I had a music teacher in my high school days who would often yell at our jazz ensemble class (I played the bass btw) to ‘Stop noodling.’ For him noodling meant playing around on your instrument in a non-specific or unstructured way and not paying attention to what he wanted us to do or where he was trying to direct the group.
His ‘noodling’, might be more well-known as ‘fooling around’, but of course your mileage may very. Although I might be convinced that my classmates were ‘noodling’ and not doing something constructive, I of course believed what I was doing was serious and important to me not fucking up whatever songs we were going to be playing that day. I was going over the notes, how I would play, and what I needed to do.
I was not paying attention to the whole.
This word ‘noodling’ has popped into my head on more than one occasion as I have worked on a few ideas lately. Sometimes in the middle of a painting, I keep pushing around an idea or two, trimming here, adding there, in an unbalanced and unfocused kind of play with what is in front of me.
This can often even extend to other paintings, as I bounce around from a few works at hand in the studio. Just touching them a bit here or there. No real focus, just satisfying my urge to work with a touch or two.
On one level, it is a kind of comfort. I’m working through and over things, testing them, building up my confidence in them. I know what the idea is, and I can keep sort of believing that twisting and spinning about it gets me closer to the idea. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Twisting and spinning is often just that, and devoid of an actual direction.
Digging in to a painting though I think needs attention paid to the whole. And not just the whole of the painting at hand. Also those works that came before it, and the paintings that will come after it. It’s a process of listening to the greater picture. And it takes time. It demands a certain amount of time from you. Like a sacrifice to the act of painting – to get anywhere, you are going to step away from it, in some sense give it up, and let it find it’s own path. A hard lesson to learn (and continually re-learn) for obsessive noodlers.
Noodling is different than an actual action in the process of painting. When things are truly happening one can just react, take off from one place, land at another, and keep moving along with the rhythm of the moment and the painting. But when things slow down, and thought starts popping up more and more, than your actions get clouded, and painting gives way to some kind of constant analysis. This opens the door to movement without action – noodling in its purest form.
Sometimes, I wish there was a band director in my studio, able to lean in every once and a while and yell at me to stop noodling. Someone who would just call a spade a spade, and call noodling, noodling. Maybe he could encourage me to step away, or take a walk, get out of my head, and just stop touching stuff for the sake of touching stuff. Another voice in the room to get me out of my head.
But I have to believe that adding another voice isn’t really the answer. Noodling is a result of too many voices already. Doubt and indecision resulting in fiddling movements to nowhere. To really get somewhere, I think you have to kick all the voices out.
As I write that, I’m reminded of a great quote by Philip Guston that I really love.
“When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”