I’ve never been fully able to put my finger on what it is — but I’m going to try again. For those of you who might know more about it, I’d really like to hear from you. I hate to admit it, but it’s actually a bit of a mystery. I’m talking about “the groove.”
I got onto the subject again today because I found myself in a bit of a panic. Shows coming up, so many things to do, so many projects to which I had optimistically said yes. I knew in my heart to slow down and take my measured time, to live in the paint, to think things out but, like my dog Emily when she’s running excitedly on fresh sandbars, my hind legs get ahead of my front ones. On the one hand, in life and art, energy and bravura are necessary to maintain elan. On the other hand there’s the need for contemplation and refinement. How to strike the happy medium? “Think,” I said.
In my case I’m trying to resolve the acrylic sketches that were started on the Mackenzie River in July. Our boat was towed back into the driveway on Monday — half-finished paintings sticking out of all the nooks and crannies. I wish I could say that all they required was a signature. They require “the groove.” There’s the clear necessity that the work taken to the studio easel is exactly what you want to do right now. Choose the one you want to work on. Hey, it happens when you’re relaxed. Quality flourishes in “extra time.” Personal invention keeps an artist’s personality in the exercise and makes the job more fun. While there may be a reworking of themes there’s also the sense of exploitation. It’s not what subject you paint, it’s how much you’re able to take out of and put into a subject. Something else — obfuscation. Ugly passages can be overrun with glazing. Dullness particularly can be overcome with a bright or complementary scumble. Negative areas can be gone back into. Half close your eyes. Pay attention to surfaces. Re-live the moments. Let it happen in front of you. It’s still an elusive mystery. Something just happens that I can only describe as “wonderful” — and the odd one, thank goodness, is okay.
For a moment there, I almost knew what it was.
PS: “The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product, a footprint, of the state.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: Passing through and above all individual techniques are three valuable considerations: They are pattern, form and surface. “Technique is a vehicle.” (Callum Innes)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Course of study
by David Oleski, Mount Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA
For me it seems that many of the reasons to paint are not geared toward producing or finishing paintings, even though that is what I should be accomplishing as a painter. There is an almost Zen-like quality to transcending the pressure of making or finishing a painting by setting out to specifically learn something from the act of painting. Instead of setting my target as meeting a quota or deadline I find that setting my target as pursuing a course of study through the vehicle of paint and light usually spawns my better works. The painting should be the by-product of the course of study, and deciding what you want to learn for the next session provides a solid foundation for the next painting. Painting on the painting is the act of one’s ego, pursuing an education though the medium of paint is the act of a humble student. And of course striking that balance while upcoming shows are breathing down my neck is the act of a tightrope walker.
(RG note) David Oleski keeps a journal of his ongoing thoughts on his website.
by Shirley Hatfield
I was very pleased to see that you used a quote from Robert Henri. I have The Art Spirit and Bennard B. Perlman’s Robert Henri — His Life and Art. Henri’s is the most wonderful book — full of his teachings. I buy many copies of this book to give to my artist friends as gifts. I attended a figure drawing from life workshop by Nathan Goldstein (on the teaching staff of Boston University of Fine Arts ) a couple of years ago and was so impressed by the 5 day course, that I gave he and his wife, Harriette, a copy of it. He was so appreciative, explaining he had been given a copy of this very book by his wife, years back, and it was tattered and worn. Henri’s gift of teaching is poetic and would enhance the life of any artist. My favorite quote from him is “An artist who has no imagination is a mechanic.”
Just do it
by Pamela M Simpson
My husband and I are both plein air landscape painters and we were just talking about this subject at breakfast. So many beautiful almost finished paintings or paintings that are only half done but you have everything you need to finish them. We were talking about the need to finish them before we take our next trip and get into a different groove. Maybe put them in some kind of order and take the attitude of “Just do it”. Having the confidence that as a painting professional the inspiration and ideas will come with the doing. I am going to my studio right now. I am going to make the space as comfortable and inviting as I can, look the work over, put it in some kind of order and go to work. May we all find the groove today.
Pressure leads to greatness
by Sherry Purvis, Georgia, USA
There is only one solution to getting the groove back — take one thing at a time. I am so guilty of taking on too many creative projects. I constantly overwhelm myself, because I never do anything that is easy. If it isn’t difficult, it isn’t worthy. I wonder how I got to this train of thought. Regardless, when I find myself with too many directions and not enough sense to follow them, then I have to shut down and take one project, one painting, one pastel, one anything and complete it. When I call it complete, I don’t go back to it again. When I am selecting the painting I want to tackle first, I select the one I like least. Again, it is that old “if it isn’t hard” syndrome showing up. I think that psychologically I must approach it with the idea that if I can turn something I don’t care for into something I can live with — then wow, the pieces I do like will be great. I know it’s fooling myself, but what the devil, I would rather fool myself than have someone else do it. Just don’t let it overwhelm you. If you are at all as I am, pressure leads to greatness.
Wonderful, isn’t it?
by R. Duane Hendricks, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
I love to paint, show and sell occasionally, and teach painting. But I’m primarily a musician, and have recently emerged from yet another bout of being a hermit. The reason for this particular hermitism was a new composition (a commission for a junior high concert band). This piece began as an idea jotted in my music sketchbook several months ago. In music as in art not all ideas/sketches are worthy of seeing the light of day, but they are all good practice. We must be alert to those which are the moments of brilliance amidst the mediocre majority. I knew this particular idea was worthwhile because it kept coming into my head when the sketchbook was closed. Then, with idea, time, energy and materials all organized, it is time to get in the zone, in the groove (but not in a rut). Ultimately the piece, musical or artistic, must have the potential to be an experience worth repeating. (If it was on another concert program would I go again to hear it? If it was in a gallery would I return another day to see it?) In these amazing “zone times” I become obsessed, it is necessary to set a timer to remind me of appointments (and meals!), and there is an excitement in my gut which lets me know that, not only is this a quality piece of work, not only are music and art what I do, but more importantly, a musician and artist is what I am. My sense of self is reaffirmed. My place in the scheme of things is secure and valid. When that piece is completed, the process begins again. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
by Larry Moore
I always thought that when I was in “the groove” that I was channeling for some long past artist who actually knew what he or she was doing.
External influences to the groove
by Peter Collier
Being “In the groove” is an illusive state of mind and body. Lately, there are things I’m noticing that have never before caught my notice. It comes with working from my home and the state of often being in quiet solitude. Often, I have purpose and direction thrust upon me and really do not need to self-motivate. However, some environmental influences have become obvious. If there is high pressure (tired feeling), more ozone than usual (jittery feeling), I’m without that extra hours sleep (forgetful and unable to concentrate), etc. So many things make that groove sound off-key and feel off-center — many perhaps beyond our control. When everything is in the groove, it’s usually a full moon, sunny day, mild temperature, after a good nights sleep, away from the city, stars aligned, etc.
by Phillis Elliott, Avon Lake, Ohio, USA
I always thought it was a sublime state of mind where one performs subconsciously that gets you in the groove. Then again, maybe I’m out in left field. Time has taken its toll in the past ten days. We’ve passed thru so many reactions and feelings — disbelief, shock, horror, terror, sorrow, helplessness, guilt about for going about pleasures and on into anxiety waiting for the next shoe to drop — so that I find myself in an almost lethargic state of being. Enough that creativity seems to be on hold. My studio sure is clean.
In a state of grace
by Vicky Lentz
I recently watched a program about the Canadian painter Helen Lucas and her friend, Margaret Lawrence. She made an interesting statement which I have written in my art journal. In talking about what I often call “The Zone.” Margaret Lawrence stated, “I know it’s good when the words come to me and I don’t search for them.” In further discussing the groove, she described it as being “in a state of grace.” This, I think, helps to state what so many of us feel but can’t quite find the words to express.
Ultimate quest spiritual
by Mel Zeoli, Florida, USA
I have just returned from Maine to Florida with the same hopes, trepidation, and unfinished images all in a box. I am excited and simultaneously concerned, will I remember the sounds, smells, or the goose bumps on my skin when I resume. Will I ruin the essence of what I thought I captured on that foggy day? Should I just leave them alone and use them for a “jumping-off-point” or should I paint on them, hoping no to disturb the underlying energy of plein-air. Of course all of the above thoughts take just an instant of time compared to months of thinking that I may finally have “gotten it” whatever “it” is. You refer to it as the groove and Henri refers to it as a state of “high functioning.” I know only that it is my ultimate quest to operate with an almost spiritual feeling, knowing that I am only the instrument and the work is coming from something or someone at a higher place than I.
Return to the trivial
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
I envy your apparent ability to carry on as though nothing had happened. The trouble is, everything we do now seems trivial. Fine! I’ve always thought there’s a great profundity hidden in the trivial anyway. The still lifes of Chardin for instance. So I try to retreat into the trivial. But I’ve never been able to completely control my “artist self,” which I think of as a kind of demon who cares nothing about my well-being in the world or what I think. Like another well-known organ, it has a mind of its own. So the demon compelled me to change the central image on my homepage from a watercolor of a naked woman in her bathroom to … what? I found myself flipping through an old hardbound sketchbook from 1982-83 which I had filled with sumi ink drawings of television images. This was during the Israeli invasion of Beirut, so many are images of war — women weeping for their dead, bombed out buildings, a hospital attacked by missiles, as well as images from other wars, WW II, the Crusades, etc. I called this book “Lenny and the Black Riders,” referring to Bernstein conducting Verdi’s Requiem and the Black Riders from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, both of which keep turning up among the pages. So I scanned an image from this book and put it on the web site — along with a couple of quotes from Yeat’s The Second Coming. It gets worse: There were a couple of blank pages at the end of the book. I had never felt it was finished but had run out of ideas and put the thing on the shelf. Now it seemed like those pages had been waiting for the Twin Towers, so that’s what I drew on them, in sepia ink, like faded newsreel shots of some disaster from a distant past.
Why? I feel that any response to the 911 attack can only make things worse, including no response — and I feel that way about any artistic response too. Art doesn’t change the world, contrary to what some political artists seem to think. And yet there was this compulsion to respond or acknowledge in some way, maybe as an homage to the dead. Robert Henri said art “is the giving of evidence.” But where the demon is concerned thought is not really involved, and I can’t say I had that thought or any thought. Maybe some artists will know what I mean. Then just a few minutes ago I heard something on the radio that may make sense. Terry Gross was talking to the U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who said, “There is something cathartic about having absolute loss articulated.” Maybe the same thing is true about depiction. Maybe I can now return to the trivial.
by Suzanne Northcott
Energy is the soul’s language. When our energy fails and the groove is elusive we need to recharge, to float on the river before we dip into it again.
“How wonderful it is when that moment of true seeing comes and I’m transported to that point when eyes, hand and mind work as the child in all of us.” (Alan Feltus)
“The unconscious is really most marvelous. Waiting there ready to be tapped is all knowledge, all feeling, all understanding. the artist has only to respect it and let it out.” (Maryon Kantaroff)
“I arrange my subject as I want it, then I go ahead and paint it, like a child.” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir)