The return of the prodigal son, or how to face one’s fears

2016-03-08 14.51.37

The temporary exile from my studio didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t paint: after all, there is all my plein air gear out there in the garage — I could just go out and paint landscapes every day. But I didn’t. It seemed too cumbersome to store oil paintings in this tiny hotel room; and I felt tired and a bit ill, so I decided to just take time to reflect, and to read, and just give myself some breathing space.

And so it came to happen that I didn’t paint for two weeks or so — an unusually long interruption in the painting process.

Back in the studio, I decided to start with my huge Rembrandt study. This kind of communion with Rembrandt felt just like the right way to break the painting fast. As it turned out, there was even more to this feeling that I had anticipated: this return to painting felt exactly like the return of the prodigal son in the parable, and in Rembrandt’s painting.   

It may seem ridiculous — after all, a fortnight away doesn’t seem to qualify for such a grand interpretation. But the truth, there was a time in my life when I abandoned painting for years — for decades even — prodigally spending whatever gifts and talents I was given in other pursuits. This, I believe, is why even short pauses in my studio work tend to trigger fears and doubts: each of them feels, at some level, like that decades-long time away from myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to return, that Painting won’t take me back, that the door will be closed forever.

Hence the core experience of my first painting session — sensing that Painting does accept me back, with the same unconditional, raspberry-coloured tenderness as the father accepts his prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting.

And in the course of this painting session, I suddenly remembered that I did see myself in the parable of the prodigal son back then. A couple of years after I had abandoned painting, a poem came to me — a poem where I promised to return, just like the prodigal son did; or to be more precise, a poem predicting this return. It now seems very strange that I had forgotten that poem, and didn’t even recall it when I started this Rembrandt study a couple of months ago. Could it be that this whole hiatus was actually needed to continue this study, to feel my way into it at a deeper level?

But there is more to it… The thing is, I’ve been painting “full time” for many years now. These two weeks for the renovation project have, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the long years of my “prodigal” youth. So why is it that the fears I seem to have overcome when I came back to painting back in the beginning of this century — why do they re-surface so easily, with a minimal “trigger”? Why am I so terrified of even brief disturbances to my studio “routine”, as though each of them is just waiting to transform into a lifetime of exile from painting?   

In an instance of serendipity, or synchronicity (or whatever is the right word for this kind of happenings), I followed someone’s link to Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s book, “Living enlightenment” (at Lifeblissprogams.org), and read my way towards the chapter on fear. His take on fears is somewhat different from what I have encountered so far — because here, fear presents itself not as something to be conquered, not as a sign of weakness, but almost something to be celebrated. He writes:

<…> fear is a part of the nature of life. You can be fearless if you are already in your grave! Then there is no need to be afraid of anything because you have nothing to lose. If you have something to lose, you will have fear. This is the nature of life itself.

His advice, then, is neither to fight the fear you are facing (because this empowers it), nor to distract yourself from the fear (because then it stays with you, just hidden from your conscious attention), but just to “look at it”, live it, accept it. I guess my favourite strategy all these years used to be not to pay attention to fears. It has the obvious advantage of doing what you’ve got to do in spite of any fears, but it keeps the fears well and alive in your inner space, always ready to resurface.

And when I decided to follow his advice and look directly at my fear of “painting not taking me back”, I saw another, deeper and darker fear lurking behind it: the fear of being completely and utterly delusional about my whole relationship with painting; the fear of being delusional about being an artist. It scares the hell out of me — even now, as I write the words, I feel as though I am making this potentiality more “real” than it would have been had it remained in the darkness, outside the realm of conscious “naming”. But this makes my next challenge clear: to live and accept that fear. Paramahamsa Nithyananda writes:    

<…> fearlessness doesn’t mean non-existence of fear. It means the fear is there, but you have tremendous energy or courage to live with it and face it. Fearlessness means the energy or the courage to live even with the maximum fear — going beyond that fear and being neither attached not detached from the fear.

The next question to live is, then, whether I happen to have this energy or this courage… We’ll see, I guess.

Rembrandt post-Cezanne (February 8-9, 2016)

2016-02-09 14.53.14My little detour from the highway of the sonnet series continued over these two days.

The beginning, last Friday, was so magically easy that I somehow got this crazy idea that I might complete this painting in a week if I put everything else on hold. And the connection was so strong that it pulled me in: I decided to pause the sonnet series for a week to work on this study.

One thing I understood during these two days is that this “complete within a week” idea is — to put it mildly — slightly absurd, and — what’s more important — it would strip the whole process of half its meaning. There is more to learn here than can be learned within a week’s time (even taking into account all the preliminary studies I did following my own program).

There are two “balancing acts” in this process (I am not sure that’s a good name for them, but I cannot find any better one at the moment). One is the balance between working (and seeing) the whole canvas and the development of focal areas. I guess it’s one of the challenges that come with such a large canvas; just one among many things to learn from Rembrandt.

The other balancing act is between trusting Rembrandt and trusting my own hand; the vision comes from Rembrandt, but my hand (my brush) has to have its freedom, its “organic” movement. This means there will be a lot of “technical” differences between my study and Rembrandt’s original — but something tells me that, for me at least, this is the only way to get to the essence of what Rembrandt has done here.

And I am not even so sure about the vision: it crossed my mind while painting today that our senses of vision just cannot be the same, since the environments in which they have been “trained” are so incredibly different. We rarely think about how the environment shapes our sense of vision — maybe not the physiology of the eye, exactly, but all the neural machinery that takes the eyes’ raw data and creates our visual reality for us. But it does — that’s why it’s so much easier for us to distinguish between faces of familiar anthropological types. I’ve read somewhere that infants distinguish apes’ faces as well as they do human faces; but after several months, their ability to distinguish human faces gets refined, while apes’ faces begin to seem very much alike.

And this is only the beginning. Rembrandt spent his whole life within a smallish area between Amsterdam and Leiden, and this means a very narrow range of natural lighting conditions. No Southern sun, no electrical light, no exposure to photos, let alone videos. No artificial pigments. No plastic. A modern human being like myself would generally spend a lot of time in a variety of artificial light, travel far and wide, and yet see even more places in photos and videos only. And then, of course, the whole history of art: the last three and a half centuries, and all the archeological stuff found and shown to public in the meanwhile. There is just no way my eyes could see “the same” Rembrandt’s eyes did, even if (or especially if) we are looking at the same painting, at the same old man and his family members. This fact is just something to be accepted, and worked into this study the best I can.

The beginning of Rembrandt study and the unbearable lightness of being (February 5, 2016)

2016-02-05 16.18.19There seemed remarkably little to journal about this day.

A strange experience: the day feels full, but it’s completely devoid of stories. It’s been filled with unbelievable, story-less lightness of pure being. That’s the experience I’ve longed for, but it feels strange nonetheless. I wanted my mind to stop working vainly wasting its energy in pointless circling thoughts, and it did. I feel both light — light-hearted, and strange at the same time. I am not quite accustomed to this way of being yet — it’s as though I don’t quite know what’s been happening.   

2016-02-05 13.02.02One thing is clear, though: I finally started my Rembrandt study today, however scary it seemed. I just understood that the emotions stirred by all the preliminary studies of this painting, “The return of the prodigal son” — they created the inner need, the right inner environment, for doing this work, and I could no longer delay it.

My canvas, 60”x48”, is somewhat smaller than Rembrandt’s, but it’s the largest I’ve ever worked on (not counting the whole sonnets compositions, but that’s slightly different). And I started it in a decidedly non-Rembrandt fashion, with a Cézanne-like French Ultramarine preliminary drawing — and with a very vague plan to build up colour from the darks up to the lightest lights. I am not sure yet how dark my background will be — how far the painting will deviate from Rembrandt’s original.

2016-02-05 15.03.43For now, I was just surprised by the flow — how light and easy this work has been so far — just trusting Rembrandt, and my brush; listening rather than thinking. I see that my brush deviates from the original quite strongly, but still — in some other sense — stays with it at a deeper level. And it somehow happens “on its own”. I had thought this study might take a year, but now I think I’ll just dedicate the whole of the next week to it, and see where this takes me. It changes some other plans, but that feels like the right thing to be doing.

2016-02-05 16.18.06I had assumed I’d limit myself to blue outlines during the first day, but then colour started to introduce itself, with the background faces. There is a certain risk in painting them without the support of background colour, but this study has always been a risk to begin with…  For now, I just enjoy watching this painting emerge.

January 23, 2016: the first vision of sonnet 82

2015-09-09 14.27.59Both Friday themes — the Rembrandt detail study, and the eighty second sonnet — continued on Saturday.

2016-01-23 12.56.12I didn’t really plan to paint on Saturday — the plan was a long walk in the park, and the sky was beautiful. But it started raining, and this created a “window” for a brief painting session, some more work on the Rembrandt study. I wanted to focus on the periphery of the portrait, the breathtaking colours of his clothing, but noticed some mistakes in and around the head. The experience was much less unambiguously positive than yesterday — a fair bit of struggle and frustration; not quite the joyful flow of yesterday. It seems the very mode of “correcting mistakes” is not really conductive to the flow, and I don’t quite know what to do with it (given that mistakes do happen, and have to be corrected). I will probably return to this study — and to this question — later this week.

What I really wanted to happen to me this week is a vision of the eighty second sonnet painting, and it did. By the end of the walk, I was overwhelmed (crushed almost) with the anxiety and fear about a sore spot on my gum, and the accompanying anticipation of all the visits to my dentist this might lead to — a petty fear that managed to completely break the miraculous experience of unity with nature.

But however unpleasant and humbling, this clarified two things for me. At some intuitive level, I know this gum can heal without any involvement of the dentist — but for that, I need to let go of pride, the sensation of which lives somewhere between the throat and the forehead. This little sore place in my body is not a nuisance, it’s a signal. I’ve noticed lately that I almost completely lost the ability to feel “negative” feelings (like pride or fear) as emotions — they are felt as physical sensations in the body.

On the other hand, this experience clarified the theme of the sonnet: here was this collapse of a god-like “self” (in Shakespeare’s case, of someone capable of bestowing immortality and conversing with muses) to a small, pitiful one, overcome and crushed with anger, fear, and petty jealousy. This is the collapse I’ve got to paint.

And so I have the vision for the sonnet: a space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right part. And this one will “rhyme” with the painting located just above it in the future sixteen-sonnets composition (and at the top of this post — Sonnet 78) — as though this god-like muse has finally thrown the human to the earth. Something to work on tomorrow, and for the whole week.

January 22, 2016: Shakespeare and Rembrandt

2016-01-22 15.03.36Quite a day in the studio — in communion, as it were, with two towering geniuses, Rembrandt and Shakespeare (they are both so unmistakably god-like that I am tempted to write communion with a capital “C”…)

Now I think about that, I should have somehow add Bach to this company — to cover all realms of art while I am at it. But even as it was, it was filled with awe and joy: that’s the joy of the path I have chosen in art, the path towards complete surrender, letting go of the idea of “self-expression”.

So, two themes of this studio day: approaching sonnet eight two, and my Rembrandt study (the very initial stages of it).

2016-01-22 15.04.15The sonnet work started with a colour chart, just as a way to feel my way into it, and then, later on, continued with letting it play in my mind during the afternoon walk in the park. While making this colour chart, I understood that the major challenge of this sonnet is in its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you try to write a letter to someone at whom you are really mad, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they were, but not directly. You are trying to be polite and politic, to put yourself in their shoes, to see and accept their point of view. Even to flatter them — if only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier;  but all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this falsehood, I felt, that finally breaks out from the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of “true” in lines eleven and twelve (“The lady doth protest too much” all over again).

But how on earth can I find a way to express this falsehood, a falsehood that sees itself for what it is, in a painting? How do you make a painting false, but simultaneously true at a higher level — at the level of faithfully recreating the experience of pretending? This particular experience of pretending because you are hurt, but don’t want to be hurt even more?

In Shakespeare, this falsehood shows up as an increased politeness, elegance, regularity. My colour chart revolves around clashing of greens and reds, and muted magentas/greys — that seems to be my preliminary colour solution, but there is no vision of the painting yet.

I tried to remember all the times when I wrote this kind of letters (the first association was the experience of responding to a negative and stupid “peer review”), but that didn’t seem to be emotionally charged enough, not anymore.

During the walk, though, it seems I was able to dig a bit deeper. My earlier thoughts connected themselves with this contrast between two levels of communication, two “selves”: the more expansive understanding of “self” suggested by Sonnet 81, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82. The “smaller” self, which arises when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afeared.

A poet has a better channel of communication with the more expansive “self” than most of us, but they are also a “person”, a narrow self. So this clash, this contraction of self, this scratching when the whole space collapses through a narrow “key hole” of the smaller, personal “self” — this clash is more tangible, more palpably felt. This is the experience I ought to paint here — and I left this train of thoughts at this point, hoping that from that the painting would emerge from them later on.

Most of the time in the studio was spent on this study of Rembrandt: the old man’s head from “The return of the prodigal son”. I expected much more struggle, more technical problems, but the overall experience was effortlessly joyful, exhilarating even. When you just paint what you see — the colours, the brushstrokes, without thinking about any recognisable objects (like eyes, or forehead, or lips), and then the old man’s tired face emerges out of this brushwork as though by a miracle, just by trusting Rembrandt leading your hand.

I deviated from his brushwork, and his way of paint application, quite substantially though. And I was aware, while painting, that my emotional connection to this painting, or at least to this study, is sustained by the understanding, the guess, the recognition, that that’s how my father might have looked like had he been alive now. My attention slipped a bit by the end of the session — and that immediately showed up in the painting. This slip of attention was experienced as an attempt to paint the face (as opposed to “just” Rembrandt’s colour areas), which resulted in it looking much less like a face.

I will (obviously) return to both these themes in the days to come…

January 13, 2016: studio journaling and studying with Rembrandt

A small color sketch from Rembrandt
A small color sketch from Rembrandt

January 13th is the “old” New Year’s Eve in the Russian Orthodox calendar.

In my childhood and youth, the existence of this “Old New Year” (quite apart from the curiously oxymoronic way it sounded) offered a kind of (optional) delay to all the self-imposed deadlines associated with the turn of the year: if you haven’t managed to have something done till December 31st, it was as though you could allow yourself another fortnight (which momentarily seemed like an eternity). Ditto for any resolutions you didn’t quite manage to get going — you could always start on January 14th.

This year, though, was different. To begin with, we actually managed to “miss” the turn of the year, the midnight — for the first time in our life, it seemed remarkably unimportant. And anyway, when we finally get to the next year here in California, almost everybody else is already there… so what’s the point? And there were no self-imposed deadlines, and no resolutions — thus nothing to delay till January 13th. And so I have missed this one, too — and only remembered it today, when I started to edit this journal entry.

Interestingly, though, I did begin this year something I had been wanting to do (and procrastinating about) for a rather long time: these regular Studio Journal entries. These are intended both as an additional incentive to journal regularly in the evening, to look back at the day — and as a way to train myself to be more “raw”, more open, more direct and less refined in what I write in the public domain.

And so I somehow fell into this rhythm of writing: journaling for myself only every night, and then reading it, and editing, very informally, to post in this Studio Journal. And even if I did not feel like journaling by the end of this long and intensive workday, January 13th, I also felt already attached, almost addicted, to this new practice, this new routine. Pausing, and looking back at the day, and at my own self in the expanse of this day. The expanse of the day — this is the phrase that’s been playing on my mind all through the first half of the day.

That’s because the new approach to living I am trying to put into practice has brought me back to this childlike perception of time: it flies by imperceptibly, but its finite intervals  — the upcoming and past weeks, and months, and days — seem long, expansive, almost infinite. It now seems to me that the real New Year’s Eve was ages ago — so much has somehow eased itself into this fortnight… Over the last years, I had grown accustomed to the opposite perception of time — when it feels like it drags every day, but years, and months, and weeks rush by as though in a flash of moment; and some events of the (already) distant past seem like they happened yesterday. This change of perception feels right — as though a kind of homecoming. And I suspect this daily journaling routine has some part in this change.

But the point of this journal is to keep track of my life, and of my studio practice, and of the work on the “Sonnets in Colour” series. Nothing much happened to the sonnets series this day, because it just happened to be wholly dedicated to work on my “Learning to Learn from Masters” course, it second module. It took somewhat longer than I expected, but partly because it was not devoid of painting.

Some time ago, at the spur of a moment, I “joined” my own program with the idea of studying Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “The return of the prodigal son”. The idea stroke me as one of utter madness and absurdity even at the time — comparable in madness, perhaps, with the very idea of painting Shakespeare’s sonnets. But I followed it nonetheless. Partly because of this new way of living I am trying to adopt, a life without overthinking and over planning, just acting whenever I feel like the impulse to act comes from some sort of inner depth. But also because I am so desperately afraid of being a coward that if something seems scary, I jump to do it — just so as not to appear cowardly to my own self. And then, of course, I wanted to attempt the painting so challenging to myself that would match the challenges set for themselves by other participants of my program.

What this study has in common with the sonnet series is not just the utter madness of the idea, and not that they both fall under the category of “painting”, but also the need to reflect on the process, to witness it as though from the outside. For me, this an opportunity to undergo the process of “painting study” again, more mindfully, more consciously than ever before — noticing what I am doing, understanding it, putting it into (hopefully) comprehensible words, making the experience shareable.

The connection with Rembrandt I have experienced today was pure joy — as much of a joy as I have ever had in this mysterious process of communing with the masters of painting. Not that I don’t know that it tends to happen  — but somehow, it surprises me with this joy every single time. And this is only the beginning…