Picture this; a blank canvas. You sit down and lay out your palette with all the paints mixed and ready. Your brushes stand at attention in a glass jar you keep by the easel. It’s mid-morning so the sun is already pouring its light through your window. The air is filled with the scent of linseed oil and turpentine. You’ve gotten everything ready for the first stroke to be laid out. You want to make something great. This is a ritual that you go through every day when you sit down. The feeling that you are the one transforming the blank canvas to become a face, a still life, or a cup of coffee is empowering. You can create all that you see… anything in the world. Your little ritual is paramount towards the success of the painting. It’s always good to have a system. But the most important element you need, the most difficult thing you must prepare in order to create that masterpiece, is your sense of empathy.
In all reality not all that a painter paints reaches close to being a masterpiece. In fact more than often I look at my work and see what needs to be fixed. As I get older and become more mature as an artist, I know that this road as a commission portrait artist and a professional oil painter is long. But the thing that is helping me more and more towards going down that road is empathy. In fact I feel that all types of artists, whether they are a portrait painter, or a Chinese brush painter, a southwestern landscape artist, or a San Francisco cityscape artist needs to develop this valuable ability.
Recently I was reading a book by the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I was struck by how much a Buddhist mindset is akin to an artist’s mindset. He says:
“We are what we feel and perceive. If we are angry, we are the anger. If we are in love, we are love. If we look at a snow-covered mountain peak, we are the mountain”
A successful painter becomes what they paint. It’s a state of mind that cannot be readily explained. But it exists. This I am certain of.
How Does a Commission Portrait Artist Use Empathy?
Being a portrait painter isn’t easy. In my work one doesn’t always get to choose what they paint. But this isn’t a bad thing, it merely makes things challenging. So how does a commission portrait artist use empathy in this case? Because believe it or not, it is necessary. As strange as it seems, a portrait painter needs to aspire to embody another person. But it’s a hard thing to become what you paint when you do not know your subject very well. Sometimes they are even complete strangers. Knowing a person that one paints is as much about knowledge as it is about a mind frame. Just as it is necessary for a Buddhist practitioner to have a certain state of being to become what they feel and perceive, an artist needs to have a similar way of being. For me the most successful pieces were when I didn’t let my thoughts impede the process. When I was able to absorb myself within the act of painting, I was able to relate with what I was painting, and in the end create a better piece. This includes portraits.
Even now, I find that my sense of observation is greater when I am in an empathetic state of mind. It isn’t an easy mind frame to maintain, especially since a commission is for someone else. The client has to like it, so a part of you becomes naturally self conscious of that fact. But more than often the opening up of a painter’s ability to relate to the subject seems to pave the way for a painting that is successful. When I become the person on the canvas, I can bring out their character. Observation is key. When painting a portrait, bringing out the features that define a subject’s personality is paramount. I don’t discover that through an intellectual process. I find it through not getting bogged down by the chatter in my mind, enabling me to access my ability to relate with whomever I paint.
Can a Cityscape Artist Become a City?
Being also a San Francisco cityscape artist, I am faced with another subject that is challenging. How does one become a city? The main problem with the city is the vastness of it. There is so much happening and so much to observe. But to take in all the people, cars, streets, buildings, noise, and stimuli, one needs to step back from it. One needs to become the observer in order to understand their subject. Living here as a San Francisco cityscape artist makes becoming this city easier. Everyday I feel the vibrancy and the flow of people. I’ve seen the changes that take place and observe how the streets breath. This experience has helped me feel San Francisco when I paint it. I can also extend this ability to other cities that I visit. When I travel I employ the same observational skills and abilities to calm myself in the face of controlled chaos. Because of this I can paint other places with a greater sense of ease, and capture their essence as well.
Empty Mind, Loaded Brush
My process for when I paint has been changing over the years. I had several different phases in my art that called for a variety of approaches. These days I view art with a much more mature perspective. I don’t get overconfident when creating great paintings, nor do I get overly upset when a painting isn’t working out. I feel that the need to paint and create art is always burning within me, but I make sure to temper it so I don’t burn out. I feel that this mind frame helps me create better art, because it enables me to access a state of mind where I can better become what I paint. This state of mind helps all people with their work, from commission portrait artists to San Francisco cityscape artists. Art can be meditation. For me it is.