Canada was at its all time low. A major gallery exhibited empty frames… (What the hell, I felt shame for the art world that would allow this to happen!) I was so taken aback that I walked away from the art world and for many years I could not deal with this festering wound. It took me years to be reintroduced to the world of creation and, like before, my ability to speak and socialize is being hampered. The ability to live in both worlds is a talent and may be a reason why those who teach often find their work suffers.
I have also found that there is a type of painter who paints from images taken by a camera. They are often very good copyists and will copy photos in every detail… they fear adding or omitting and submit themselves to this creation process. The ability to lay paint in a convincing way does not make an artist –but to reveal one’s soul does. We must be free to paint outside the lines.
Tapping into ‘Source Energy’
by Redenta Soprano, USA
Robert Bateman, the wildlife painter, said many years ago in the days before cell phones that he did some of his best work in the morning while talking on the telephone.
Over time, I too have found that talking on the phone, or even listening to books on tape, ties up the left or critical part of my brain so the right brain is free to do what it does best — be creative. However, I find that when I need my left brain to compose, work through a problem or measure anything, I can’t deal at all with music or voice in the background. As in everything, staying balanced is the key. Too much distraction, or talking, can be a deterrent to creativity and after a period of time even an interesting discussion or book on tape can be wearisome.
Plumbing the pools of silence is truly the way to tap into ‘Source Energy,’ the wellspring of all creativity.
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Going with the flow
by Carol Reynolds, Honolulu, HI, USA
What a relief to find out that many artists talk to themselves while painting! When I speak out loud the problem-solving ideas can be very beneficial for quality work. A lot of my paintings tell a little story like the one here where both the live rainbow lorikeet and the ceramic kingfisher egg cup are eyeing the unsuspecting caterpillar; therefore, talking out loud to the painting seems natural to me.
At other times I need complete silence to concentrate on a difficult painting or to render intricate details in an area and I will not even have music playing then. I can be full of contradictions where this subject of silence is concerned. I go with the flow and by what the painting dictates is necessary.
Joy of music linked to joy of paint
by Jennie Rosenbaum, Springvale, Australia
I’m always wired into my phone when I paint. It’s my music box and my way to take notes without hands,or message my husband when I need a cool drink. But I resent it. I hate being contactable and I usually set it to ‘do not disturb’ so that I don’t have to field calls and texts.
Silence for me is not golden. I need my music; it’s an integral part of my artwork. I sing incessantly and that singing is what produces my zone state that allows my lizard brain to paint! The joy of music is intrinsically linked to the joy of the paint on canvas for me. Afterwards I will either be quietly lost in my work trying to work something out or I won’t be able to shut up. But whichever way I go I will be speaking in snippets and half sentences. Used to speaking to myself, I figure I know exactly what I’m on about. Anything I say may be punctuated by songs.
Art as language
by Jesi Barron, Victoria, BC, Canada
When my family came here to Victoria in 1947 I was thirteen. There was about a handful of artists. Ina Utoff, old Mr. Menalows. Emily Carr had died. Coming from Montreal where I was privileged to go to Arthur Lismer’s school of art at the Montreal Museums, it was a shock .Now there are millions professing to be artists. I have painted all my life. Painting is a language to me as I am left-handed and dreadfully dyslexic. Computers have also been a great help to me. The ruler was used a great deal when I was young to try and make me write with my right hand. My first language was French. Maria spoke only French to my sister and me. She looked after us for 11 years. Believe me, those were treacherous years for me. I have always been very grateful to have known Sid Barron and was married to Him for thirty years. Great artist and human being. That is how and why art is my language. I have also put up a website here.
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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 Lynette Hayes of the USA, who wrote, “I’ve worried I was developing artist’s senility! The words seem to stop at the gates of my lips, and the mental fatigue, especially after plein air painting in the heat is like nothing else!”
And also Jackie Lee of Sonoma, CA, USA, who wrote, “I also have found that I lose control of my voice box during protracted painting sessions. At times I have to check to see if I’m breathing, too. My immediate solution was to invite a friend to come and paint with me a couple of times a week. I selected one who has the same affliction, although we space it out so that one of us is always cognizant at any given time.”
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