Dreaming While I’m Awake

In 1998 I decided to plunge into the world of art. Of course I had the obvious questions: Where do I begin? What do I do now? What do I want to make (draw, paint, carve, build)? What supplies do I need? Can I get by with inexpensive materials while I figure out if it’s worth it to invest in the good stuff? Do I want to make money at this? Do I want to enter shows? What about classes? Where do I start?

Repeating these questions to myself with no immediate answers became boring and frustrating so I decided just to pick something and do it, as long as it involved what I was most afraid of - drawing accurately.

I certainly didn’t want to involve anyone else in this exploration at this point. I’m an introvert and I need to figure things out in my own head before moving forward,
and I found I cared a great deal about what others thought of what I might make, to the point where I knew that negative comments would send me back into my cave. I also felt overwhelmed by choices, so it occurred to me to narrow those choices and start with a small project: doing self portraits in as many different media as I had available. This was a fortuitous choice. I put a time limit on it - one week of daily experiments in pencil, pen, ink, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, and acrylic paint.
Acrylic Self Portrait
I had no idea which of those mediums I’d like, so it seemed wise to give them all a try (I didn’t use oil paints because I react badly to the fumes).

I decided not to worry whether the portraits looked like me or not. Easy to say here, but very hard to do in the moment. I had to repeat it like a mantra every day because I had strong, critical programming to confront. These experimental portraits turned out to be very true to how I perceived myself. To my surprise I liked each one of them. As an added bonus, doing these self portraits proved to be an interesting meditation on my genes as well as a fun play with art supplies. I saw that I had my father’s nose and hairline, bits of my mother’s jaw, and my grandfather’s eyes.

I splurged on buying good, heavy paper since I planned on experimenting with paints and ink and water, all of which would buckle lightweight paper (wrinkle it up). I thought the deck was so stacked against my feeling I had any future in art at all that the least I could do was use good supplies and maybe that would make everything look better (I think it did). So I bought the best I could afford and once I had amassed a stack of these self-portraits I taught myself bookbinding so I could have them all in one place. This project “eased” me into the world of art and allowed me to play around “in private.” By the time the week ended I found I didn’t want to stop. But, I could not get over the fixation on measuring my artistic abilities by the yardstick of whether or not I could draw accurately and realistically. So, what to do about that?

Drawing Classes

Again I chose what turned out to be the right path for me. I took some “beginning” drawing classes from Robert Dvorak, who was an enthusiastic teacher of art newbies. His encouragement to experiment and most of all to be playful in what I did, were invaluable. In one of his classes we had to draw our classmates. I drew a picture of my classmate “Bob” whom I chose to draw because he was looking at someone
else and I was free to stare at him as long as I wanted. I decided to use an ink pen so I wouldn’t fuss about the details and could not erase. I gained much confidence from the fact that the drawing really did look like Bob and seemed (to my eye) to capture a bit of his personality as well. It gave me hope that I might someday make art that satisfied me. So I renewed my energy to “buckle down” and take some classes that would teach me to draw “properly.” My, I was so unnecessarily harsh with myself.

Drawing 3 - Version 2
I started this quest by taking figure drawing classes that were way too advanced for me. There wasn’t a lot of “teaching;” it was more on the order of being thrown into the deep end and asked to swim. I don’t regret it, but it was very frustrating and intimidating. I was determined and I kept doing these classes for several long years.

Collage Classes

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I finally decided to give myself a break. No more figure drawing classes for a while. I’d do collage classes where all I had to do was cut out other people’s images and paste them down in my own format. I loved the juxtapositions created by this technique. It was so like dreaming that it kept (and still keeps) my attention and stimulated my desire to draw my own collage pieces.

It was through doing collage that I began to understand you could dream while you were awake, keeping your hands in motion creating, using your mind to make decisions, but also allowing a part of your mind to idle along, making connections that did not have to have a logical rationale. For some artists this is a natural process, but not for me. I had to learn it and to start to unlearn rules about making art that I didn’t even know I had internalized.

I continued to berate myself about my lack of drawing skill and no matter how tiresome it was to continue this line of thought I seemed unable to stop it, so I next signed up for abstract painting classes in the hope that I’d get lost in that process and stop worrying about drawing. I did endless “studies,” always fighting the urge to put in identifiable images and construct narratives in paint. This foray into abstract work turned out to be really useful. I learned a lot about shape and color, which has helped immeasurably.

Process Painting

During these many years of experimenting with various forms and media, I continued to be hyper sensitive to other people’s opinions about my art. This was a crippling, debilitating mind set and was eroding my pleasure in the process of making art. I’m sorry I wasted so much time in that state of mind (and in my experience I’m not alone in this obsession). I had the great good fortune to be in a dream group at this time, and a fellow dreamer mentioned she taught “process painting,” which is exactly what it sounds like - you paint for the process of painting, not for the product; you don’t expect to get or to give critiques of the paintings.
2-300dpi - Version 2
This was an heretical idea. I’d been taught that a critique at the end of the class was the only way to learn. The process painting approach was designed and developed by Michele Cassou and Stuart Cubley in their book, Life, Paint and Passion. My friend in the dream group was a certified teacher of the process, so I went to the class and the first thing I painted was a
Green Woman Finished
six-foot tall “green woman.” When I finished it I felt recharged. It was (and is) a tremendously liberating way to paint. I fell in love with making art all over again.

Eventually I took a class from Cassou ( Michele Cassou). The class was five days long, 9-6pm each day, and at the end of it I felt like I’d had one of the most renewing vacations of my life. Apparently being immersed in what you really want to create releases energy rather than using it up. I suppose it was naive of me not to know this, but I didn’t. I thought feeling tired after making a big effort was the only possible way to feel. I was surprised, to say the least.

Eventually I began to do process painting at home, which required making a temporary painting wall out of Homesote from the lumber yard, and buying all my own poster paints, high quality, heavy archival paper and the best brushes I could get.

I loved the painting this way
and the fact that I could continue to work large (3 x 4 feet usually), as I had in the process painting studio.
My home studio was tiny and I had to move the Homesote wall around often, but it was adequate. I kept the paints in little Tupperware containers with tight lids (so they wouldn’t dry out) all cached on a little TV table. I worked this way for a couple of years. To the left is a very early stage of my painting Malta Dreaming. Check out some of my process paintings.

Prisma Color and Copic Markers

In August of 2005 I had an accident that stuck me in bed for a month. It was too messy to try and do process painting in bed, so I opted for pencil, ink, and alcohol based ink markers, specifically Prisma Color pens (later Copic markers). I found that alcohol based ink markers were more brilliant on the page than any other kind. The white of the page seemed to make the colors bounce.

I worked small (9x12) and followed what I’d learned making process paintings: I just drew whatever came to mind without caring if it made sense, only caring if it “felt” good or seemed “essential” to put on the page. I experimented by starting the drawing with pencil and following with waterproof ink, then putting in the color with the pens.

I was in a lot of pain (leg injury) but I noticed that while doing these pictures I lost track of pain and of time. So I started a series of images of my injured leg and how it made me feel. I found the compression
of time and the ability to focus away from the constant pain striking. I wondered how this was possible. I believe what was happening is this way of working allowed me to touch what Michele Cassou calls “Point Zero,” the source inside that has protected itself from external influences and is our most “authentic” place. Once there we are “beyond” time and space. I think of it as my meditative center, and it is a well of energy that seems to have no end. I continued working this way for the full month that I was incapacitated and then found I didn’t want to stop. We had moved to a new house and I had a larger studio and could have continued to do large process paintings, but more and more I was pulled to these 9 x12 drawings. Working this way turned into a major meditation in my life and ten years later I’m still doing it. You can see some of my “Prisma Pictures” here.

Many things stimulate the content of these pictures - sometimes it’s my dreams, or an image from a movie, or a story line on TV, or a color or shape. I began to cultivate a particular state of mind between conscious awareness and unconscious impulses and called the process “dreaming while I’m awake.” Eventually all I had to do was pick up a pencil and hover it over a sheet of 100# Bristol Vellum and the images would start flowing. I have written a more detailed account of my creative process in my book:
Dreaming While I’m Awake. It’s available from http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/75031.

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