Right now painting is a difficult business. Here in Thailand there’s too much richness, too much jostling, too much confusion. I’m not angry. I’m just frustrated.
Buddha says we attempt to run our lives through a veil of frustration and anger. We are not pure. We are tempted by distractions. Concentration and a simple itinerary become impossible. We give ourselves into the hands of others — the monk, the physician, the guru. But these solutions do not work because they too have frustration and anger. Buddha says we must accept the transitory nature of life and that it’s all an illusion. It’s also an individual path. The result of this understanding is enlightenment.
Thailand is gorgeous — full of energy and gentle grace. But there’s a dark side: Mistreated animals, bought and sold humanity, prostitution, poverty, injustice, sickness, the prevalence of death. In the overabundance of all this pain I see why we are drawn to make simple panel paintings — and poems, songs and symphonies. When they’re going right it’s Nirvana. An illusion we can control. A safe world to withdraw into. Frustrating? You bet. And nothing’s as pure and perfect as it could be. Even the art-guru has her problems. But hey — it’s an individual illusion. It has its own little life. One can live in it.
Late at night, by soft light in a quiet room, distanced from the rattling tuk-tuks that can take you anywhere, I’m floating in minor enlightenment. Brush moving gently, lovingly. It’s not too bad.
PS: “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” (Harriet Braiker, The Type E Woman, 1986)
Esoterica: Buddha says everything is just a dream. He says personhood and ego are not important. I’m thinking perfection itself might be an illusion. Yesterday, in the King’s garden, in a trellis pattern of light and shade, I realized a mistake I’ve been making. I’ve been suffering from the expectation of perfection.
The following are selected response to this and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Observation on perfection
by Jack Beal
Once, in talking with some students about the tragedy of minimalism, I said, “If you lower your standards far enough, perfection is attainable.” My Wife Sondra, a Scotswoman, rejoined, “Hell, Jack, if you lower your standards far enough, perfection is inevitable.”
by Bruce Meisterman
There is for me nothing as rewarding and joyful as when I am shooting. I see my process as three chances to screw it up — 1. when I shoot it — 2. when I develop the film; and then 3. when I print it, which can be a wondrously and laboriously long time. If the image makes it through my personal crucible, I may have something. Talk about the birth process.
Cannot live in another’s shoes
by Bev Willis
I believe you will be thankful and even more appreciative of you own home when you return. One cannot really live in another’s shoes, and sometimes how thankful we are of that. I am so appreciative of where I live and so thankful for the many things that I am able to do. The older I get the less it takes to make me satisfied. The simpler life is becoming more attractive every day. To just sit outside in the backyard and look at the surroundings, the flowers, the birds, the sky, the cat, the dog, the grass, the water and to listen to the sounds! There is so much life in life that when I was a child I did not see or hear and now I praise God that I am experiencing it. Just try to enjoy and lap it all up, but don’t try to be what they are — it would take years to do that.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville FL, USA
I knew, in art school, that artwork was really just “sublimated problem solving.” To become an artist was to sink into a lovely sea of illusions where I could make my own rules, with no need, ever, to come up for air. Throughout my life, most of my attention has been focused on the mysteries of perception, observation and memory. In our workaholic culture, “Oh I’m so busy, getting ready for my next show!” has been a perfect excuse to avoid almost everything. How odd, and unexpected, that my work is the one thing that consistently reconnects me to the world. What began as imaginative escapism has led me full circle back to life. Maybe artists do pay attention to the important things.
A rat in my own laboratory
by Michel Szymanski, France (translated)
The main characteristic of the self-taught artist is the condition of solitude. For my part, I undertook my self-taught trip at a very early age. Starting as all the self-taught, with the words. But since, I have undertaken the wonderful trip of knowledge — not to be an expert — but to understand. This has been my challenge. I consider myself as a re-finisher of human thought, because to my direction, the responses that I look for are in my own brain, I am a rat in my own laboratory. I consider myself as a traveler of the unknown. I know that my work will take birth in the unknown, for I think that the self-taught are creators, and certainly, the ego, the selfishness, are the very motors of our research. While rejoining Giacometti, I will know what I have found!
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
All cultures have values to offer mankind. Buddha was indeed a great thinker and what little I know of him I admire. Further, I know that you love animals as well as I — We must not harm them unnecessarily. But artists are reporters of their world — so why not paint this culture’s negative as well as their greatness? The thing that I liked about Andy Warhol was that he captured his own times. His art read like a newspaper. So you in that country of Thailand could try what I shall try in mine. I shall try and capture graphically on canvas the terror of our era. I feel it to be my duty.
Choosing what you want to see
by Vi Tunstall
Of all my journeys in life Thailand was one of my favorites. Yes, there is too much to grasp, but living in each moment is a wondrous experience while there. You have chosen to see mistreated animals, bought and sold humanity, prostitution, poverty, injustice, sickness, and the prevalence of death. Those are all with you wherever you may be — even here at home. However, look beyond that and see the gentle and loving people see the beauty of the culture, the simplicity of life, the love they have. Although all what you mentioned was around me when I was there — I never saw it. You can chose to see what you want to see. It is not withdrawal, it is the choice of life we chose to live and see.
Value of the moment
by Rita Walters, North Vancouver, BC, Canada
Perhaps all is an illusion. The only contact we have with “reality” is this very moment… and yet this moment will always have passed. Unable to grasp, comprehend, manage my moments at the best of times, I retreat to my paper, my canvas. It is only here that the moment crystallizes and beauty lifts its curtain to give me a glance or two at its marvelous and tragic face.
by Sherry Purvis
Isn’t one person’s perfection another one’s aggravation? I continue to grow and realize that we are not in control of much in our lives or work. I think probably that this is a good thing, as it teaches us to bend a little further and stretch in all directions. Do we really need to add more pressure to our lives by expecting that we can do anything perfectly? Of course, that doesn’t mean that you stop striving for excellence and knowledge, but perfection, I think not. Where do you go from there? Creativity in its purest form is only perfection in disguise. Which one among us has the ability to judge who is or what is perfect? It is certainly out of my league and for this I am eternally grateful. I will just continue to enjoy the ride and be surprised by where it takes me.
Notes on Buddhism
(Name withheld by request)
I’m an American Buddhist. I wanted to say that there are many versions and layers of belief and practice. But there are some consistent teachings worth commenting on. Teachers emphasize that Gautama the historical Buddha should always be referred to as “the Buddha,” just as Jesus is “the Christ.” Buddha and Christ are titles, not names. There have been many awakened Buddhas, probably many Christs. It might be helpful for our species’ survival if people generally understood that. Furthermore “Illusion” and “dream” as spoken about in Hinduism and Buddhism is a difficult concept to grasp and an easy one to misrepresent. It’s not that this material world isn’t “real” — it’s quite real. But it isn’t the only reality that is “real” — i.e., realizable. The illusion is the belief that this,here,now is all there is. But one does not deny this for That, the ground out of which the material world arises and into which it dissolves, moment by moment. True enlightenment, so I am told, is not a space-time-bound event and thus cannot be described in our space-time-based language. The experience of enlightenment can, however, be pointed at.
Questions on color
by Ellen C. Jerome, Hillsboro, Oregon
I am a beginning artist working with acrylics. I have just finished reading the book Design & Composition Secrets of Professional Artists. Could you please tell me the colors that you use in your paintings? Do you only use a few colors or do you have a large number of colors? I would appreciate it very much if you could list these colors for me. Also is your book In Praise of Painting still available?
(RG note) My palette varies quite a bit and in a way I don’t consider it too important. I often just choose colors arbitrarily in order to see what happens. My current staples, however, are Cadmium red, Cadmium yellow, ultra blue, yellow ochre, Carbon black and Titanium white. Often various purples and a favorite Jenkins green. (it seems to be only available in Golden — I think Mr. Jenkins works for Mr. Golden. I often glaze with black, phthalo blue, quinacridone gold, and scumble with orange and red. Having said that I’m trying Stephen Quiller’s recommended palette right now — and have at times used a full academic palette. With regard to “In Praise of Painting,” it’s out of print but copies show up from time to time in bookstores — about $50 in Canada. Not often seen in the USA.
Color and mood
by Victoria Schulz
I am an 8th grader doing a science fair project on how colors effect people’s moods. As an artist do you think colors do effect people’s moods? If so what colors mostly effect people? If you could please help me with my questions I would be very pleased. Thank you very much for your time! Please write soon.
(RG note) Perhaps some artists will write and help you with your project, Victoria. Some contributions from artists about colour can be found at the following pages:
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Joan Harder of Seattle, Washington, USA who says, “Go look at the Bengal tiger in the zoo at Chaing Mai. Peace and serenity will fill your soul as you look into those magnificent eyes.”
And Luang Yai Min of Bangkok, Thailand, who says, “We Thais are too sad of our zoos, snake-pits and cockfights.”
And Marcia C who says, “Buddha was in for balance and harmony. He didn’t notice a lot of the other things. The essence through the illusory.”