You’re wondering what Yin and Yang have to do with your art? Quite a bit. The ideas and symbols of Chinese and Korean culture traditionally held concepts of dark and light. “Yin and Yang” is both a dual concept and a single one. Yin is traditionally “passive, dark, feminine, downward-seeking and corresponding to the night.” Yang, on the other hand, is “male, active, light, upward-seeking and corresponding to the day.”
The well-known Yin and Yang graphic symbol represents the interaction of the two. Each half contains the seed of the other, and they cannot exist without each other. Living within a circle, they exact a basic life principle. Yin and Yang form a cornerstone of Eastern philosophy, medicine and art.
In most Western interpretations of Yin and Yang, the two opposites are brought toward a synthesis. In contrast to the tolerance of opposites popular in Eastern cultures, the relationship of Yin and Yang is not seen as a cyclical process but as a key to progress.
Watching the daily activities of some creative folks, you might notice vacillation between excitement and calm, between contemplation and action. To some degree the nature of art-making dictates this. Together with left and right brain interaction and co-dependence, dark/light, sun/shadow, big/small, rough/delicate, strong/weak and colourful/subdued are concepts we wrestle with daily.
The philosphy of Yin and Yang is also useful when we wish to speed progress. Just as wheels on the studio chair propel the artist back and forth between application and contemplation, so daily action is enhanced by the quickened interaction of the two sides. This manifests itself in many ways: The feminine in us has a transforming effect on the masculine in us, and vice versa. Playfulness enables seriousness. Spirit and technique vie for dominion as body interacts with mind. While concentration and steadiness are valuable, many psychologists think it is during the neural switching that the good stuff happens. The artistic worker, in tune and feeling in balance, is better able to calm the inner beast, invent systematically, find excitement as well as flow, pay the bills and make creative progress.
PS: “One must train from a state of movement to a state of stillness.” (Wu Jianquan, 1870-1942, martial arts teacher)
Esoterica: An excessive Yin or Yang state is generally viewed as unbalanced or undesirable in both Eastern and Western cultures. But many whom we now consider great fall into just that state. Van Gogh, Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat were all ‘yinners’ to the point of self-destruction and suicide. The future may have something more to say about their work, but in the meantime you and I need to extract maximum happiness and maximum service from our own spans. In the wisdom of both East and West, if we choose balance, the result ought to be joy, productivity and community usefulness. It would be nice if this path also pushed mediocrity out of the circle.
Thought and action
by Donald Demers, Eliot, ME, USA
The brush marks we create are nothing more than the evidence of our thoughts and feelings. With this in mind, I believe that painting is as much about thought as it is action. I encourage the people that I work with to spend as much time considering and contemplating their paintings as they spend physically applying paint to it. It seems as though this is the yin and yang at work.
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
I wonder if we all practice the art of yin and yang to some degree without even realizing it? It might be a question as to what degree of success we utilize it that determines the outcome of our art making. Personally, I have read much material on the topic and have come to realize that there is “nothing new under the sun” with respect to that philosophy. We should all give ourselves credit for what we know intuitively and stop beating ourselves up looking for answers on the other side of the road.
It’s all in the mix
by Jean Burman, Australia
Artists do seem to swing wildly from the Yin to the Yang in the course of their artistic endeavours… and it is interesting that so many of the “greats” dwelled permanently in the Yin!
Perhaps it isn’t possible to obtain the desired balance between the two… without losing the intensity of the other? It’s a bit like mixing complements in perfectly equal parts to achieve a perfectly neutral (yet utterly dull) grey! Far better to keep the mix just a little on the warm side (or the cool side) to keep the colour lively!
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA
I’ve become increasingly aware of the yin and yang involved in creating paintings as I get closer to the ulimate “yin” of my life’s end. I find this tug-of-war process of painting more fascinating as I progress. It’s even influencing my selection of subject matter and my way of handling the medium. Perhaps explains why some paintings sit unfinished for weeks until I get into a more yin (or yang) frame of mind.
But I do strenuously object to the tradition of attributing a gender to the description of yin (female-dark) and yang (male-light). What ballderdash! Isn’t it the male who usually starts wars and generally disrupts the state of things? I’d call that dark, indeed. I say there’s no need to inject gender into this concept and it’s obvious that this tradition is male-instigated.
Balance invites and holds viewer
by Anita Stoll, Coarsegold, CA, USA
In the process of creating art, I want a mix of excitement, contemplation, mystery and suspense. It is part of my process to create a mix that will hold the interest of the viewer. My work is to find that balance of where to draw them in, when to linger, and where to place some mystery in the painting.
A painting beautifully executed can turn me off immediately. It looks like a photograph. It has too many opposing forces or none at all, making it boring. My eye and mind don’t have a chance to absorb, thus my journey through the painting is quickly over and so on. My process is the struggle creating that certain balance needed to invite the viewer in, hold his or her interest long enough to evoke some interaction and finally create a relationship with it.
Balance in painting and in life
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
A good painting fosters a spirit of spontaneity and randomness, yet those qualities are most often brought forth with a solid understanding of the fundamentals: drawing, design, color and value. Lacking in those areas and you may end up with a painting that lacks harmony. At the same time, however, forcing that knowledge too much may lead your painting to lack inspiration. It’s a matter of understanding and then letting go, like mixing known chemicals into an unknowable concoction. The results can be enlightening.
Isn’t life the same way? Too much of living by the seat of our pants and life can become un-harmonious. Too little, too much given to us without merit, and we become bored or insatiable. For some people everyday is a chance to manifest their own destiny while for others everyday is simply another domination by life, job or kin.
Lack of Balance
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
It is a great challenge to balance the yin and yang in life. In art it is even more of a challenge. A challenge that faces me is balancing the bold brilliant active parts of a painting with the calmer more neutral areas. Mood and weather can influence a sensitive soul to stray too far into one without having the other for balance. In contrast, sometimes that lack of “balance” in a painting is what draws the viewer and gives life to the painting. I am and shall probably always be seeking to find this magical thing called balance.
Mediocrity is essential
by Dave Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
In your letter regarding Yin and Yang you concluded, “It would be nice if this path also pushed mediocrity out of the circle.” ‘Mediocrity’ is made up of many human efforts on their way to an enhanced self-expression. Everything will always have and outside, a center and an area in-between. ‘Mediocrity’ will always be a (subjectively) determined and relative ‘absence-of-excellence.’ You can’t and will not have one without the other. Meanwhile all sincere/naive efforts which aspire shall ultimately be seen as that which gave birth to excellence. The heights of the mountain rest upon the masses below its peak.
“The slow one now will later be fast, as the present now will later be past…” (Bob Dylan)
Balance keeps us sanely creative
by San Merideth, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Here in Santa Fe, and in a few other cities around the world, there’s a semi-annual, well-attended conference known as the “Creativity and Madness Conference.” Through the years a number of attendees — psychiatrists, psychologists, and such — have become good clients of my gallery and so I am quite appreciative that we have this recurring event. I have nonetheless often disliked the conference name because it seems to imply that “creativity” and “madness” go together — like Bonnie and Clyde, salt and pepper, or well, yin and yang.
Your observation that some truly brilliant artists have been destroyed by being stuck in “yin” mode is accurate I believe. And I agree that such self-destruction is not intrinsic to creativity. It is the balance of action and reflection, solitude and relationship that keep us sanely creative. Wallace Stevens, a brilliant poet who plumbed the depths of inwardness while living a completely “real world” life as an insurance executive, articulated this balance with grace:
“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.”
That passage from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is rich with layers of meaning, but for me, one of those layers is about that to-and-fro movement from action to reflection and back again. That movement itself is magical.
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
Your letter “Boat stories” inspired the feature article “Boats Stories and Art” by Pacific Yachting magazine. I was one of the 12 chosen artists and I must tell you that the project took on a life of its own. A wonderful thing happened in conjunction with this deadline. I decided to paint a painting geared for the boating magazine. I would never have painted Muriel’s Marina if this project didn’t land in my lap and inspire me to do a painting with a marina or boats of some kind.
I made the connection through a deadline of sorts myself. My emotions were heightened because we were waiting for my mother-in-law to pass away and here this deadline was on my mind. I began painting the attached painting, then made the personal connection by remembering how much my husband’s family was a part of the yachting world. I literally began to weep once I became aware of why this painting was touching me so. For this I must thank you. We are not touched so often and so deeply.
Enjoy the past comments below for Yin and yang …
watercolour painting on canvas
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 Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “Yin and yang are the essence of every creation. It never ceases to amaze me that our basic tools are so simple and, out of this, wondrous things are created, infinitely.”
And also Kim Weber of Irvine, CA, USA who wrote, “Since you opened the door… I appreciate your art letters, but I am not interested in reading about mystical belief systems that have nothing to do with art.”
And also Lillian Wu who wrote, “Whether in art or food, the association of the light and dark, spicy and mild, relaxation and stress are balances to enhance our life. They are the invisible energies in my paintings.”
And also Joe Faith who wrote, “Check out the Ying Yang in the sky of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. My understanding is that this is no happy accident.”
And also B. J. Adams of Washington, DC, USA who wrote, “Many of us find struggling with the contrasts an everyday occurrence. I need much more of the ‘neural switching’ for the good stuff to rise to the surface and push that mediocrity out of my circle.”
And also Paul Uhler of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “My artistic inclinations are towards music, in particular the piano. You have no idea how thought-provoking and inspirational your painter emails have been for me, a pianist. I have also subscribed to your YouTube videos. Please keep up your extraordinary work.”