As you unfold as an artist, just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.
–Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet
Rilke is a well known advocate for keeping the external world at bay. At one point he wrote that he never reading his critics so that he would not disturb his unconscious process. The above quote reinforces that strong position.
When you do try to straddle the inside and the outside, it is easy to lose your balance. I’m deep into the internal landscape right now, getting ready for a show in two months. So right now my painting energy feels under wraps, hidden. A bit alchemical.
Comparing painting to alchemy isn’t just my idea. James Elkins made the same analogy in his book, What Painting Is. An excerpt:
Despite all its bad press, and its association with quackery and nonsense, alchemy is the best and most eloquent way to understand how paint can mean: how it can be so entrancing, so utterly addictive, so replete with expressive force, that it can keep hold of an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Alchemists had immediate, intuitive knowledge of waters and stones, and their obscure books can help give voice to the ongoing fascination of painting.
And Elkins goes on to offer this loving homage to painting (which rings true for me):
Oil paint can’t be entrancing just because it can create an illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint itself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography…It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movement of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint itself.