“Tao gives birth to one,
One gives birth to two,
Two gives birth to three,
Three gives birth to ten thousand beings.
Ten thousand beings carry yin on their backs
and embrace yang in their front,
Blending these two vital breaths to attain harmony.”
– Tao Te Ching, Chap. 42
A number of years ago I was in a bookstore browsing art books as usual and I was skimming a book talking about the ‘business of art’. In the book, the author said that if you find something you like to paint and you also find it sells, then you ought to paint more of that thing. For instance, the author said, if you paint cats and people like those cats you paint and buy those cat paintings, then paint more cats! (This was the late-90s, by the way, and the internet had yet to be taken over by felines.) At the time, I thought that sounded a whole lot like selling out. Why would I want to paint the same thing over and over and over again? BOOOOORING.
I remember once I even tried to make a few ‘similar’ paintings because an idea had proven popular. My interest fizzled almost immediately though due to the fact that the subsequent images had no heart. They weren’t birthed from an inner drive or a need to create something or reflective of some sort of personal process or vision. They just… were boring.
Over the years, though, I’ve come back to that idea a few times: that, as an artist, you find something you like to paint and you stick with it. It’s just a question of what that ‘thing’ is.
You see, I think all artists ultimately paint the same thing over and over. It takes different forms, different modes, different colors and shapes – but it always comes back to an idea – a way of seeing – past, present, future combined – a way of feeling all of that and a way of speaking – of saying something. Of course, we can say anything really but hopefully: it adds something to the chorus. Ideally, it’s a voice that helps to foster openness, happiness, health…
And so back to the what we paint… I found that each painting I paint comes back to this thing – this divine thing and it’s this place where there’s no going to or coming away from – and it’s that which is the core of all my artwork. So I will be the first to admit: I paint the same thing over and over and over again – another facet of the same jewel. Over and over and over again. This facet or this facet or this facet becomes illuminated and I can see all the shadows, the edges, all the light and it becomes a voice, a stylistic choice, a color palette, a vision, a way of seeing the world.
In hindsight, while my youthful desire to say “screw that book and screw painting kittens” dominated at the time… I ended up doing exactly as suggested. Over and over and over. The key of course is finding something worthwhile to paint and making certain that the thread you follow – that creative impulse – that it’s worth following.
Beware of distraction! Doodles and ideas come and go. But cut away the chaff! Keep what’s really nourishing! Follow the part that really feels like something. There’ll always be distractions clamoring for attention – and pretty ideas and shiny things to paint and nifty trippy doodads…. but if they don’t really add up to the final visceral emotional scream or moan or sigh or smile that you are after… then lose it.
And, ultimately, that’s what that guy who wrote that book meant. If kittens are your god, then paint kittens! And paint them really really well. Understand them. Live them. Breathe them. Know them.
But, you know, it’s a matter of how far can you take something. How deep can it go? DOES it go? I mean, if you’ve chosen to be an artist, then making art is something that you are liable to be doing for the rest of your life. So find something rewarding – make something that you really love. See – it’s not that you will be painting the same thing all your life – that’s silly talk! – but it will be the same thread of an idea – another facet of the same vision.
Sure, you’ll change it up. You’ll reinvent it. You’ll use new colors, introduce new ideas, and things will morph and grow. But it still arises from this being we refer to as ‘you’ and you refer to as ‘I’. Your vision might shift – it might deepen, widen, grow. But it’s still you. And you are still making art. And when you look back over your years of work you will see a continuity – a clear progression – a clear voice. If you can cut through the chaff to that voice, that golden note that is all your own in the choir of humanity – then I think you are doing your job properly.
The only necessity – the only worth – is when it sings clearly. Then you are liable to make things of great beauty. And there is nothing wrong with adding more beauty to the world.
And that is a little of what the work is all about.
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