|New York Water Towers I, II, III - Oil on panel, 12"x16" 2016-17|
I know you’ve heard this a million times before, about how distractible we all are nowadays. No one seems able to concentrate on anything for very long. However, given the plethora of media in our lives, it’s a miracle that we can concentrate as long as we do. I don’t know anyone who isn’t addicted to his or her media connections. I’ve had friends check iPhones while hiking in the park with me. When I walk on the track at the health club, half the people there are talking into their phones. All the ‘breaking news’ and attention-getting media have captured even the most aware and resistant of us. The net result is that we have difficulty focusing on anything for very long. When was the last time you actually sat still and concentrated for more than a few minutes? “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, “Multi-switching”) is the norm in our lives, not the exception. How many times have you caught the person you’re conversing with slip what he or she thought was an unobtrusive glance down at his media device? This is especially problematic for those of us who consider ourselves “artists”. Creativity of any kind requires total concentration. When was the last time you were not distracted?
I have an experiment for you: Make sure you are alone. Turn off any “media” and just stare out the window Focus on something, a tree for example, for at least five minutes. I’m willing to bet anything you can’t do it. After sixty seconds, your mind will begin to wander, seek distractions. But if you force yourself to continue, something interesting will begin to happen. You will begin to see as opposed to just look. You will be amazed at how much there is that you never noticed: the texture of the bark, the subtle branching, the slight curve of the trunk.
There’s a concept in psychology called “Breaking Set.” It describes perceiving things around you in new and original ways. Creative artists (notice I differentiate them from “Non-Creative Artists) are good at this kind of mind-altering visualization. A “Set” is defined as the predisposition to perceive things in a certain way, either by habit or desire. One way you can “break set” is by staring at something long enough to override your camera eye and see differently. Ten years ago, when I broke my ankle and had to spend several weeks in an 11th floor New York apartment, I drew the same view over and over again. Eventually I “broke set” and was able to come up with some of the best, most original work I have ever done.
For the past few weeks I have been preparing a slide talk about the early 20th century French artist, Chaim Soutine. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the emotional intensity of his work is often difficult to take. He anticipated the Abstract Expressionists by about forty years and Pollock and deKooning were supposedly influenced by him. It seems that before Soutine started a painting he just stared at the subject (he always worked from life): landscape, figure, whatever, for maybe half an hour. Then, he would begin to paint furiously, finishing the entire work in one sitting, not even stopping to clean his brushes, just throwing them down on the ground and grabbing a new one. By staring so intensely before he began, he was able to “break set,” allow himself to depict his subject in a new, hyper-emotional way.
Try it and let me know what happens.