Recent activities have helped with an understanding of what goes on in the art-making brain. The encouragement of Zen-like lapses can be useful both in the studio and the great outdoors. We start with the understanding that a relaxed brain more easily accesses natural creative tendencies.
In the preparation phase, minimal anxieties, few regrets and a state of well-being preheat the oven. Shuffling of the recipe cards is also valuable. Here are a few ideas:
Have an attitude of low expectations and nothing to lose.
Try to make deliberate, thoughtful, rhythmic movements.
While not necessarily alone, be solitary.
Allow yourself to dream, flow and indulge your fancies.
Be philosophic about your weaknesses and creative faults.
Let your tools and your media do the talking.
Let your work tell you what it needs.
Let yourself yin and yang between thought and no thought.
Accept imperfection. Try for the spirit of attaining.
Teach yourself to teach yourself as you go.
Be in the now, but look gently ahead.
Be not lazy in your relaxation.
In the mystery we call life, certain work can be certain joy, and it has something to do with surrender to the more primitive, playful and automatic parts of our brain.
It’s like the convention of retirement, only in shorter and more frequent increments. The idea is to calculate and bend a sense of leisure into specific creative times. Like retirement activities such as golf, boating or woodworking, work is required. In the Zen-like mode, work is not so onerous, but it is still work. Persons of any age with a desire for independence, who are disposed to squeeze and produce, can access this mode.
I’m not trying to be funny here, but artists need to develop a feeling of privilege and a sense of good fortune, even if the feeling has to be artificially induced. This self-foolery, a sort of mental levitation, brings on a state of mind that facilitates easy-going exploration. The active seduction of one’s own mind is a significant key to creative progress.
PS: “We must take situations as they are. We must only change our mental attitudes towards them.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
Esoterica: I’m painting on the forward deck of M.V. Mareva on the west coast of British Columbia. This morning’s bay was full of eagles. Laboured flyers, they fly in a “flap, flap, flap — glide” manner. I interpret the flaps as the purposeful, thinking mode, and the glide as a period of less commitment but continued progress. Later in the morning, the eagles are at great altitude, soaring effortlessly.
by Ray Miller, Oceanside, CA, USA
I was in a laid back mode when I read this piece and accepted it whole, without any dissent. Later today, when the fireworks begin at the pier, there will be, as always, a few spectacular rockets of a different color from unexpected directions and at greater heights. These rockets are like the magical moments of inspiration during the painting process. I accept them and then go back into the rhythm of method.
Over to the Light Side
by Suzanne Northcott, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
Right now I am working with complex abstract under-paintings. I have the pleasure of allowing that space for something surprising and beautiful to happen. My involvement with the canvas is conversational and absolutely engaging. These beginnings set up a relationship that I like and, as I proceed to inflict my big ideas onto the support, they keep me mindful of the possibility of flow and continually invite me over to the light side.
Relax and enjoy the process
by Tinker Bachant, Sautee Nacoochee, GA, USA
I have a quote on the corner of my easel, part of which reads, “Perfectionism can create excellent results, but the cost of getting there can cause stress. So instead of striving for perfection, I aim for excellence in all I do.” It reminds me that I am mortal and to just relax and stop adding one more line or dab of color, etc. and enjoy the process. It makes a big difference in my work!
Like building a sandcastle
by Janet Bowser, The Big Woods, PA, USA
Sometimes I feel guilty because my painting does not pay any bills, it does not do anything to advance us in life, and it sucks funds out of our budget for canvas, paint, brushes, books and framing. It does give me something though. It is so relaxing and enjoyable that, as I am before the canvas, figuring out a perspective problem or mixing colors on a foam plate, I get a feeling similar to one that I had as a child. I feel like I am playing. Not like playing S.W.A.T in the basement of pre-built homes, but like working a puzzle or building a sandcastle on the shore. Maybe these things will never amount to anything of importance to anyone and maybe I should be doing laundry, but painting does something for me and I really need it now.
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Free from creative blocks
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I used to have problems with creative blocks until I remembered that my ability to do art began with a gift from God. That joy of doing art I had as a child — I wanted to recapture it. I wanted to free myself from the chains of other people’s opinions, sales and getting into exhibitions. I began to regularly meditate and pray for these things and soon found that my painting improved. It is important for me to let my work flow out of me. I do my best work when I just let it happen and not let my thinking brain interfere too much.
Walking the middle path
by Janice Tanton, Canmore, AB, Canada
Process often seems a mystery to many artists, and those that work the most purely are best to keep that mystery. I envision this mystery and process as a three-dimensional painting that goes on forever. To the left of the painting is a stripe of black that sinks low and moves about as a ribbon, undulating up and down. To the right, and above, is another unending stripe of white doing the same but with a different cadence. In the centre is a straight pathway of grey, more narrow, yet stable and for the most part straight upon which I walk. If I move to the black or the white in my walk, each of them becomes stimulating in their own way, but I cannot see all of this painting clearly, nor the pathway properly. If I stay on the gray path, I can see it all and I walk the middle way in peace with the process and gently riding the mystery. This visual piece is not just a metaphor for the artistic process, but one for decision-making in real-time life.
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA
There are two kinds of artists. There are the people who work to make art, to be an artist. They of course have knowledge, desire, and talent. Then there is the artist whose art pours from their pores. Their minds create constantly, seeing things stimulate them, the smell of mediums churns their creative juices, and literally a blade of grass could set them off creating.
I have been both. I am an oil painter, a photographer, a portrait artist, an acrylic artist, which is fun and new for me. Each of these I have gained income from but I do mostly because I was born to do it. It’s what I have done since I knew there was more than lined paper. The last two years I suffered to be an artist. I even enlisted an online Zen master and an art assistant, it got so bad. I tried my New Years Eve resolution to sit in front of my canvas every day. Meditation, the right music, prayer as usual, Nothing. I am better now and my art is back! Seeing your tools today reminds me how you gave me hope that I maybe could somehow, deep in the core of my being, release the sheath that cast a cover over the art that was my soul.
by Norah Bolton, Toronto, ON, Canada
Ned Herrmann, the author of The Creative Brain, and an accomplished painter and musician, told us in a study group some years ago that this Zen-like state can actually be measured by biofeedback. He encouraged us to wear small bio-dots which would change colour in relation to the temperature of our hand, indicating our reflective state, and then led us through a meditation using guided imagery. The colours changed remarkably. Ned was particularly keen on the theta waves that occurred just after waking. So your previous suggestion of getting straight to the easel would find agreement from Ned. In later life Ned himself took advantage in a slightly different way, as you can see.
Meditation before working
by Linda Walker, Bemidji, MN, USA
I had the undisputable pleasure of studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ’60s. He was a wonderful, caring, humorous, far-reaching teacher who gently taught the practice of Transcendental Meditation. One is given a teacher who finds a personal mantra to use as a powerful tool that for me its usefulness brings energetic relaxation and an opening to the feeling of being guided by my own inner spirit. While this is impossible to explain, I spend a few minutes meditating before working and the mantra stays with me while I paint. Tensions and extemporaneous thoughts recede back while those energies that have to do with my work are more focused and clear. It helps to recover from outside disturbances and return quickly into the rhythm. I don’t know that it makes my work any better but it brings so much more enjoyment to the process.
All weather sketching
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
I obtained a set of permanent markers in thirty-six colors for about fourteen dollars. They are absolutely impervious to water. Two nights ago during a thunderstorm I sat in my doorway and drew the tiger lilies outside my door. While not able to blend; one can get a really dynamic and colorful sketch. My friend knew just what it was I had sketched! That is satisfaction. The markers come in their own case. For that kind of money, you can have a lot of fun, no mixing and no cleaning up, just putting away – don’t worry about the weather. What fun!
A different perspective
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Another list of self-improving tips and tricks? And I thought I’d seen them all. I’m not really a friend of patent problem-solvers, maybe because I am guilty of so many failings that I don’t think I’m up to becoming the perfect anything through them, even if I wanted to. Let me just list the reactions I had to this list. I was reading into them what might not have been the intention, of course.
“Have an attitude of low expectations and nothing to lose.” I would stop doing anything if I stopped expecting something of myself. I don’t believe we have nothing to lose. In my view and from (often negative) experience I know we have everything to lose if we don’t bother to set aims and targets.
“Try to make deliberate, thoughtful, rhythmic movements.” Sometimes spontaneity is more effective. Thoughtful movements are frequently contra-productive. Shutting out the subconscious and constructing or contriving are not creative processes. And isn’t that the door you are trying to get people to open?
“Be not lazy in your relaxation.” The biblical tone of this final command has left me (almost) speechless. Relaxing without actually letting go is not relaxing, in my view. Some relax by sleeping in the sun; others climb a mountain. The choice must be left to me.
The reward of painting
by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada
I work best if I keep a relaxed but focused attitude and let myself play with my paint, ink and brush. Overall my best works are those I do while in this mode. I’ve even painted while in a telephone conversation with my Mother and ended up with a fresh new piece. A doodle, perhaps, but a very purposeful doodle. I find the flow of ideas comes to me as I work quickly and I end up trying out a lot of them. Some work and others don’t but I learn as I do them. I try to live for the moment when I paint and not think whether it is a good painting or not. Later when I look back at them, some I felt were less successful stand out, and others I felt were good don’t live up to my first impression. And so I learn. Lately I’ve been spending a greater amount of time doing the ‘business’ end of art so I treasure my times when I paint. But I don’t put expectations on what happens. Painting is the reward.
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oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
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 Esmie G. McLaren of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “The Esoterica today was sheer poetry.”
And also Linda Muttitt who wrote, “So, I just this evening have emerged from an intensive Buddhist meditation retreat, and what to my wondering eyes did appear in my mailbox, but ‘The Zen of Art’. All I could do was smile, you know, that lovely quiet Buddha-like smile of something bigger than myself busy at work.”