Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting. If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes. Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.
A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art. I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions. I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity. The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work. Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.
Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting. It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.
Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)
Maybe I can finish this today. No, can’t work too long. Got to get groceries and pay some bills. That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that? Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod. Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?
Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)
Oh crap. This looks like Paul Klee. Who am I ripping off besides him? Hello Kandinsky. Hello Max Beckman. Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card. Got to mess that up. I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty. Might as well add bunnies and flowers. Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous? I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?
A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window. It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.
Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog. No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe? Meh. It’s a blob of paint. Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts. There goes the knee. Is it hot in here? Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.
Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)
Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway? Am I just my resume’?” What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P. Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?
I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.
Did I just make everything worse? Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now. When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…
Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk. We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.
When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.
It almost looks done! When did that happen? Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it? I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute! I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…