One of our favorite books, David’s and mine, is the small French novel Pluche, by Jean Dutourd. The narrator and main character, a painter, suffering a frustrating dry spell in his studio, has the idea of experimenting with writing for a change to see if that will bring his painting back to life. At least it will occupy him until he is happily painting again, and so the book begins. The story is set in Paris, and along with the narrator’s musings on art and artists we see him interacting with friends, relatives and strangers, all of whom come to life on the pages. If I had this wonderful book with me, I would quote my favorite passage, but alas! It is back in Michigan.
Pluche came to my mind as I took up my sketchpad and pencil. Sketching for me could be thought of as avoiding the work of writing, but it is winter, I’m “on vacation,” I’m giving myself the luxury of exploration and even failure, so when my writing went dry after a couple of productive weeks I thought I'd let it go for a while. But the fact is that I have been avoiding sketching lately, too, in part (I’m guessing) since “going public” with it on the blog. Imagining how other people would see my little drawings seemed to freeze my hand when what I want, what I have loved about drawing in the past, is being able to lose myself in seeing and responding.
Enter another book: Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, by Shaun McNiff (Shambhala, 1998). “You probably think this is silly,” I remarked to David, showing him the title. I’d found the book at our little branch library in Weeki Wachee and couldn’t resist checking it out. No, he didn’t. (I should have known he wouldn’t.) David approves and applauds any path that leads me back to work, and it doesn’t matter what the work is, either—it’s only my wanting to do it that he cares about. Well, this little volume is crammed with encouraging words and wonderful little tips, all having to do with getting the work going. Nothing about technique(s), but plenty of other books deal with that.
One basic idea, reiterated in every chapter, is that of moving from one art form to another, one medium to another, letting different materials and movements free the natural process of creativity. Another large thought that permeates the whole of the book is the author’s resistance (I love this!) to generalizing about a single way to go about making art or living life. Neither drawing nor writing (to choose the two forms that interest me most) can be reduced to a formula. “The good life,” whatever the Greeks may have thought, takes many paths, also. Not all painters must run off to Tahiti. Not all poets must live as hermits.
In individual chapters, artist-author-teacher McNiff focuses on complementary ideas. The chapter “Mistakes and Distortions” reminded me of something I used to tell my beginning philosophy students—that they should welcome “getting something wrong” because it was a sign they were really engaging with the material and thinking for themselves, not just memorizing terms. In science, also, evidence that invalidates a theory is what moves knowledge forward. When we get something right, there can be a tendency to pass on without digging deeper, without reflecting. But “mistakes” are more opportunities to learn—they can also open new directions for art and life. I say “for life” because the author’s concern is always broader than art. “Do you obsess about errors when you make them?” This is a very general question about how we think about our lives. But then came the suggestion that sent me rushing for my sketchbook: “Intentional distortion is a wonderful way of increasing spontaneity.” In other words, try to make your drawing not look just like its subject. Wow!
Try making a human face, a body, an animal, an object, or a street scene with the goal of distorting and exaggerating the subject matter. As you continue to paint and draw in this way, you will find yourself making gestures that are uniquely yours. The figures and objects from which you work become stimuli for your creation, and you are freed from any obligation to copy exactly what you see.
Improvising rather than copying, he says, your movements will be “bolder, more decisive, and more individualistic.” The distortion prescription is just what the doctor ordered for those of us who tend to be overly cautious and constrained.
One of my long-time drawing gurus, the one who gave me courage to pick up a pencil in the first place, is Frederick Franck, and the guiding theme of his books is drawing as meditation. Not surprisingly, McNiff also likens art to meditation and prayer, addressing the question of finding time for creativity: “Just as the religious person makes time for prayer during the day, the expressive person makes time for expression.”
When I create a successful painting or drawing, there is a sense of satisfaction. I may want to show the image to another person, but the primary sentiment is a feeling of completeness that takes place between myself and the image and the environment in which it was made. I innately long for this type of successful outcome. If the work is eventually exhibited, appreciated, and recognized by others, this is fine, but as I get older, public or external recognition for my paintings feels increasingly secondary. The primary emphasis is creative exercise and the intrinsic enjoyment of the act. And often the process of creation is unenjoyable, tormenting, and frustrating, just as prayer may open the difficult and confusing struggles of life [my emphasis added].
Can you imagine people feeling that their prayers, spiritual exercises, and meditations must be exhibited in a gallery or commercially published? This simple distinction between primal exercise and commercial production describes the most fundamental values of my approach to making art.
What a great question, isn’t it? How would you feel revealing your most heartfelt prayers to the public? Okay, I have no pretensions to be “making art” in my little sketchbook. Nevertheless, I am now, this morning, making a vow to be more faithful to the practice, to use my pencil (I have several but one favorite) on a daily basis, not simply carry it around to be ready for that perfect day and perfect scene. At the same time I need to return to the privacy of drawing as meditation, to free myself of worrying about how others might see my attempts. So, no more of my drawings here on the blog!
It’s okay, you won’t be missing much. There will still be photographs, anecdotal bits from our daily life, and reports on books I’m reading, issues of regional relevance (especially when I can somehow connect Florida and Michigan) and whatever other flotsam and jetsam may be occupying my mind. Who knows? That last category, left intentionally as loose as possible, so loose as hardly to constitute a category, may even touch on how the other writing project is going. I’m not ruling it out.