Every painting is unique and the process is different from person to person, day to day, even moment to moment. What follows is an exploration of the development of one painting through the lens of spiritual practice.
The beginning of a painting can be many things. This one came without much interest or inspiration. I started simply because I had an appointment to paint and the previous painting was complete; there were no strong feelings or impulses, not even enjoyment of color, shape, or movement. I would liken it to a period in spiritual practice when everything feels “dry.” The most engagement I could muster came from a determination to keep painting the one panel until I had a clear indication of either completion or expansion. Hours and hours of sitting in the zendo taught me how to stay with the painting despite dislike, critical thoughts, shame, and confusion. The key was having faith that my “staying with” would bear fruit eventually, a faith born of experience forged in meditation.
Painters often get confused by identifying with what is being painted: “It must be about me, or at least say something about me because I painted it.” If our self-concept becomes the source of the painting in this way, the possibilities get narrower, fewer images present themselves and soon the painting is at a dead end. However, if we allow unrelated or confusing images -- or even those that are objectionable when viewed as "about or from me" -- the supply of images is endless. This process is freeing but it requires letting go of knowing. It may even begin to dawn on the painter that the source of the images resides somewhere else: Where does the painting come from? What is the source of imagination and inspiration? Is there purpose or meaning in it?
Every image that presented itself was painted until all possibilities were exhausted. At that point, a question crossed my mind:
I wonder what is down there?
A realization emerged that there was content below the edge of the paper, and the painting entered a second phase. Much of the early painting required simply willingness to keep going and to allow whatever imagery might come. Stories, judgments, chatter that could have hijacked the process were set aside and attention returned to the truth of not knowing what the painting was about or where it was going.
Eventually, a figure emerged. Did this complete the painting?
Completion is an important aspect of process painting. How does one know when the painting is done? One often has the impulse to quit -- that is, to stop because of dissatisfaction with the image, or boredom, or fantasies about the next painting. Is this true completion? What is the difference between nothing left to paint and not knowing what to paint?
Like exhausting all possibilities in the first phase and discarding strategies in the middle phase, the final panels required a form of giving up: abandoning any illusion of control over the painting.
Here, the figure’s gaze evoked yet another layer below the current painting.
Staying with the painting through so many types of resistance and confusion unleashed palpable vitality. All the previous ways of being with the painting seemed an inescapable part of relinquishing self-interest and identification with the painting. I had the experience of consciously participating in something greater than the self. Preferences, judgments, and protection of identity softened. “It’s not about me.” Risks taken expanded possibility.
All that was left was to follow the energy.
Completion was a matter of painting what the imagination presented, much as in the original panel. Here, though, it was as though the painting had painted itself. No longer dismayed or demanding the painting be other than it was, there was wonder and delight. This painting couldn’t have been planned or predicted. Nor would it ever be repeated.
In the end, the painting announced, “Enough.”
Anne Pechovnik has been a Zen Buddhist practitioner since 2005 and graduated as a lay leader with the Zen Community of Oregon in Portland, Oregon. She is an affiliate of The Painting Experience and has offered process painting at her home studio for the past seven years. She has been an acute care nurse since 1997 and is a cancer survivor. Process painting played a part in her recovery from illness, personal and vicarious trauma, and professional burnout. Anne prizes the universal flexibility and mysterious intelligence of process painting. She says, “This work is never known by anyone, not the facilitator, not the painter, not even the group psyche in a workshop. There is no one who can say what should be done or how to do it. Process painting as practiced through The Painting Experience is a tool that directs painters toward precisely what is needed at any given moment. There is no failure yet there is a cost to shying away from what the work asks. It can be incredibly demanding, difficult and rewarding when engaged fully. The beauty of it is that this way of painting is a perfect reflection of our ways of being and gives us the chance to try out new, more congruent ways of being while risking only what might show up on the blank page." You can learn more about Anne's work by visiting her website, www.pathfishstudio.com.