As an artist, I live for those paintings that flow effortlessly. And you all know what I mean - those moments of pure joy when we look at what we're doing and think OMG this is fabulous, do you see what I'm doing here? It's that combination of both wanting to take responsibility for it (because that proves you're an artist) and wanting to believe that it's flowing through you ( because that proves you're not only an artist but you're tied into the higher artist power - which may or may not be true, but I'll save that for another post).
For convenience sake and because it's a good word for it, we call this a state of flow, when everything works perfectly, no mental side trips into the "what should I plan for dinner" attention trap at the crucial moment of deciding if that form turns inward or if it's just a trick of the light.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the bestselling book, Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, has spent years researching what happens when concentration is so focused we often lose track of our physical environment and the passage of time.
What he concludes is that, for the optimal experience, while working in this state of heightened awareness it shouldn’t be an automatic process: while “flow” itself is psychologically rewarding, a sense of control is essential.
In my own learning experience I’ve found myself so caught up in the cadence of movement that my attention slips from careful observation into pure experience. In this state I’m most vulnerable to reverting to automatic gestures and habits. I will find myself reaching for the palette knife and applying thick paint rather than carefully considering what an area needs. Important details are sacrificed to the pure enjoyment of moving color across the canvas. Later, I’m appalled at the mess I’ve made: I can look at old paintings and know the exact moment when I slipped into this state of intense non-attention. The result usually gets scraped off or confined to the trash.
According to Flow, practicing awareness while experiencing a flow experience comes more easily to some than to others. As I try to understand more about my own painting process, I've discovered patterns that I want to break. If you find yourself in this same place, here are some of the ideas that help me:
- Become aware of the bad habits you’ve acquired, the automatic responses you have to your unique painting problems.
- Plan ahead for better solutions so when you're reaching for that crutch it's not immediately there.
- Tape notes to yourself on your easel if necessary. One of mine says "no licking".
- Study your own paintings and really identify areas you want to improve.
- Slow down and think about what you need to do.
- Avoid any stimulus that invites high energy – I’ve stopped listening to dramatic movie scores because I found myself painting unconsciously to the rhythm of exploding cannon.
- Set new challenges for yourself to not only notice when you start automatically responding to your painting, but to direct your attention to the proper solution.
Your work will benefit from the result.