A contemplation of the transformative power of retreat to clarify the foggy bends of life.
A few weeks ago, unable to visit the studio, I sought refuge in a digital haven—Zoom—for an afternoon portrait session. The sitter, a man in his mid-fifties whose features bore the gentle touch of time, ignited excitement and trepidation within me. I categorize myself as an advancing beginner artist :)
Art is like a mirror. A mirror that not only reflects myself but also my progression as an artist. Seeing deeply is something that all of us learn at different stages of our journey. The challenge lies in not getting lost in the minutiae but finding your voice amidst the details.
Through this brilliant sorcery of technology, I look at the model, not knowing if he can see the few of us who have joined online. I can still vividly recollect his uniqueness as I rewind that day. I started mapping the canvas territory while paying attention to everything required to produce a good painting. As a painter, I would have loved to speak to my subject, but that’s not possible in group sessions. I wonder if I will be able to bring out the story of this person in three hours.
I began working out the colour palette, shapes, forms, composition, and tones to form the image. I ask myself constantly, am I seeing it right? As John Berger eloquently said, "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled." In the silent communion with my canvas, I sought to settle this relation. Painting, for me, is a profoundly personal and spiritual act, a pathway to the 'flow state' I also find in writing.
In the quietude of creation, time dissolves into the rhythm of brushstrokes. Here, in the sanctuary of my makeshift studio, the world fades away, and a profound joy ascends from the depths of focused engagement. This psychological bliss is the siren's song that lures me back to my easel daily. Excluding a few days, I have painted and sketched daily for the past one and a half years. My commitment to this ritual is unwavering. It is in this sacred dance of timelessness that I find not only solace but also a ceaseless tailwind that invigorates my artistic journey.
Meanwhile, I am immersed in painting this gentleman while constantly taking note of his unique happy smirk that is imprinted on my mind. The session is about to be over. Time has a funny way of engaging itself. In these flow states, I imagine if “time” were a person, he would be suspended in stillness. Another five minutes to go reminds the voice from the other side of the screen.
I decided to put the paintbrush down and assess if my version looked anything remotely like the sitter. Lo Behold, I had missed something as it should be with art. I had missed stepping away from the easel while being engrossed in capturing the details.
The squinting of the eyes, stepping back and pausing help see the overall image. The image, in its entirety, is the structural narrative that holds it together.
To ensure that the spirit of the artwork finds its uniqueness, I need to build in moments of stepping away from my artwork and the act of creating at times.
Distance is the silent observer, the sage that helps offer the clarity that proximity sometimes cannot.
I come from a life where the priority around focusing on getting it right was misplaced. It dulled out the other nuances required for creating meaningful outcomes. The colours from my past work life creep up during my painting. Each has its context and importance. Today, when I look back, I think, what if I squinted and stepped back to see clearly?
Interestingly, being too immersed while pursuing a goal is a way of losing oneself in Plato’s allegorical cave. This applies broadly to all parts of life and self, be it relationships, work or society.
The power of retreating to regain perspective is a learning that gets reinforced during my engagement with art. The way of retreat is unique for each person. My retreat comes in the form of walking, immersing in nature, writing, and sometimes disconnecting myself from all echo chambers of the world. There are moments when I connect to these very echo chambers to broaden my perspective. Each phase of life and situation probably needs a different act. I’m sure none of these would have resonated a decade back.
In essence, this reflection is not merely about painting; it is an invitation to embrace the transformative power of perspective. As one steps back to admire a painting in a gallery, one needs to step back in life's gallery to witness the artistry of our own making.
Here are some ways that I use to step back that may or may not work for you :) :
Embrace the Pause: Schedule short breaks during any task, like a painter assesses their canvas, to reassess your progress. This can be as simple as a five-minute meditation or a walk around the block. I run to the woods for my pauses. I am grateful that the woods have blessed me and helped me embrace this pause.
Reflective Journaling: Keep a journal to document your thoughts and feelings. Writing can be a form of stepping back, providing a physical space for contemplation and insight.
Deep Seeing: Engage in mindfulness exercises where you observe your surroundings without judgment, akin to an artist viewing their work with fresh eyes. This can help detach from overwhelming details and focus on the bigger picture. Something I do often is notice the way birds and the natural kingdom behave during each season. If you live in a cold country, notice the treetops. You will find birds and storks nestling in the sun during the day.
Creative Cross-Immersion: Involve yourself in a different creative activity from your primary pursuit. This cross-pollination of skills can offer new perspectives and, upon return, a renewed vision for your primary work. I’ve been considering sculpting using modelling clay as another medium to explore.
I spent an unequivocal amount of time deciding what poems to include for this edition. I hope you like these three. I have included the first poem video link. It’s beautiful to listen to someone reciting it so beautifully. Do give it a watch.
Today by Mary Oliver
Carrying by Ada Limon The sky’s white with November’s teeth, and the air is ash and woodsmoke. A flush of color from the dying tree, a cargo train speeding through, and there, that’s me, standing in the wintering grass watching the dog suffer the cold leaves. I’m not large from this distance, just a fence post, a hedge of holly. Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass, mares look for what’s left of green in the pasture, a few weanlings kick out, and theirs is the same sky, white like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut. A few farms over, there’s our mare, her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any mare worth her salt is carrying the next potential stake’s winner. Ours, her coat thicker with the season’s muck, leans against the black fence and this image is heavy within me. How my own body, empty, clean of secrets, knows how to carry her, knows we were all meant for something. Basho The sound of a waterfall Hearing, the stillness even The cicadas’ cry
I think whether it's through the simple act of stepping away from a canvas or walking away from a heated discussion to return with a calmer mind, the space we create for ourselves can be the very realm where clarity blossoms. So, step back, look at the full picture, and watch as the once indiscernible becomes clear, leading you to that elusive stroke of wisdom—both in art and the artistry of living.
Reflection for this week: Take a moment to scan through different parts of your life and identify if there is any area where you need to step away. A word of caution: only seeing without any steps to reform if required is futile. Writing this post is a reminder for me to take action.
This week’s spotlight :
This idea for this short essay came through during the unique essay camp run by. I am continuing the journey to write using the same framework. Two exciting ideas met me during the daily writing sprints—a huge thank you to Summer for hosting this space.
An essay on writing and art that I loved from my dear friendsubstack.
For a great reading list on humanities and culture,weekly reading will be a great addition :)
A sneak peek into my art adventures :)
The first one is a copy with my additions ( cat, withering sunflower) of an inkliner work by Anastasia Koval. It is nowhere as beautiful as the OG, but I loved tinkering with ink, gouache and a tiny bit of animation to create this. The second one is A, whose unique happy smirk I couldn’t quite replicate :D
Until the next edition, take care and see you soon. If there are other poems or essays that you have come across on this theme, do share in the comments :)
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