What to Leave In and What to Leave Out

I do not often begin a painting with an image in mind, preferring to choose a set of colors and tools and allow the work to emerge. Occasionally, however, an image crosses my path and inspires me to paint in the abstract using the image as a starting point. I saw such an image recently, one created by photographer and friend Veronika Countryman. Here is her image; it shows a section of a Bristlecone Pine tree.

To “paint in the abstract” means answering two questions about the original image. First, what to leave in? Second, what to leave out?

Veronika’s image spoke to me because it possesses the three aspects that I hope to create in my paintings: contrast, movement, and depth. I see those three as the elements of drama in a painting, and I work to produce them.

And so, the first question: what of the original image to leave in as I paint? The colors were obvious: cadmium orange, indian yellow, burnt umber. Used well, they would produce the contrast I seek. Contrast draws interest and creates excitement. It is often the first thing an observer notices, and can produce an immediate “Wow”.

Movement would be provided by swirling shapes. Dripping paint here and there would create even greater movement. Movement draws the eye around the painting. The best complement I have received came from another painter. Examining one of my works, she said, “My eyes keep moving around the painting, and there is something interesting going on everywhere I look.”

And finally, depth. Veronika’s photo achieves depth with the dark twisted forms of the tree behind the brighter colors and with a dark background filled with stars. There lies the answer to the second question: what to leave out? I have no desire to paint pictures of trees. A burnt umber background in various shades, along with a subtle hint of purple, would offer the depth I want. Also, varying the intensity of the lighter colors would make some of the swirling shapes appear to be farther away than others. Depth leads the viewer’s eye into the painting, increasing interest.

My painting would in no way suggest a Bristlecone Pine tree. No matter. It would have what I seek. Contrast. Movement. Depth.

Here is the finished painting.

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Veronika Countryman’s photo is used here with her permission. Her work is quite wonderful. See more at her web site, on instagram, and on Facebook.
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In Search of Mushin

“Be present. Let go. Disappear.” It is a kind of mantra that I repeat when beginning a painting, and sometimes during the process. It is a reminder to enter into and remain in a particular state of mind, to get into the “zone” that produces my best work. I have had a difficult time describing that zone.

Just recently, reacting to a Facebook post about one of my paintings, seen below, friend Dan Oestreich helped me to become clearer about what is going on in the zone.

Dan wrote, “You must have been in a state of no mind to create such an evocative work.” I have long valued Dan’s insights and way of expressing them, so embarked on  a search to understand what he meant by “no mind.” I discovered mushin.

A Wikipedia entry reveals that mushin is a Japanese term, translating to English as the term Dan used, no mind, and describes it as a mental state which martial artists enter into during combat. The term is a shortened version of mushin no shin, a Zen term meaning “the mind without a mind.”

The entry goes on:

Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction (or instinct) or what is felt intuitively.

That is a good description of the state I seek when painting, except for the term “opponent.” I do not see the canvas in front of me as an opponent, although sometimes my relationship with it is a conversation and sometimes it is a war.

Legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō explains that martial arts are not the only path to achieving mushin. He wrote,

Once mushin is attained through the practice or study of martial arts (although it can be accomplished through other arts or practices that refine the mind and body), the objective is to then attain this same level of complete awareness in other aspects of the practitioner’s life.

Mushin is also referred to as “mind like water.” Here is how Bruce Lee described it:

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.

Words and phrases throughout those descriptions of mushin resonate for me as elements of what I seek when I repeat, “Be present. Let go. Disappear.” Free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego. Totally free to act and react. Relying not on what I think should be the next move, but what is my trained natural reaction (or instinct) or what is felt intuitively. Adjust to the object. Outward things will disclose themselves. And while those words seem apt, I was also instructed in an online guide to zen,

Mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect; it must be experienced.

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My Newest Tool

Periodically – like right now – I get itchy to paint in a way that is different from what I have been doing. The worst thing I can do during periods such as this is overthink what I might do differently. No planning, just experimenting. Finding what works and what doesn’t.

Experience has taught me that the two best methods to stretch my horizon are, first, watch others paint, and second, experiment with new tools. The last time I wanted to shake things up, simply switching to a larger size canvas did the trick.

So I have been watching YouTube videos from Jan Van Oort, Elizabeth Roche Alazet, Isabelle Zacher-Finet, and Skye Taylor, all abstract painters. I just saw a video of Van Oort leading a workshop in which he had a woman painting with a fly swatter. It reminded me of Taj Mahal: “Come with me, leave your yesterday behind, and take a giant step outside your mind.”

Here it is; my new tool. It is a cake icing spatula with a 10” blade. I will experiment with it soon.

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