Where Images Come From
I’ve found, as a commercial artist, that personal pieces are surprisingly hard to do. I say surprisingly, because this is what we want, right? No client, no rules, we can paint whatever we want! What I’ve found is that personal pieces resist “designing”. The process I usually go through when preparing for a painting: come up with an idea/sketch/shoot reference/paint to resolution, almost never ends with a satisfying image when I’m doing a piece for myself. I have done a number of personal paintings over the past few years, and I thought I’d share my mental process. I’ve always rejected the idea of the “inspired” artist as a mythical construct. I’ve worked for 21 years as an illustrator, and if I’d required inspiration throughout that time, I would have gotten very little painting done. That said, my most satisfying personal pieces have all grown out of something that could be described as inspiration. The human imagination, I’m discovering the further I go along, is a weak, anemic force without some strong, underlying reality for it to use as a springboard. Think of an entirely invented creature vs. one that’s based on real creature anatomy, coloration, etc… In the illustration world, it’s an axiom: the more you know about animal anatomy, the more compelling your invented animal’s anatomy will be. Similarly, I find that, in order to really commit to a personal piece, it has to begin with something I feel strongly about. This is particularly true with a conceptual piece, as opposed to something like a figure study or a plein-air painting. So, as much as I’ve resisted the idea of the “inspired artist”, I have to admit that there’s some truth to it.
FINDING YOUR MUSE
Artists communicate visually. It’s what we do, at the most basic level. Musicians communicate with sound, writers with words, dancers with movement. The language we use, as artists, includes symbols, colors, stories, composition, mark-making. While I’ve always known that, I’ve never thought to apply it to my internal dialogue. What do I mean by that? I’ve found that there are moments when the language I use in my internal dialogue can, very naturally, shift from words to visions. This usually happens when I’m meditating, or when I’m falling asleep, or in the morning, when I’m deciding whether I should hit snooze one more time or get up and face the day. Those dream-like, half conscious moments are times when images and thoughts link-up very naturally.
Here’s an example: the idea for the personal piece above (“Waiting for Europa”), came when I was having trouble drifting off to sleep. I was agitated, one part of me feeling old and useless after my divorce, another part feeling angry and defiant. I’m not useless! I thought “I should paint this”, and let my mind drift, imagining what that painting might look like. Word-thoughts fell away, and image-thoughts took over. I saw a huge-bellied bull, standing on a dark hill. Very still, but radiating a deep, hidden power. He was mostly in shadow, lit only by a slanting golden light. He was so huge that he dominated everything. My initial vision had a small, pale-skinned woman standing in front of him, but she disappeared when the painting actually happened. As I painted it, I was reminded of the myth in which Zeus came down from heaven in the form of a bull and ravished the human woman Europa. In my vision, he became a tired, passive, chained god, looking sad and still, but capable of divine fury. Instead of “The Rape of Europa”, it became “Waiting for Europa”, which just felt exactly right.
Another example of this is an idea for a painting that’s come out of my experience keeping chickens in my backyard. Several of the chicks I raised over the summer turned out to be roosters, and I had to cull a few of them or they would fight one another. I went out one morning at 5am, when they were sleepy, and wrung the necks of two of them. It was a profound and awful experience. Ever since, I’ve had this vision of a rooster, like the bull in “Europa”, mostly in shadow. His proud, erect head and neck are lit by a golden light. We see him from the back. His head is turned, his proud comb blood red. He’s fixing the viewer with his piercing, golden eye. I haven’t painted it yet, but it’s a tremendously powerful image for me, that touches on my own feelings of guilt and sadness and identification.
Obviously not all personal work comes from the same place, but at this point in my career, I have to have an emotional hook before I can feel confident about where I’m going with a personal painting. When that hook is there, I find I can invest fully, and that other ideas suggest themselves as I’m working, so that a whole series of associated images can grow from that initial seed.
I have no idea where this sort of image-making will lead me as an artist, but it’s tremendously exciting and satisfying. After 20 years, it’s helping me forge a strong, new relationship with my art. If that’s something you desire, I would encourage you to carve out some time in your schedule and see what happens. If you find yourself struggling with a personal piece, seek out those moments of mental open-ness, and do what artists do best. Think visually.