What painting does
An oil painting, perhaps more than any other work of art, holds the potential to convey layers of memory, emotion, sensation, mood and the ghosts of multiple experiences. Its as though all the layers of intention and of multi-dimensional memory (that is, what the artist was experiencing or focussing upon as they painted and other, far deeper, flights of consciousness that they drew upon as their inspiration) have been tied down to the warp and weft of the canvas, as vibrational pigment, just as surely as any colour.
All the most vexingly frustrating or painstaking hours of work and the most inspired, guided flow of the artistic process are held there on the canvas, woven together side by side and quite inseparable from each other or from the finish piece (you can no more dispense with those parts that were a challenge than you can erase segments of your own life). The lengthy process of cooercing an idea into form is laid down for all to feel with the artist, along with all the high points of divine inspiration, which are stitched deep into its very fabric like seed pearls on an embroidered bodice. All those quiet, steady hours of inching slowly towards completion, along with all the circumstances that contributed to that… music, light, bird song, emotions, all the minor domestic circumstances of the painting act, the very times of day and accompanying seasons, preoccupations that played out in their mind while the artist was working on the piece, whatever meditative state they managed to achieve, perhaps sustained experiences of bliss and quieted mind, of transcendence and tranquility…all these many ingredients are invested into the canvas across all the countless hours of its creation, becoming part of the very fabric of its form. Most of all, the investment of artistic vision, the deliberate holding of the very note that inspired the piece in the first place; so often a note of something outside of everyday experience, something pure and heightened, something that speaks of beauty and love – that too is stitched into the cross thread and held there for all time through the medium of paint. Its one of the reasons that painted art is timeless; we still feel it across centuries, like a time-capsule containing quantum data that takes us directly to the heart of the artist and all that they had access to when they held their brush.
Each of these things, added to the canvas by the artist experiencing them as they paint, holds a particular vibration and, together, they “speak” to the viewer as a chorus, if they are open to it. When they are receptive, the viewer accompanies the artist to the combined effect of all these experiences each time that they they look at the work of art that came from all of that, even (perhaps especially) when many of those vibrational messages are multilayered and overlapping, buried deep within layers of pigment. This is when the artist becomes the creator of a formula, a kind of “experience recipe” made up of multiple ingredients carefully added, in a most particular order, and then stirred to create the final effect that is received with the eyes. This is why oil painting, like no other medium I know, is pure alchemy to me; for it makes use of all those layers, even those that “didn’t turn out well” and which remain hidden beneath what is deemed presentable in the end. Each of these things play their part and the dark complexity of the layers only enhances the ultimate light, every bit as much as the way we create ourselves as human beings across all the many experience of a lifetime, making use of it all to build the person we now are. Others get to feel a painting in much the same way that we feel each other; like a presence in a room, our messages are conveyed without even saying a word.
Because vibration, like any electro-magnetic force, is immune to boundaries and walls…no substance bars it from travelling where it will, it can cut through concrete if it must (and it will). So when a painting is right before the eyes, the combined energetic force, the concerto of vibrational notes, the very recipe of its formula, all sing together as one off the canvas. To any of us with the receptivity to feel a vibration (and I suspect that’s all of us, without exception, when we are prepared to tune in), its message, its mood, its intention and the entire combined force of all its layers unwrap for the heart and soul just as soon as it is delivered to the eye. That is the sheer power of painting.
I find myself wondering if many more of us don’t have mirror touch synaesthesia going on than we realise and whether this is what we experience in action when a work of art, a piece of music, a created “thing” of any kind instigates a deep emotional reaction within us that is beyond surface explaining. As, more and more often, I find myself choking back tears at the fruition of another artist’s work, overcome with an inexplicable wave of emotion that seems disproportionate to whatever I have just encountered, as though I have just experienced (in nugget form) all that they went through on the journey to its creation, I wonder how much it is the case that the more we invest in our creations, the more others feel them. For me, its why paintings will always speak so much more loudly than photography, for all that skill set has recently evolved into something so astounding and accomplished; it simply doesn’t contain all the same depth of personal investment as a creation made painstakingly by hand, although the age of Photoshop has moved that on somewhat. I am starting to feel much more depth coming at me from the work of some creative photographers than I ever expected to be possible, which intrigues me as to its unexplored potential…yet, painting still feels like the unchallenged queen of this territory, for me (for now) at least, although I never say never…
It explains a sense of agitation that some other types of art seem to give rise to in me. For instance, I know an artist who cuts up maps and multilayers them into incredibly intricate works of art which are all about deconstruction and fragmentation, with roads trailing off into the sea and all scrambled-up like a bed of paper worms. To me, they feel like one of those pressure headaches I get when I am feeling particularly stressed-out by too much going on, accompanied by a tension in the wrist and the index finger that I know so well from any times that I’ve spent working with a stanley knife cutting out something painfully intricate; I feel this almost as an actual nerve ache shooting up my hand and arm when I look at them. They are beautiful, stylish works of art; I bow to the artistry and the exploration they encompass but, for my own part, I can’t see them without being taken somewhere that feels like brain scramble and arthritic pain. They take me deeply into some of my worst obsessive compulsive places, where I want to make sense of things but can’t with a degree of frustration that hurts like an existential scream. Its great art but just not for me, perhaps because I hear it too loudly and am seeking something gentler.
Yes, I know without doubt that I am a mirror-touch synaesthesiac (which takes empathy way beyond identifying with what other people experience into actually feeling it as real sensation) but do many other people feel these kinds of reactions to what they see, if only at a subliminal level where it bothers them like one of those subtle noises that slowly yet surely sends you over your coping limit? Do these quiet, subliminal reactions to all the over-stimulation of our world – the more angst-ridden type of art, the advertising hoardings, the shop windows, the spray-painted vandalism, the litter, the packaging, the messages leaping out of absolutely everything (and not just in words but in images), the television, film and computer generated creations, the political agendas, the fear-spin – do all of these build up in us as layers, like all the electro-magnetic pollution of our modern environment, the wi-fi currents that have us invisibly surrounded and which are systemically overwhelming and harmful to health?
If so, is this why visual art that is beautiful and uplifting remains brisk business in the real world, regardless of what art-trend gurus tell us is currently “in”? Is it why the garden-themed exhibition at the Royal Academy that I attended last week was almost a sell-out with lengthy queues at the door on a dreary Monday afternoon; the busiest I have ever seen that space? Is it why many of us notice how we react to gentler, lighter and (dare I say) higher vibrations in the form of visual imagery that uplifts the heart and soul as a deep-cellular body sigh, like receiving a therapy? Is it why a painting carried out with uplifting intentions (I am, of course, aware that it can be used in other ways too) seems to deliver such a an intricate multilayered experience that it feels real, relatable, personal, reassuring, healing and deeply familiar to the soul? I like to think so although it does impart a sense of responsibility to the practice of art that is more than a little daunting (perhaps the reason I stay well away from my paints if I am in anything but a good place).
Like the antidote to an overstimulated world, I know that painting more-than still has its place in this world due to the fact it is anything but instant or abbreviated (as so much else in our world now is). Rather, it is complex and profoundly multi-layered; it is slow and long-simmering like a flavoursome stew; it makes use of its own “failures”, recycling them as its next best foundation level (as do human beings at their most evolutionary); and the very depths of its processes are what speak the loudest to its audience. This is a lot to consider if you are the artist; but before feeling overwhelmed by all that painting does, be aware of this wonderful paradox at its heart – that the very simplest way to deliver all of this and more, through the practice of art, is to dump all the clever complexity of over-thinking its purpose and just paint and create from an uplifted, joyful place of virtually “no thought” at all. Put on some music or listen to those birds and just settle into a kind of meditation and let what would be expressed through you say what it will without making a mission of it. Simply hold that blissful space for your own benefit while you work and then send out what you create, content in the knowledge that this is all it takes to make a real difference in the world as all the layers of that loving intention, crystallised in pigment, will “out” themselves to any that are ready to receive them. People will find themselves recognising something that you managed to convey and they will bless you for returning them there, for reminding them of something they already knew and that you share in common with them (that we all share in common with each other). They will “feel” what you painted every bit as much as they see it with their eyes and yet will hardly be able to explain what it is that magnetically draws them to it; like a radio dial tuned to a particular frequency, they will hear you clearly without words. Such is the power of paint.