The Power of the Unconscious
This is something of a follow-up to my last post. Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of how much richer the unconscious mind is, creatively, than the conscious mind. As artists, we use our unconscious minds all the time, if only to let us know when a piece feels finished, or if an element we are introducing to a painting feels “right”. We refer to the mysterious power of our unconscious minds as intuition, instinct, or with the artist’s dismissive phrase “part of my toolbox.” It all comes from the same place… That part of the mind that runs without orders from supreme headquarters. It operates under the radar, making color choices while we’re talking to a friend on the phone, or noticing something wrong with a hand while we’re concentrating on trying to get a nose right.
I came face to face with this fact last week, while working in a rustic barn with twenty-or-so colleagues in the Berkshire mountains. To a man (and woman), these folks paint with oils, while I’ve always done my work in acrylics. I thought it would be the perfect environment in which to begin experimenting with oils again. I bought an assortment of paints and brushes and set to work on two small paintings. The unfortunate truth about working in an unfamiliar medium is that most of one’s technical instincts are rendered useless. Right away, working on the first painting, I put down a brush stroke and, without thinking, reached out and flicked the mark with the side of my thumb to feather its outer edge (something I do all the time when working with acrylics). Not only did I feather the outer edge, but, because oil paints don’t dry quickly, took the entire face of my main character with it. Oil doesn’t dry quickly. My conscious mind knows that. My unconscious mind, on the other hand, just knows what you do when you want to feather a stroke, and did it before Supreme Headquarters could put the brakes on.
So I painted all week with my conscious mind fully and acutely engaged, and my unconscious mind more or less pushed to the background. It was painful. It felt like swimming through mud. Everything was alien to me. I had to think about how to clean my brush between strokes. I had to think about how to arrange the colors on my palette. I had to remember not to use my thumb to blend, not to dip my brush into the water pot standing nearby, not to touch anything for fear of smearing it… on and on. What it showed me, acutely, was how much of a load my instincts normally carry for me when I’m doing a painting. They allow me to deal with “higher” considerations. How do I want the light to reveal the form? What is the compositional focus of the piece? What story do I want to tell?
By the end of the week, I was exhausted. I went to bed early. While everyone else went off to dinner, I lay in the dark, tossing and turning and feeling sick of painting altogether. As I lay there, an image came to me of a winged figure holding a black orb. It had something to do with what I was feeling, but I couldn’t have said why. All I knew was that it was an image that held some power for me.
I hesitated for a while: my bed was warm and cozy, I was tired, I felt frustrated and upset, the last thing I wanted to do was paint. Eventually, I got up, pulled on my clothes and walked to the empty barn. My easel stood in the corner, surrounded by my fellow artists’ glorious oil paintings, all in various stages of completion. I pulled out a large board, grabbed a handful of brushes, and spread my big pots of acrylic paint around me. I plugged in my iPod and let my sleepy mind just float away. In a couple of hours I finished the painting of the winged man holding the black orb, letting as many of my decisions as possible be made instinctively. I deliberately kept my mind in check, watching and gently directing my strokes and color choices, but staying out of the driver’s seat. It was a huge release of tension, to be able to let that part of my mind loose, to act as its guide without constraining it. I was happy with the finished piece. It felt so much more potent and exciting than the poor, cramped little oil paintings I’d spent days and days fighting with.
I’m convinced, at least in my case, that the unconscious mind is where all really satisfying art comes from. I’m not sure how to harness that fact in my commercial work, but it can’t be impossible. I will keep struggling with oil paints. I think it’s important to challenge myself, and to build up new skills, but I will also look for opportunities to let this most potent part of my artistic self emerge. Back in the early ’90’s, I wrote a graphic novel called “Faith Conquers”, which ended with the following line from its narrator, plucked straight from my unconscious and kept in the final draft because it “felt right”. I’ll give him the final word:
“When my solid life was shattered, I took a new name. I left my wife, my child and my home and entered the River of Fire. I have no guide now, save instinct. Mine is a floating world. No foundation. Nothing to stand on.
The River of Fire. Everything else is an illusion.”