Letting Images Arise: Automatism December 28, 2015 18:25 1 Comment

For years, I began a painting with a drawing. Often, these drawings were quite detailed, especially during the period when I was doing a lot of botanical art. The resulting work was Realist and quite tight. I thought this tightness was just part of my nature as an artist. I was wrong.

When I began experimenting with acrylics, two things happened: my underdrawings became simpler and my painting style looser. Because of the use of white pigment in acrylic painting, which is generally forbidden in watercolor, and because it's possible to paint over acrylic without concern about lifting what is beneath it, I became more relaxed about painting. I even tried different brushes. I'd always used expensive sable rounds, but I tried synthetics and other shapes and loved them.

Mandrakes in SpringOne day I was playing with a filbert brush. I enjoyed the root-like shapes it could make and decided to do a painting without any drawing at all first. I really liked the results and experimented more and more until finally I abandoned Realism for abstraction. Slippery slope. :)

As far as abstraction went, I did a lot of stuff that was simply pattern. I found I had a fascination with ripples, waves, striations, and cavities--all sorts of patterns found in the natural world.

Elemental Water I by Harold RothBecause I didn't have the right audience for this sort of work, I didn't get the responses I had expected. I lost confidence and went back to more typical (and perhaps bit boring) Realist stuff. I did my best to convince myself that it was okay for me to do this, even though I never felt any sort of gut challenge in doing a Realist still life or landscape like I did with an abstract. I do love real and painted landscapes, though, and so do lots of other people. So...

But I could not stop envisioning abstract shapes and forms. How to focus what was coming out on the support? How to make it more than a mere pattern? I thought about how I often work with tarot. I ask a question but simply let the cards tell me whatever it is I need to know..

Water WitchWith painting, this meant that I allowed the image to arise as I painted. I hoped that if I were open to a connection with the spirit world while I painted and at the same time tried to focus on a particular concept (like spirits of Mars or Water magic), that whatever came out on the paper would simply take the form most appropriate for that energy or work and for me. A meeting up or coming together of a magical current and my consciousness and my skill or lack of it as a painter.

This was a bit scary, since I feared that this method might be skating quite close to the bullshit area. Many of you out there are aware of the snobbishness often focused on abstraction ("people paint abstractly because they don't know how to draw/a monkey/toddler could do that"). I've run into quite a bit of this on art forums, which is the main reason why I don't participate in them anymore. Even though I reject such a perspective, I didn't want to be a bullshit artist either.

Despite my fears about possible bullshittery and worries about inadequacy, I kept on. The more practice I got painting in this way, the better I felt it working. It was like a groove being worn in ice or stone that could channel a greater and more focused flow the more it was delineated. And I felt that my painting improved. I had better use of color and saw my composition improving. I thought I had simply discovered this approach on account of my long association with magic.

Then I ran across a discussion of automatism in Surrealism, an art movement I know little about. I was familiar with automatism from spiritualism, where mediums might use it to channel communications from the dead (automatic writing, for instance). The Surrealists took up this technique, but instead of channeling the dead, they channeled their own subconscious. As Andre Breton wrote, "‘Pure psychic automatism is the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns." And artist whose work I'd had on my wishlist for a long time, Ithell Colquhuon, was a magician as well as an artist, and she used automatism a lot in her work.

I wouldn't consider myself a Surrealist, but I intend to make further use of automatism in my painting, drawing on the astral or spiritual (or woo) instead of the subconscious. It was wonderful to find out there was plenty of historical precedent for this.