Dear Artist, Yesterday, photographer and digital artist Nikolay Semyonov of Rostov-na-Donu, South Russia wrote, “There are times my eye virtually stops seeing things that might make me press the shutter. This usually happens when I stay too long in the same place or at the end of a long session. My mind seems to get stuck. A period may last quite a long time. Whenever I feel it coming on, I try concentrating on details like webs, spots, stains, twigs, cracks, sunlight patterns, textures, etc. This primes my imagination. With patience, my mind gets activated by human figures, landscapes and other bright things. Do you or your readers know of any other systems?” Thanks, Nikolay. I’m sure the Brotherhood and Sisterhood will be forthcoming with further systems. I’m in tune with yours — what I call “macro-looking” to refresh the eye when among overly-familiar or tired subject matter. Here’s another similar subterfuge I call “The Parachute Principle.” I figured it out a few years ago when arriving for the first time in Brittany. I had flown Vancouver/London, London /Paris and Paris/Brest. After sixteen hours mostly buried in my laptop, I “parachuted” into an unfamiliar environment. Like a kid on his first visit to Disneyland, the taxi ride to the hotel was a revelation. Apart from the landscape and architecture, the passing humanity, their curious dress-code, their wide-set eyes and physical dispositions, even the way they looked at me was unusual. The cars — Citroens, Renaults, Peugeots — moving quietly on the pristine lanes were from another planet. In those days I was still smoking, and the airport-bought cigar strangely puffed French smoke toward the oddly-shaped head of my Breton driver. I lit and relit that cigar with alien matches. Why, I wondered, could I not always have this same visual innocence? I discovered “visual innocence” to be a learnable art. One needs to secretly and privately cultivate the self-delusion of surprise and even dismay. Natural to some, many simply lose it along the way. To renew and refresh, you need to focus on the payoff and regularly give yourself a small mental reboot. With self-management and repetition, even the painting you struggled with on Thursday is simply and effectively brand new on Friday. Best regards, Robert PS: “No inspiration comes from nowhere. No invention is based on nothing. You always need to be tuned up and be ready to start receiving the energy you look for.”(Nikolay Semyonov) Esoterica: The Parachute Principle is made palpable on our heli-painting drops. Arriving at high altitudes, we painters exit the craft and huddle together, shielding our eyes against the swirling detritus under the whirling blades. The craft lifts off and away and in 30 seconds is neither seen nor heard. We open our eyes to a silent miracle, a magical diorama not previously seen. The rocks, tarns, patches of snow, the very peaks at our feet and far away are somehow ours and we possess for the first time their beguiling designs. Hastily setting up our easels as if to devour this newness and novelty, we find ourselves asking why all of life cannot be simply and forever like this? Nikolay Semyonov Mental recuperation by Fiona Frisby, Ireland Whenever I grow tired from looking, and when everyday surroundings no longer appeal or excite, I take a rest from it all! I think it is a natural thing to have ebbs and flows in this way. Our physical selves often need recuperation, and so it is mentally. I am against too much forcing of the imagination. Switching off for a while and accepting the need for rest is the best tonic. Painting refreshes the eye by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA There is nothing like your first kiss or first day of school. Remember when your mom was the prettiest girl you knew and when water balloons were the ultimate weapon. When race issues meant who among your friends was the fastest runner. There is a tremendous loss with the coming of age, but art helps to keep us young. I have always believed artists see with new eyes every time they paint. I try and do this with the only difference being I know how to solve the problem and get the work done. There are 2 comments for Painting refreshes the eye by Rick Rotante ‘Clean eyes’ by redirected gaze by Pam Schader, CA, USA Monet once said he wished he had been born blind and suddenly gained eyesight. Dimensions, perspective, objects would all be fresh to him in that moment, without names, without relationships — field to ground. Imagine it! The old adage, “Clean eyes,” is the state achieved by simply directing your gaze elsewhere. At my studio, students like to hike down to the mail box and stare at it for a few minute, returning with clean eyes! Take a nap, take a walk or do nothing: our mental computer is ‘scanning for fit’ while we sleep; Eureka — there is the answer in the morning. Mindfulness forsakes planning by Fiona Bruce, UK This joyful seeing anew is what can be experienced through what the Buddhists call ‘Mindfulness.’ As I understand it — and how it works for me — it is about being consciously present to each moment so that each moment is new. And we do not see things from the perspective of memory or expectation or projection. We simply see from a place of openness to what is before us — as if we had never seen it before, because, if this moment, and everything in it, is new and unique, then we have never seen it before! The other thing I would say is when I take photos, I do not plan the shots I am going to take. Rather, I wait for the image to ‘present itself to me.’ Again, it is about being conscious and open to what I encounter, not imposing a preconceived idea of a ‘good picture’ onto what I see. Instead of me projecting what I want to achieve, I wait for it to offer something up to me. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a particular mind-state that allows me to take good pictures. Then it is an intuitive, spontaneous act. It requires trust and patience. And practice. And it can’t be done by thinking about it! Of course, painting may require something different. But the ‘being in the moment’ awareness can be relevant to all creativity I feel… indeed, to all Life. Fresh clarity after turning away by Keith Thirgood, Markham, ON, Canada When I worked as a professional photographer, one of the tricks we used to get people to look fresh and spontaneous was to have our subjects turn their faces away from the camera, close their eyes, blow out through closed lips to loosen the face, and then our command, “Look up wide-eyed at the camera.” It worked every time. They always looked fresh and alive. Then, as graphic artists, when we were working on a project, we always reached a point where we had looked at the work one time too many. It seemed stale. So we would walk some distance from the work, turn our backs on it, close our eyes and imagine the location where our work would be seen and then turn around and open our eyes and look at the work again. It always returned our minds to a state of fresh clarity. As painters, when we return to a familiar subject, we close our eyes and remind ourselves just how exciting and fulfilling painting can be, then open our eyes ready to gulp down the scene before us. Now, when we’re teaching a workshop or leading an art retreat, we use a similar tactic on the participants, if they’re having a hard time finding anything to paint. (It’s amazing that we can bring students to the same locations that inspired the Group of Seven, and someone will be lost and admit they can’t find anything to paint.) Seeing out of the heart by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA One of the biggest things I fight is the thought, “I know that.” The truth is I really don’t, because each new piece I do is a new territory completely. So I pretend I’m from another planet, and that I have no clue what a tree is, what air is, what the ocean is — and suddenly my eyes do a back flip and feel like they’ve quickened, and lines, shapes and colors pop out that were hidden before just a minute ago. I especially did that after moving from Hawaii to a backwoods area in New Mexico years ago. When I first looked, the land looked all blah tan. As soon as I became an alien — as indeed, I really was! — I could see the subtlety of the colors: beautiful greys, browns, ochres, rusts, soft lavenders… and little nuances shouting out like little fireworks in spring blossoms and cactus flowers. Another thing I do is pretend I’m going to die tomorrow, and ask myself what color I’d like to paint my last day in, and what shapes. I practically close my eyes as I paint, because it’s all feel. It’s almost like having eyes in, and seeing out of my heart. If I’m carving, I use both hands, because Leftie has a very different feel, logic and language from Rightie’s. Always something more to be seen by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA Regarding Nikolay’s dilemma… the only out that I know of is what he is already basically doing — waking yourself up after noticing that you have fallen visually asleep — which tends to happen any time you spend a lot of time with something. It’s like with anything you are familiar with… once you think you have seen it the tendency is to go back on ‘automatic pilot.’ The ‘trick’ is to be aware that you have lapsed and then refocus. During my teaching days I drove through some beautiful Wisconsin countryside to and from school. I would look carefully what was around me, that being a primary part of an artist’s job, and I was asking my students to do the same. But I’d often have to ‘wake-up’ to actually looking to see what was out there. Sometimes I’d pretend that it was my first look at it even though I had observed it most everyday over a 30 year period in every kind of weather and season and lighting condition. I’m retired from teaching but not from art, and painting helps keep me from falling asleep to the appearance of the everyday visual world around me. A long look at the appearance of things is a constant reminder that there is always something more to be noticed and seen. Let the brain breathe by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA Nikolay’s letter really struck several chords. As a painter who works a full-time job, I’m not able to paint on location nearly as much as I would like and often take reference photos to work from. I don’t show these photos and so don’t consider myself a photographer but I always have a camera with me to shoot from the hip. It drives my girlfriend crazy! We love to take walks and I’m always stopping. When you’re “tuned up” and “receiving energy” as Nikolay Semyonov says, the world is seen through the eyes of a child. In her defense, Sarah has come to be very patient with me. She understands my childlike condition. Sometimes we’ll come upon a painting waiting to happen and she’ll ask me why I don’t take a photo and I’ll have to simply admit that I’m done. I can’t see things the same because my mind’s eye is overloaded. It’s important to let the brain breathe. It’s been said that the medium is the message. Nikolay’s medium is always receptive and sees very differently than the human eye. To demonstrate, I have attached images of two paintings. The landscape was done on a drop as Robert described and the still-life was done from a reference photo. Some might think that they were done by two different painters. Maybe they were. As my friend Wyatt says, being there makes all the difference. The trick for me is to remember the feelings experienced while taking the photo. Maybe Van Gogh said it best: “Exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague.” Sarah and I have been watching the Seattle Insight Meditation Series videos by Rodney Smith. Through his training as a Buddhist monk, he teaches how to allow the mind to be calm and receptive. I imagine that being dropped on top of a mountain is like a highly concentrated dose of the Buddhist concept of attentiveness being injected into one’s heart and mind. As Wayne White says, “Being an artist is a lifestyle.” And as Robert’s words so eloquently elaborate, we are always striving to devour the beguiling novel designs of the magical dioramas that we are parachuted into simply and forever. Would that we could. It is pretty to think so. I for one don’t think I could receive that much energy unrelentingly. My brain’s gotta catch its breath.
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 Nan Zimdars of Madison, WI, USA, who wrote, “I have two tricks I use. Focus on the patterns of shadows instead of looking at the objects. (Reflections also work.) Try to see only the negative spaces and look at everything that “isn’t.” Then when you go back to just looking at things, they look very different.”
And also Rebecca Stebbins of Santa Barbara, CA, USA, who wrote, “In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called “beginner’s mind,” which describes a way of approaching everything the way a beginner would: with freshness, openness, new eyes. There is a quote by Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The Parachute Principle…Featured Workshop: Evelyn Dunphy
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches by Sarah Gayle Carter, Richmond, VA, USA