Process and result.
Bart Westera, winter 2020
Result and process are often regarded a dichotomy; you can't be focused on result and process at the same time. Of course you can switch your focus over time, but that's something different than an integration of process and result. In my painting nowadays, only a few hours a week, more or less like a hobbyist, I work very much process-focused. I think that in doing so, however, I am slowly discovering that the supposed dichotomy is false. I could be wrong about this, though, I am not sure. In the writing that follows I try to make sense of my thoughts about this subject. I tell myself as I am writing this that it is perfectly fine to just do that (try to make sense) without expecting or demanding from myself to come to a coherent conclusion.
Process. I paint so process-focused now that it seems I am not painting at all. Painting seems to be no more than a series of acts or operations that together are a mere vehicle for fundamental research in the terrain of process/result, and with that form/content, wanting/letting happen. While painting I am in some kind of semi-meditative state that somewhat resembles mindfulness. The resemblance is because of trying to focus my attention over and over again to what's right in front of me in the acute here and now; I focus on the collection of colors, smears, line, shapes, gestures, etc. on the paper in front of me and I focus on what is going on inside of me: what is going on in my head, what is going on in my feelings? This "over and over again" makes my perception of time different than it is in a "normal" mental state. Time becomes a concatenation of micro-moments that have their own qualities and their own rules. The urge to use purple may feel bad at one moment, which is a reason for inhibition, while a second later I watch my hand smear a large dot of purple somewhere while I don't feel any need to stop that motion. In both moments what I do and don't do feels perfectly fitting. Painting became really interesting for me when I stopped allowing my inner critic to take too much space for asking questions about this. I observe a lot while being in the act of painting but I refuse to try to get to some kind of synthesis of al the things I observe in these moments. There is a tiny and fragile hope somewhere, that if I let go to a sufficient degree, the work itself somehow becomes this synthesis, so that it is not something created, but something that evolved. However, in this text, I feel the urge to give words to some of the observations I did, especially the reoccurring ones.
Results. One observation that keeps coming back is that actually I am extremely focused on the result, that is, if result is defined quite literally; that what's concretely in front of me, the result of what occurred. So If I spatter blue paint on an otherwise blanc paper, the result is a blanc paper with blue spatters. If that is what is meant with result, I focus on it all the time. For example, from the first dots on I ask myself time and again: "Is it already a thing?" This question means: "Do I experience, right here and now, this thing as a real painting? Does this thing ask for anything more? Is it a whole? Does it a have an integration of harmony and conflict?" If I feel that the answer to these questions is yes, I stop working on the thing and put it away for a while. If after a few weeks it still feels as yes, I kind of accept the fact that a new painting has come to be.
Content isn't king. My inner critic has quite a few words to say about the above question. "Oh, yes, that's pretty nice and all, that question, and also pretty interesting, but exactly within what context do you ask that question? Your asking yourself if it is a painting, but you're not asking yourself what the painting is about, or if it says what you want it to say. You should have the urge to say something with a painting. It should be about something, even it is abstract, and you should be the one that chooses what it is about." This inner critic, who thinks my work should have some verbally accessible content, is silenced by me anytime it speaks up. "Leave me be, I am playing, you whiner!"
Sirens and how to make them shut up. I guess that for most people the definition of "result" has more future-related elements; most people probably see, for instance, a result-driven manager as a manager that strives to achieve certain pre-set results in the future. When using this definition of "result" I am totally not focused on it. There is nothing I strive for. It's a complicated situation for me when a work is getting somewhat of a direction, when it starts to feel like a painting. The shape it gets starts working as a pointer in the direction of a certain end-result that I can more or less envision. It is tempting to follow the direction and to come to conclusions, clarity, security, because the chaos I dwell in (on purpose), though being a great source of energy, is also a little annoying; there's always a light desire to get out of it. The sirens are calling: "Just two or three steps, and you're here".
I've noticed that when I try to take these steps painting immediately loses it's freedom. A stroke is being made with a certain idea of what the function of that stroke in the totality of the painting is going to be. Discovering disappears; building takes it's place. Don't get me wrong: there are truly brilliant artists with a building style of working and I love their work with all my heart; it's just that I can't do it like that. Especially since I paint as a hobbyist the quality of the process is of utmost importance to me. Striving and building stiffens me, I am not accepting it, no matter the consequences. Of course it happens sometime that I can't resist the sirens call. I always end up with a suffocating painting, with stiffness, with a result (!) I dislike.
I've developed a few ways of dealing with paintings that start getting a shape. For example I try to get clear what would be asked from me if I would follow the direction that the painting points to. It might say: "Make the dark part darker with ombre, to enhance the light/dark contrast." Then, instead of doing that, I add a combination of bright yellow and pink dots. Instead of adding darkness I add "fruitiness" or "sweetness" that is part of a totally different spectrum (sour/sweet instead of light/dark). A second method is well known to almost any artist and can simply be described as "kill your darlings". In that case I paint away, or do something awkward to the piece in a painting that keeps pulling my eye in a pleasing way. In both ways I take care not to deregulate too much; I want to give that what has taken shape some kind of chance of survival. Sometimes, though, I can't get the sirens to shut up in a gentle way and brutal force is needed. Then I ask my 2 year old son to paint with me. I ask him to choose a color, I load a brush with it, put the painting in front of him and say: "Go ahead." I let him make a few strokes and say stop when I think it is enough. I then put the thing away to dry. This always works; after dealing this heavy blow the work is open again. I've trained myself in dealing these blows myself now, I attack the paintings with randomly chosen colors as if I were my son.
Holding on by letting go. A slow discovery, and it is really a slow discovery instead of a something that presents itself suddenly, is this one: However process-focused I may work, eventually, in a way that is a complete mystery to me, the piece of paper or canvas I work on becomes a painting (in the above sketched sense of the word). The thing feels as succeeded, which is weird because I don't feel I strived to do something. What is really amazing to me is that, with this extremely open way of working, I hardly ever throw a work away; almost anything I start working on gets completed someday. "Back in the days", when I felt that I was a professional and when there was a lot more ambition and pretension in my work, probably 75% of what I started ended up in the trashcan.
Light despair. Reading all the above you wouldn't say so, but sometimes I am in despair a little about a painting. I keep adding (or subtracting) color and shape, but somehow there's nothing happening. The engine just won't start, so to say. This despair used to get me panicked. This panic made me try to "win" from the painting, force it into life. That never worked. Now I am aware of my despair without reacting. That way it stays it's size, which, after all, isn't really that big; it is perfectly manageable. I stay calm and muddle on, slowly, stroke by stroke. The funny thing is that the paintings I cumulatively despaired about most are the paintings I like best when they're finished.
Concentration? Lately, while painting, I muse about this question: "What actually is concentration?" My inner critic sometimes says things like: "Come on man, just concentrate for once," or: "Is this what you call painting? What are you concentrating on?" He brings to my mind images of serenely lit rooms where Japanese Zen monks, deeply and profoundly concentrated and present, paint a perfect circle on a large piece of rice paper in just one stroke. Concentration should be something like that, in the opinion of my inner critic. Most of the times I shrug my shoulders; he may be right, but that's just not what it seems to be for me and it will probably never become like that. I am muddling along and I am fooling around most of the time, without having the slightest clue on what I am doing. Most of the time I have hardly any control over my painterly actions and there's hardly any inhibition of impulses either. Blindly driven I apply paint in colors, lines, shapes. There's no consciously intended relation to what I see on the paper and what I apply on it after I've seen it. My inner critic tries to forbid me to use paper and paint, as potential carriers of information, for this blind tampering. At the same time the urge to tamper, to smear paint, is just too strong.
What can I do? I want to smear but there is nothing to concentrate on. Why would I want to paint a perfect circle, why would I want to refer to a reality beyond the concrete reality of the painting itself? Why would I want to make anything at all, strive (read concentrate) for a result? Perhaps there are solid answers to these questions that I have not yet found, so perhaps there are reasons for me to concentrate somewhere, but actually, and that is exactly the point, I totally refuse to go and look for these answers. I don't want to concentrate. I want to be where I am, and that is: driven but without a concrete goal. That's my mental terrain right now and I really want to get into touch with that without spending energy in trying to leave that terrain.
On the other hand, though, I do notice that I am very well concentrated while painting, but on a totally different level then where my inner critic wants my concentration to be. The concentration is on the process; I am aimed at not getting stuck, at letting flow, and at seeing what is there and what is not there. This is also where my engagement as an artist is. The more I know myself, the people and the world around me, including the artworld, the more I get convinced that my engagement is something that I must let be present somehow in a very direct way, instead of putting my engagement into words and letting it out into the world as a message. I don't do messages. For quite a few years now my hope is that my works are expressing the process that let them come about in such a direct and transparent way that they are true embodiments of openness and presence and that they somehow stir up some more or less parallel qualities or processes inside the viewer without any interference of language or language-like thinking. The word "embodiment" I use quite deliberately and in stark contrast to "representation". On a certain level I am not striving for anything, on a different level, though, I strive for no less than embodiment, and I strive to rule out any sense of representation. This is something that it is inherently impossible to strive for as something in the future; I can only strive to act in accordance with it on a moment to moment basis, by being aware. "Hey, I notice I am thinking. Ok, that's cool, but now I kindly let that go and go back to smearing again."
Rules. As may already be quite clear I work in a very uncontrolled fashion. This mobilizes my inner critic because all kinds of unwritten rules are being trespassed. I mentioned some of those rules ("There should be content") and now I feel like writing about some more.
Starting: How I start paintings seems to be completely arbitrary. The only thing I take care of is that I use acid free paper of a certain quality and that I use materials that are compatible (like watercolor-crayon and acrylic paint). Some works I start with some kind of semi-conscious calligraphy in a nice bright color, some works I start by letting my son mess around, some works start as accidentally fallen paint over a piece of paper. It doesn't matter. As long as there is something that is not white (as the paper is) I start adding to that. In the past it was necessary that what was present on the paper had some appeal to me, was somehow intriguing or inspiring. This has past. I can start with anything. It's about sheets of paper, painting, looking. At a certain moment it will start to get interesting. There is something very choiceless and inconsiderate in how I start works, which makes my inner critic very uncomfortable. I consciously ignore that, because ever so slowly I become more and more convinced that the flow of a river is in the flowing and not in the source.
Using up the paint: I paint color by color. That is: I take a color from a tube or bottle, make it a little thinner with water and than apply it to a painting at some places. I put the painting away, take another painting , look at it, apply some of the paint, put it away, take another, etc. Most of the times when I paint there are about 5 or 6 painting lying around me. Sometimes when I've hit them all and there is still some paint left I put the palette away for a while and take a new palette and do the same thing over again with another color. I try to use up all the paint I put on my palettes. So, the reason to apply paint can sometimes just be to get rid of it. My inner critic: "Come on man, what kind of reason is that?! Who's in charge here?! Have you considered if these paintings actually needs this paint?!" He might be right, but I can't help myself, and, I don't think I want to. I kind of like this "blindness". On the other hand, it's not all that blind: If I somehow clearly feel that it would be a crime against the painting to saddle it with my leftover paint, I don't do it. I'm a wildman, not a criminal.
Timespan: In the past I needed a certain time-span to paint and have a more or less satisfied feeling about a painting session. There was some time needed to get in the "flow" and some time for being in there to get something out of it. That is gone too. Though I prefer painting for 3 hours (which is about my maximum of concentration for a painting session) I also work on paintings in short moments in between daily activities. I do that with crayon mostly, because then there isn't the hassle with rinsing brushes etc. Or, in the evening, when, for some reason there is only half an hour to paint, I use it. I keep it small then; I take one color and one brush and hit a stack of paintings. Painting seems to be more or less like gardening to me. However small the actions, they still contribute to a process that is beyond the time frame of the actual working from moment to moment. It's harvesting time when a painting is ripe.