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Painting Out of Your Head

A stranger to New York once asked a beatnik on the street, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall”? The beatnik replied, “Practice, man, practice”. “This is sound advice for all of us trying to reach our own Carnegie Hall of art excellence.

When I’m able to get out of my own way, I’m actually able to accomplish some amazing things with paint. This may sound like a Zen koan, but if you’ll indulge me a minute, I think I can clarify the matter.

At the age of ten, I started taking guitar lessons with an old Vaudeville banjo player named Larry Tobler. He taught me how to read music and music theory, and, quite frankly, the whole thing seemed rather academic for a kid of ten. Nonetheless, I persisted and eventually became quite proficient on the guitar. It ultimately paid my way through college, and afterwards I spent many years performing in coffee houses and clubs all over the U.S. and Canada. Several years later, I decided I wanted more, and so I went to San Francisco to study classical guitar with various teachers, including George Sakellariou, the head of the guitar department at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. My ultimate goal was to play instrumental concerts and recitals.

So I spent hours and hours, days and days and weeks and weeks practicing scales and various classical guitar techniques. I slogged through these exercises reminding myself that they were ultimately a means to an end. Eventually I began performing classical guitar concerts.

And then during one performance, it happened. I was in the middle of a piece, and I looked down at these two hands running up and down the strings, and suddenly I was the observer. Any little nuance I willed, the hands responded automatically. It was magical. I felt like I was watching from a distance. I thought, “This is cool!” Then suddenly it occurred to me, “Those are my hands!” The sensation of “observer” disappeared and I returned to the present to finish the piece. The actual experience probably lasted less time than it took for you to read this, but in an instant I knew what all those hours of practice were all about. Those scales and studies had become so internalized that without having to intellectualize over them I had become, for a moment, a pure conduit for musical expression. I had gotten out of my own way and allowed that “Source” for all music to flow through my hands in a pure and unencumbered way.

This experience has reoccurred occasionally, but for never more than a moment or two. Trying to hang onto it is a bit like attempting to hold a moonbeam. Nonetheless, those early experiences were a guiding force in my growth as a painter.

I knew as a young aspiring artist that practicing my “art scales” would be the key to my expression as an artist.

The fabulous watercolorist, Robert E. Wood AWS, NA, said something to the effect of, “An artist should paint at the edge of his control”. At first, of course, that made absolutely no sense because everything I did was virtually out of control. I had a lot of scales to practice. And what are those scales?

They are all those things that we strive to make second nature in the execution of our paintings. Things as simple as blue and yellow make green, or how wet or dry a wash is and how loaded our brush is with pigment and water before we reenter that wash. The more of these processes we internalize, the less we have to intellectualize during the course of painting, thereby allowing ourselves to be pure channels for the art muse. We want to ultimately confine all that intellectualizing to the planning stage of the painting.

Over the years, I’ve managed to recapture the “observer” experiences while painting. Standing back, watching that hand paint and not being the “doer” for a few moments is truly transcendental. It certainly has been an impetus for more practice and harder work. Sometimes I feel that if I could only hold that state I could just levitate out of here. Of course, then somebody else would have to write these letters. Don’t worry. I’ll be with you for a while.

“Practice, man, practice”!

 "Estampa" watercolor 22 X 30

 painting

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