A painting teacher of mine once told me that painter’s shouldn’t really be thinkers, because they need to spend their time painting.
I’ve always felt his point was that painting demanded a specific type of thinking, a specific type of reaction, action, and looking, and that if one allowed him or herself to get too wrapped up in ideas, then this would affect her or his ability to simply paint. So, as I reinterpret what he said to me so many years ago, it is that painters shouldn’t be too committed to ideas, and instead should just paint.
This is almost certainly good advice when you are painting. That idea spoken of by John Cage in an oft cited quote (which by the way I have also seen attributed to Philip Guston);
“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 are lucky, even you leave.”
This is very clearly a part of making, and the creative process. There are times to sit and think, planning a work, or reflecting on what we have meant, or intend to mean. But during the actual action, the actual creation, the less we and our conscious unknowns and anxieties are present, the less we can get a grip on painting, and the less clearly we can spill our work out of ourselves and onto the canvas.
I generally aspire to this mental state when I am working. I long for this blanking of mind to focus and absorb myself. I see it as necessity to making, and as a component of the joy of painting.
Which, is why I find it so strange that I spend so much time worrying about ideas in my paintings.
What you want from painting is communication. You want to say something. So the idea, the essential element of why you are doing what you are doing is hanging right there in front of you all the time – like a carrot dangled or a stick ready to whack you. Abandoning ideas isn’t possible, because it is after all what you paint. And this comes forward whether you are in the act of reflection on a painting or in the act of painting.
But painting is not writing, and never requires the clarified strategizing of the columnist or essayist taking you from one point to another. Instead, it is that all thoughts converge at once in an image. There are the thoughts of the thing you are painting, the cohesive whole, but then also the unspecific non-thinking of what you think when you are in the act of painting. The tiny small decisions of constructing an image, each stroke and smear of paint, each sustaining itself as a portion of the image and sustaining the whole image as well.