Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Visionary Artwork 4

A few notes on method.

As with poetry-writing, I don't find endless tinkering to be all that useful or important to the process of making visionary art. The more you tinker, the more you risk the image losing its power, and going stale and overly-familiar. Most often, I do my best to work quickly, as spontaneously as possible, so as not to over-think an artwork and possibly risk killing its energy.

There are two or three larger, overlapping impetuses towards making a new piece, which can be categorized roughly as:

1. inspired by dreams, and records of dreams
2. inspired by waking visions; things I see, and ways I see things, made in Photoshop so others can see them too
3. made by playing around with elements and techniques in Photoshop till something ignites and tells me what it wants to become

The first two categories contain spontaneous as well as more "planned" or "deliberate" pieces. Many of these pieces are deliberate attempts to recreate what one has seen, in a dream, in a waking vision, in the imagination. The intention is to bring into the visible realm what one has seen, so that others might see it too. It's a way of sharing your unique vision of the world with others.

These images are "planned" mainly in the sense that one has the image very quickly, and the rest of one's effort lies in the execution: going to find the elements needed; putting it together, like a painting, which can take some time; finishing it up and polishing it, making it come as close to the original vision as possible. Occasionally this yields very strong work, which acquires more energy when you complete it, and keeps growing. (Which certainly renews my faith in the importance of incorporating our dreams into life.) I practice keeping my analytical mind in check—keep the inner editor or critic turned off—for as long as possible, at least till the basic conception is done. I might spend considerable time on the technical execution, if drawing in Photoshop, or editing certain parts of an image becomes necessary.

The following piece was made immediately upon waking, after seeing, in the last dream before waking, this image of multiple moons above the road. The feeling in the dream was that the sky had opened up like a window or a gateway, revealing another world, another universe, another place and time:

The following image was made this way: a quick imaginative waking vision, I knew what I was going to do when I made the photo of the huge willow tree, followed by a lot of work in Photoshop to get everything to look right. The lighting effects alone took several layers to make look right:

Arrival, from Spiral Dance

In Photoshop, as in painting, subtlety goes a long way. Underpainting layers, layers with slightly different lighting effects and opacities, multiple repetitions of a layer each with a slightly different blur to add depth—these are all typical techniques one can use. I find in practice that using a lot of layers with subtle effects looks far more realistic, more like what the eye actually sees, no matter what the subject matter is. Remember that the camera eye sees more things, in sharper focus, than does the human eye. That's a property of photography that can be used to create super-realism and sharp depth of field; and since the real world is often fuzzy around the edges, it can be an effect we need to tone down, to give an image heart and breath.

The third category, above, actually accounts for over half of the visionary art I make. Sometimes I get inspired by an element of what becomes the final piece, which leads me to go looking for the rest, to pull it all together. Sometimes the mood of a basic photo inspires me in a certain direction, and seems to call for something specific to go along with it. Sometimes it's pure play, which ends up revealing something archetypal. Fooling around with one's art materials is a time-honored way of finding inspiration, which is really no different in Photoshop then it is with colored pencils on paper.

None of this is accidental or random, however. It's a kind of active imagination, to use Jung's term, that goes spelunking for the contents of one's unconscious, and translates them into imagery, poetry, dream-narrative, and other creative materials. One reason I like working with wood is that it retains the feeling of being alive; Jung worked often with stone.

Photoshop for me is a tool in which active imagination can happen; the key to active imagination is putting oneself into a meditative, receptive, numinous state, to await what is brought forward by the unconscious for you to examine. This is dream-logic, and the logic of the Dreamtime: it's not rational logic, and it's not a process of art-making in which the intellect is "in control" of the process, or even present. None of that artist's ego beforehand saying that it knows what it's going to do down to the last millimeter; it's more important to set out with no idea of what's going to happen. You actually have to get your ego-mind to "step aside," to get out of the way. The discipline is to create a field of receptivity in oneself, then wait to see what comes forward. You might end up with a doodle rather than finished piece—a risk you take anytime you play with your artistic tools—and you might find something that needs to sit and percolate awhile, before you come back to finish it. Or it might all come together suddenly and complete itself. All this is as true for poetry-writing as for making images.

There have been many times when, sorting through photos made recently, I run across one that hadn't left much of an impression on me before, but which now seems to be surrounded with a powerful, glowing aura of importance. It can stop me in my tracks. When that happens, I start working with the image, trying out different tools and techniques to see what might happen—very like a jazz player riffing on a theme, trying out different ways of improvising till something starts to take form. Improvisation in Photoshop can very much be a way to activate the imagination.

There have been other times when I knew the photo was going to be important as I was making it, because the moment of its making was surrounded by something liminal, something numinous and non-ordinary. You get a feeling, a sense that something important is going to happen, and you set up the camera then wait for the exact moment when your intuition tells you to release the shutter. You know what's going to happen before it actually does—or rather, not exactly what, but that something special is going to happen. Some people call that feeling a hunch; others call it intuition. If it's luck, it's not random luck, but the luck of synchronicity, the meaningful coincidence when everything lines up just so, and sings.

This photo was made at one of those moments:

Sometimes, when you catch the light of spirit just right, just so, you want to jump up and down and yell "Yes! Yes!" to celebrate everything in the Universe converging, just so, to make the photo happen.

This leads me to mention a curious paradox: There have been numerous occasions when a viewer of my artwork thinks that a pure photo was manipulated in Photoshop, and when a heavily-worked image in Photoshop is taken to be a pure photo. The two processes are confused for one another; I grant that it's not always obvious. Yet that this confusion of means keeps happening is very interesting to me as the artist.

There is another, related paradox, too, in which someone sees something numinous and archetypal in an artwork which I myself view as fairly mundane; just as there are times in which I see a lot of liminal power in a finished piece that no one else seems to see. That line between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, wherein live the archetypes, is an apparently fuzzy and movable line.

I leave these paradoxes unexamined, without trying to force them towards a resolution. As the artist involved, I find it very interesting, and make note of it, without necessarily needing to force it towards intellectual understanding.

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