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How to Be a Painter I

Look: you have to have complete understanding of when your hand is heavy handed, and when it is light. What that feels like, and how to hold the brush. Sometimes though you need to be heavy handed and sometimes light and you need to know that too. How to be able to hold the brush so lightly that, any lighter, and you would drop it. How to hold the brush firmly and yet, still allow it to have give – to feel the push and pull of the canvas on the brush as much as the hand that seeks to drive it.

You should know how to dip your brush in the water so only a millimeter of it’s tip is submerged but pull it out quick so it only has one drop of water on it. If it has two, you will know before your brush even touches the canvas, so flick it aside with just the quickest and limberest flicks of the wrist, and the extra drop of water will fly away and not defile your painting and create a headache and drip down below you onto that perfectly and profoundly finished sky. And you must be able to do that in a split second because, thought you need a touch more water, you have no time to look away from the painting because it is all happening there. The flower pot is becoming, the sky is opening, the waters are parting… the god of all of your gods is arriving and you can’t miss it for a second.

You have to know how to let your entire body guide the brush. How to move your whole body as you paint the giant arc of the heavens, shifting your weight from the back of one foot to the front of the other as you dip and sway to the rhythms of the brush. In this way we practice the tai chi of painting. Be completely aware of your body, but focus all of your attention on the brush, the paint and the canvas. Everything else is mere scaffolding. The hand even, a mere support full of a million little levers and pulleys, attached to the greater machine of the body and, if all of those levers, pulleys, weights and tandems work in harmony with each other then, when the time comes to move, you will move. When the time comes to stand still, you will be able to stand still. If you find places in you that don’t want to move, that can’t hold their balance, that pull your mental faculty back to them again and again, come back to your breath and your brush and allow the emotions that arise to pour out through your brush. You may still be painting the same lamppost you have been painting for the past two days but, with that careful breath, it will be the finest line you have ever created.

Be aware of the tilt of your head or the pull of your shoulders and occasionally roll them back and make some adjustments. Don’t forget to breathe. Light breaths – steady and even. Be aware of your breath. You spend so much time thinking about other things- the rent or the bills or what your girlfriend or boyfriend said or the experience you had two days ago at the bill from the auto mechanic or the email you have to send. It is ok to let that go because none of those things matter to the painting. The painting is a reflection of you. Of your divine being. See the painting as an expression of the divine, in the same way that a sunset, a flower, or a bird song is that same expression. The way the paint falls upon the canvas is part of that expression. There are no mistakes! It is all the expression of the divine. Let it flow through you.

There are most certainly mistakes sometimes. If you put the side of your hand in your wet paint, as you move your brush across the canvas, and proceed to put a fine stamp of the side of your hand over the upper two thirds of your canvas, do not fear. You get to put more coats on your painting now. This is a good thing. If the paint needs to go on heavy to cover it let it be heavy. If it means you need to repaint the sky… maybe it just needs a cloud and that is all the handprint was asking. Be creative. Not all mistakes are mistakes. Sometimes it is just the divine asking for another cloud, a little bird… look, look here, it says… Flow with it. Curse nothing. Love everything.

But if you draw your picture onto the canvas and you realize, when you are done with your masterpiece of a drawing which will soon be a masterpiece of a painting, as you step back, that it ought to be two inches to the left, then, by all means, redraw it. Or you will spend the whole time while you are painting either a)wishing it was two inches to the left or b)compensating for it not being two inches to the left. A mistake does not always mean “leave it! It is perfect as it is!” No, they are merely challenges to us to consider our motivations, consider where our minds are at when we do such things, and to try to reach our most perfectly golden heights – even if they are expressions of tragically dark depths. So redraw it. Or gesso the canvas again. It is blank again. So what if the first drawing was absolutely perfect! If you did it once, you can do it again. But don’t try to copy yourself! Copying and spontaneity are not compatible. How can you create the spontaneous ebb and flow of line and form if you are copying what you had already drawn? It is simply the fact that you cannot simply by the nature of the definition of spontaneity. So live it again. But go make some tea first. Stretch for a bit. Then come back to the canvas. Measure out some reference points, so that your image is where you want it to be, and then dive back into it.

Trust yourself. Trust your lines. If they seem to want to curve just a little bit more, give them just a little bit more curve. The lines of the mountains SWEEP. The lines of the tree are (sometimes) GNARLED. The lines of your lovers body are ELEGANT. Let them BE that rather than illustrate that.

When it comes to straight lines, use a ruler- your mind and body know curves so well – we’re MADE of curves – and, with practice, you will be able to draw nearly perfect spirals and ten thousand other curves but the straight lines: let it go. Use a ruler. Who cares. Why trouble yourself with getting the line straight. Zen monks never troubled themselves with the majesty of the straight line. No, the famous calligraphy painting is of a circle. The mind and body know circles and curves. Trust yourself with the curves and trust the ruler to the straight and narrow.

Be vigilant. Be aware of yourself, your mind, your breath, your brush. Be your own worst critic. Challenge yourself. Go in directions you have not gone before. If the road seems to curve left but you feel instinctively that it ought to curve right, then – by all means! – go right! If you feel you ought to add a hundred swans, then add them! Otherwise you will always wonder, and always know: you never added the swans. It never was what it could have been. If you don’t know how to draw a swan, then go find one! Draw it again and again until, not only do you have the perfect shape, but you also have the most efficient line. Draw it until you have the pure archetype of a swan.

You may be surprised if you spend some time drawing things like animals, plants, landscapes: they all have such efficient lines. They all seem to ebb and flow so mysteriously in sync with each other. Your mind does exactly the same thing. You are cast of the same cloth, a part of the web that hasno weaver – the same as the leaves, the flowers, the birds and trees and mountains. Within you are the same divine proportions, the same divine sense of space and congruity, the same elegant nature. As you awaken to that elegant nature of your own being, you will find your art will reflect this. After a while, it will no longer even reflect it, it will BE it.

And then you go back to painting.