Monday, October 15, 2012

Mind's involvement in the process of painting

Blake Garden. 20"x10". Oil on linen.
Today's post in my "Process and meaning" series will be, I suspect, hard to write intelligibly, because it touches directly the problem discussed in the introductory post of the series: more specifically, I am not sure whether or not people mean different things when they say different things; or, more puzzling still, when they say the same thing about their process. And especially because the discourses on this topic are muddled by various utterly oversimplified beliefs about how the human brain is organized and (presumably) compartmentalized. So I'll try to begin to talk about it in as simple and plain words as possible. 

There are artists who firmly believe that, in the process of painting (or any other art-making), the creator should be fully focused on what they are doing, with all parts and aspects of their minds, brains, bodies, souls – whatever that is, in sum, that we consist of. In other words, the artist should be fully in the process; and if this focus, and this presence, waver, if some part of the brain goes on some unrelated trip, nothing good can come out of it. One doesn't need any theory of brain (or mind) here, because it doesn't matter – whatever there is, however it is organized, should be fully engaged in the painting process. It is probably only right to say explicitly here and now that that's my belief, too.

I have encountered at least two slightly distinct theories that seem to be in direct contradiction with this one (but I am not exactly sure whether they are different from one another, or just formulated differently). The first one is that, in the process, the painter should be in a kind of trans, with consciousness as much disengaged from the process as possible (I think sometimes the same distinction is described in terms of hearts vs. minds). The second one is that the "left brain" should be "switched off" or be busied with something else, with only the "right brain" involved in the process of painting. 

In all this, there is only one piece of "evidence" about the real differences between how artists engage in the process of painting, and what their consciousness (and their "left brain") do in the meanwhile: some artists intentionally engage in an additional activity while painting, specifically designed to occupy the "left brain" and to let it neither interfere with the painting nor go on its own uncontrolled trips down memory holes (most often, this activity is listening to audio-books). Sometimes, mind-altering substances (like alcohol) are used to help the "left brain" to "switch off", and the "right brain", to rule the day.

On the contrary, for me, an essential part of learning how to paint was to train my brain to fully concentrate on the painting, even though something in it has a tendency towards unrelated verbosity. My most successful trick is to find a poem in my mind which would be, both emotionally and rhythmically, in tune with the painting, and let it play "in the background" of my mind. It might sound suspiciously close to listening to audio-books, only without technology, but it isn't, not really. Most importantly, the poem chosen is "in tune" with the painting, i.e. the brain is still occupied with the same feelings and rhythms, not with something unrelated. Secondly, the poem-reading voice naturally weakens itself if there is a task in the process which requires full technical concentration, or the painting takes the brain over completely for some other reason. And last but not least, it helps me notice the loss of concentration and focus "in time", and either take a break or re-group. Moreover, if each brushstroke begins to reinforce the sound of poetry in my head, bringing it all together, I know for sure that I am on the right track.     


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