Visionary art is a topic I’ve touched on a number of times over the years. It has that special quality that goes beyond technique and into something akin to a trip down the rabbit hole.
Oklahoma City University is currently hosting an exhibition by visionary artist, Rick Berry. Rick’s work is collected by other visionaries like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin and Stephen King. Rick combines technical mastery with his vision that, during his talk last Thursday, he takes little personal credit for.
Vision is considered tapping the subconscious or the collective unconscious. I agree with Rick that these aren’t good terms. The term ‘sub’conscious makes it appear subservient to our ego consciousness. Even the ‘un’ implies something negative or opposite. This isn’t all new age woo-woo either. In psychology, it includes the study of ‘flow’. Recent studies in psychology and neuroscience have been attempting to understand what it is and how it works. While much of what we discover leads to more questions than answers, that sense of connection to everything, that energy, lies at its core. Inspiration…
During the 2 hour talk, Rick touched on innovations in neurobiology and neuroscience, including Nobel Prize winning research on how the brain uses a hexagonal grid for cells to help animals determine their position in space, other research on colour and value perception (luminance) and the delays between perception of events and reality. Rick theorizes that we are on the brink of a major shift in our species. That shift is coming through neuroscience, genetics, and prosthetics (à la Neuromancer? Berry did the first digital cover for the William Gibson classic).
Monet’s “Impressionist Sunrise” is an example of luminance in action. The human eye is made up of rod and cone cells. Rods can only see light and dark and help us to understand ‘where’ things are. Cones perceive colour and help us to determine ‘what’ things are. In the painting, the vivid orange sun is the same value as the sky (The sun disappears into the sky background if you turn the painting into black and white). The brain gets confused seeing only the orange and is unable to place the sun in space. This causes the sun to appear to vibrate. This is described in detail in the Harvard Magazine article Neurobiology of Art and Brain Pickings has a fantastic video here with a visual demonstration using Van Gogh’s “Starry Night“.
Touring the gallery, paintings with titles like “Epigenetics” and “New Model” are both answers and the questions Rick’s artistic journey has caused him to raise. His paintings don’t begin with a plan or, like his book covers, with a ‘brief’. They start with a scribble. The results are often unexpected and sometimes painful. Rick’s paintings demonstrate a depth of emotion combined with sharp intellect and imagination and are currently on display in the Nona Jean Hulsey Art Gallery in Oklahoma City University’s Norick Art Center until March.
What a stimulating way to enter into the workshop on Friday!
I haven’t painted with oil since 2007. I work carefully from life or from a photograph and everything has a plan. I knew after the talk there would be no plan.
Just after 9am, I was confronted with a large gloss coated board and the first instructions were to cover it in oil and dark paint. Then scribble. Rick did two demonstrations over the day, both of which began with the random movement of either removing the dark paint or scribbling with an oil stick. My conscious mind went into a panic. I was going to have to get over my ‘deer in headlights’ crisis quickly, if this was going to work. When my brain finally hit tilt, my hands started to draw in loops.
Swirls and figure 8’s are soothing. Soon, I was playing in the slickness of the saturated surface dripping with linseed oil. I had an obsession with lemniscates before I knew what they were. Perfect, interconnected flow… I love the patterns carved in the rocks at Newgrange, a place shrouded in myth and in whose cavernous tunnels can be found a link to the Underworld. I have dreamed of diving into mountains. Flying is so much more fun if you get to choose a dream. Most of the time you don’t get to choose. This play is diving into the mountain, at once both playful and terrifying.
My first scribbles became a Japanese figure I called Samurai Dancing. After lunch, I wasn’t feeling it and brushed the paint back into the background. One part refused to blend and it became the shoulder of an angel. His wings emerged behind it and because I wasn’t using the right tools, I began to get a mess. Rick came to my rescue and the face began to emerge. I loved that it was not fully formed and I felt I had seen him before. There is one element I am considering adding. The paint is now drying, so I’ll wait and add it when the surface is harder.
A few days later, I watched an on-line interview where Rick was talking about the fluid approach to art, not worrying about perfection or detail. The unfinished is the…
…loose thread at the edge so spirits can come and go…
Everything and nothing is a mistake.
Not wanting to tighten the thread, I jumped right in to painting intuitive Abstraction. Abstract artist, Betsy Dillard Stroud, shared a story about one of her friends, Fujiko Kato. Kato is a Japanese Sumi artist and while teaching a class, one of the students asked him ‘what if you make a mistake?’
There are no mistakes, where my brush goes, that’s where I am today, and I’m dancing in my own landscape.
I have no figure drawing experience and have never drawn anything in the last 10 + years without a reference. There is no question that craft is required to do this well, but if you rely entirely on craft, conscious planning will never allow the magic to emerge.
I finally got it.
The strange thing is the first painting course I ever took was in 2001 as a vacation. It was all intuitive, based on myth and taught by a Ojibway artist. No reference. Imagination only. The painting people later reacted to the most was the one that happened fully by accident while playing with the airbrush. He took us to the Teaching Rocks near Peterborough, Ontario and I remember the feeling I had.
It was like this.
List of Links (from above and a couple extra for good measure)
- Rick Berry – Unconscious Creating – article (Warholian)
- Rick Berry – Blog post including video interview
- Stephanie Rayner – on science of creativity – audio
- The Fluid Dynamics of Starry Night – Brain Pickings – – article with video
- Harvard Magazine – Neurobiology of Art – article