Sleepwork

23

Dear Artist,

After a couple of decades wielding a brush, I’m wondering if you’ve also experienced this: I paint all day and while resting I think about paintings. Then I go to sleep and dream about paintings I’ve not yet painted.

hans-jean-arp_constellation

“Constellation According to the Laws of Chance”
1930 painted wood relief, 549 x 698 mm
by Hans (Jean) Arp (1886–1966)

A few mornings ago, I rose from bed and, like a premium droid, set to work without question on the thing I had dreamt. After reasonable success, I wondered if this process might simplify the whole operation and alleviate mental exertion. Was I dreaming about painting because of all my painting activity, or were the paintings emerging from the depths of my subconscious, regardless? Which came first: the painting or the dream?

This phenomenon isn’t rare. Chefs dream of food, mechanics of carburetors and directors yell “cut” in their sleep. A 2003 study even gave it a name — “Sleepwork.” In a survey of 1000 adults, 80% of women and 60% of men dream about work. Half of them also report waking up in a cold sweat. For artists, all dreams are potential fodder for a new or refined direction. All along stubborn to prove the value of my daytime ideas, I now fear I may have overridden the smarter leanings of my dream-state. Work could be simply the servant of dreams — production in real time from unseen places.

hans-jean-arp_owl-s-dream_1938

“Owl’s Dream” 1938
sculpture by Hans (Jean) Arp

My dad used to tell me to leave something a little unfinished on the easel before retiring at night — in the morning, the painting will tell you what it needs. A midday rest can also invigorate your imagination and give you a second wind in the studio. “It will never rain roses,” wrote George Eliot. “When we want to have more roses we must plant more trees.”

hans-jean-arp_hammer-flower_1961

“Hammer Flower” 1961
painted wood relief
by Hans (Jean) Arp

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “We want to produce as a plant produces a fruit and does not itself reproduce. We want to produce directly and without meditation.” (Hans Jean Arp)

Esoterica: “Each one is really just a step towards the next, isn’t it?” said the plumber, while scanning the layers of paintings that had accumulated along the baseboards of our house. I remembered an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History: a steep, walkable plaster cove, coiling into itself with images describing the lifespan of Earth, and at the end a hairline to show humankind’s fraction of time on the planet. The pictorial chronology revealed the evolution of the universe and gave it all context by showing what was on either side of each event. Paintings are also born of each other. As a novelist bangs out the story already written in her head, a painter can slap down the nearly-complete paintings of her dreams. “The chicken,” said Richard Dawkins, “is only an egg’s way for making another egg.”

hans-jean-arp_cloud-shepherd

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“To be full of joy when looking at an oeuvre is not a little thing.” (Hans Jean Arp)

 

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23 Comments

  1. Amazing, insightful today Sara. I am what you would say is an amateur artist and from my first painting I was always leaving it sit, not to tell if it was finished but because I didn’t know what to do next! Leaving it definitely worked. I love the quote about the egg. Thank you.

    • As a corollary to this, Richard Schmid offered his wife Nancy Guzik some interesting advice. He told her that when she stopped working on a painting for the day, to leave that piece she was working on, finished to the extent that if she died in the night (or words to that effect), it could be considered complete (even though it wasn’t yet finished). She shared that nugget 10 years ago at a workshop I attended with her. I’ve always remembered that sage advice.

  2. As visual artists we’re always dealing with multiple states of consciousness… creative process, intuition, nature, life experience, being, knowing, all goes into the mix and we dream our stories, ideas, images as we sleep, creating our reality by day.

  3. Love your comments regarding dreamwork. Poetry works the same way for me— infusing my paintings and all my waking hours. Which does come first?

  4. The most fun with doing a painting or sculpture or drawing…is to wake up the next day and be dazzled by the surprise that you have let yourself create!

  5. Interesting, I go through a prolonged and difficult process with my work this can go on for days, then suddenly when I reach the stage of despair I begin to paint, in ten minutes the painting is there and I stop. The non caring about the painting allows me to work freely and the painting begins to paint itself and then tells me to stop. Quite strange the whole creative process.

    • I’ve discovered this also…. detachment really helps me. The first time early in my experience, a particular painting got better when I got angry and frustrated and stopped caring so much what I put down. Lately, my plein air has been improving since I stopped thinking about it as painting and began to think of it as detached drawing.

  6. I am a painter and this happens to me in more ways that just in my painting. I often go to sleep mulling over a problem and wake with a clear idea of how to proceed. I call it putting the thought or idea in the “back of my head”. I have had vivid dreams and some that proved to be guidance for me. After 50+ years of being a painter I am now attempting to paint some of my dreams and from some of my poems and writings. It is great fun.

  7. Ditto ! This describes my process completely. I begin to wonder if this state of complete absorption is entirely healthy !

  8. Elizabeth Baier Mahy on

    Before I could see who had made it, I thought that the Arp piece was YOURS. I thought, gee, Sarah must have been dreaming in black and white and decided to change up the shapes a bit. I would like to challenge you to do a black and white one. Barnaby Fitzgerald, who teaches painting at S.M.U. here, told us that he was so bored as an elementary student that his teacher gave up her blackboard to him and let him illustrate all of human history. That kept him engaged for a while.

  9. Dreams and Paintings go hand in hand. When I immerse myself in painting or view art I feel like I am in a dream, and I often wonder if painting is a dream state too. Interesting to ponder your insights and artwork Sara. Do like the Arps work too. Thank you.

  10. It is 03:35 AM. I woke maybe 20 minutes ago, and was drawn to visit my cats, then to the moonless sky, then to your letter. And I realised I had been in the midst of precisely the process you describe. I had dreamt a sea-scape … (in impasto) … interwoven with a longing to paint it while “blind”, seeing it but not through physical eyes. In the dream I was on location being assisted by others to paint a landscape that became reality as I painted what unseen voices were directing. I realise that somewhere in the back of my mind I was “working” on this throughout my interaction with cats and night sky. There is a big magic to life, art, and the perception of reality.

  11. Sara, your writing is better every blog. Today was a landmark. It is so reminiscent of your dad’s writing, insight, thoughtful and beautiful to read. Thanks so much for keeping this tradition.

  12. I always believed the colors and shapes had their nightly discussion and took their places during the night to give me such a delightful morning surprise.

  13. It doesn’t matter if you finish a piece or leave i undone. When morning comes and you return to your studio, you will see that the damn gremlins have been at work and messed up everything!

  14. Years ago I dreamt of a painting and the colors I wanted to use. It was vivid and when I awoke I painted it and entered it into a show where it won an award and sold that evening. I called it The Dream”. What powers we have and when they come to the forefront, it is mysterious and wonderful.
    Only happened once. Drat!

  15. Raymond Mosier on

    My exact experience as well! My wife doesn’t believe I paint in my mind. I hope it is a way to plan rather than some kind of obsessive behavior. In the rare case I leave a watercolor unfinished, I can see in my mind the image and precisely what is needed to finish, or if finished, is it “right”? I do the same thing with pencil dwaings I laid out to paint.

  16. Michael Aronoff on

    When I asked an art teacher how he dealt with problematic paintings he said he went to sleep with his painting.
    He brought it home and set it up at the foot of his bed and it was the last thing he saw when he closed the lights and the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. Somehow the painting opened up to him and he could see what was needed.

  17. I often do the same thing Michael,I’ve found that looking at the work at the end of my bed sends me off to sleep in a very calm and relaxed manner.By morning I’ve often resolved a problem or two, and sometimes I’ve realised that a total do over is the only way☺

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