Following My Creative Impulse

I discovered experiential painting inadvertently about ten years ago, and I think of it as a meditation on the arising creative impulse. I was given a copy of Michelle Cassou’s book, Life, Paint & Passion (1996), which sat for a year or more unopened in my room. When I finally started reading it, I was struck by one thought: “I should be painting every day.” The first painting I created using this approach left me ecstatic. I had trouble sleeping that night and just wanted to stay home the next day and paint! I can still feel the sense of expansion and exhilaration I experienced that day.

Around the same time, I started learning about Process Work. Process Work (also known as Process-oriented Psychology) is the name given to a body of psychological theory and methodology based on Arnold Mindell’s observation, in the early 1970s, that somatic experiences, such as proprioceptive sensations, physical symptoms, and illness, mirrored nighttime dreams (Mindell, 1982). Mindell found that by noticing and attending to mysterious or secondary signals (signals that are ordinarily ignored or marginalized in favor of objective reality), he could help people to amplify commonly dismissed or overlooked impulses and unfold them to reveal a deeper meaningful process. As I experimented with and started learning about Process Work, I remember not quite understanding the sequence of steps that guided me through a process but nonetheless feeling that I had discovered something surprising, something that originated from a place other than my verbally mediated mind. I began to see some basic connections between experiential painting and Process Work: they both value non-consensual experience, and they both use momentary awareness to unfold a process.

As my exposure to Process Work grew, I began to understand that “primary” and “secondary” processes are separated by an “edge,” and that edges represent the limit of our known identities as well as our point of contact with unknown experiences. One day early in my painting experience, I came to a place where I was hesitant to paint the next impulse. I had reached the limit of my known identity and it stopped me from proceeding. I paused and asked myself, “What would I paint if I didn’t have to like my painting?”

As I stood there and made inner preparations to try to paint what I could not or would not a moment before, I saw myself stepping across a threshold and into a vast dark unknown space. According to Cassou (1996), “in creative painting the defining moment is when you face the fertile white void. Your openness and your courage to step into that void with the spirit of exploration are all that matter.” As I saw myself stepping into the void, I realized I was at a momentary edge in my painting, and that I was doing a kind of inner work to help me get over that edge. As I reflected on this inner process, I came to see the experience of venturing into the unknown in my paintings as parallel to the process of crossing edges and identifying with secondary processes. As time went on, I began to use this inner work more and more whenever I reached an edge while painting.

Over time, the experiential painting and Process Work approaches merged within me and influenced my creative process. They both use second or sentient attention to notice subtle signals, impulses, and tendencies arising from the internal and external environments. By adjusting my attention and awareness to something outside of ordinary perception, I lean into signals and sensations that are sometimes only barely there, barely detected. When I tune in to a sense of something unformed, I use a sense modality that I cannot describe. I am sensing something. I practice this in a spirit of discovery, not knowing what will come next but trusting that something will come. I look for my secondary experiences (what is momentarily denied, mysterious, or disavowed) and invite them into my painting.

Sometimes, I am not able to stay in this flow, and I flounder as my mind tries to take control of what is happening. In these moments, I try to paint something instead of just noticing what is happening. My energy drops, and the painting process feels flat, dry, boring. When I notice this happening, I take it as a cue to return to sensing. I listen or feel for what is at the edges of my awareness, for some flirt or micro tendency that I have not fully noticed. I allow time to feel into the edge I am at and to imagine the unknown beyond it. Once my awareness engages with this moment, I reconnect to an impulse that carries me over the edge, and I continue to paint with restored energy, clarity and freedom.

When I paint, I use awareness skills honed in my Process Work training to follow and unfold the creative process and to think about what is happening. I often sense subtle impulses or tendencies in the visual, proprioceptive, or movement channels and use these to guide my brush strokes. I feel a tendency to move in energetic or delicate ways, I notice a color or brush that flirts with me. I sink into the sensuous smoothness of the paint or delight in the rhythm of the bristles dancing on the paper. I become aware that different elements of the painting are somehow related to one another, and at times, I sense a resonance between world issues in the themes or figures painted. If I pay attention to these subtleties and recognize these sensations, they can guide my creative process. If taken too literally, these dreaming elements recede and my consensus reality-oriented mind takes over the process. Walking the line between awareness of subtle dreaming tendencies and perceptions that may freeze the flow is like a meditation practice that teaches you to notice and let thoughts pass while turning your attention to the spaces between them.

I don’t usually start with an intention to paint something explicit. Instead, I take a moment to look at the paints, brushes, and paper and to become aware of my inner mood and the momentary atmosphere and feelings present but perhaps not yet fully recognized. Then, I pick up a brush and dip it into a color that stands out to me. Painting begins with noticing and following a flirt, an impulse toward a color, a brush, and the mystery of the blank page. Each stroke of paint to paper has an energy and quality of its own, of its momentary expression. One color follows another. One flirt follows the next, until something unexpected emerges.

As I begin to attend to the subtle impulses inside myself, and sense the atmosphere of the painting and process, I tend to step out of my ordinary, waking consciousness and into a more altered state. Charles Tart (1972), a pioneer of transpersonal psychology, defined an altered state of consciousness as being relative to an individual’s subjective experience of their normal state of consciousness. Amy Mindell similarly describes an altered state as “any state that is different from the one with which we normally identify” (2005, p.154). When I paint and follow the flow of the creative process, I am not in my normal state of consciousness. I tend to be a calm and rational person in my daily life, but when I paint, I often experience a chaotic, high-energy rush. I put paint down freely in the early stages, and my movements and brush strokes are often big or fast. I apply many colors quickly and there is a feeling of flowing and flying with the paint. My rational mind becomes quiet, and I feel open to the mystery and irrationality of the process.

“A basic Process Work concept is that everything we need is here right now; it lies in following the details of your own awareness. Simply notice what you are experiencing and follow it” (Mindell, 2005, p. 223). When I paint, I follow the details of my awareness and notice sensory-grounded signals. I follow something that I hear, feel, see, or sense moving within or around me, and then I help these experiences to unfold by amplifying them and discovering their hidden messages. When I’m painting and following signals, I am sometimes drawn to make the same movement over and over, or there may be lines within a brush stroke that catch my eye and call for more amplification. I start to see things in the paint; the way one color runs over another, the curve of a line or space. I catch the gist of aspects of things, temporarily named, but yet unknown. I notice figures, elements, or a specific image starting to emerge – a hand, a body, a cave, a tree. Over time, aspects of the painting call to me or catch my attention and I am drawn to refine or add particular shapes, colors, lines, or elements.

I am aware of scanning and sorting the signals and sensations that I am attending to. I follow impulses, apply paint, and then something coalesces or a directional pull can be felt. At times, this emergence is an image, but early in the painting, it is often more diffuse – a feeling or association to a color or pattern. Samkhya (one of the 6 schools of classic Indian philosophy) describes two kinds of perceptions: indeterminate (nirvikalpa) perceptions and determinate (savikalpa) perceptions. “Indeterminate perceptions are merely impressions without understanding or knowledge. They reveal no knowledge of the form or the name of the object. There is only external awareness about an object. There is cognition of the object, but no discriminative recognition.” I would describe the sensing aspect of my creative process as similar to indeterminate perception.

Then there is a transition, and something is recognized or named in my mind. I see a figure or an element comes more strongly into focus, and I suddenly know something about what is happening and the pace slows as I attend to this emerging but not yet defined pattern. Long periods of time pass as my inner body senses, the paints, the movement of paint, the brush strokes, and the painting itself all form a continuous flow of experience. I am immersed in the process, and my awareness is absorbed in something I cannot describe in words. I am “sensing” something, using sentient awareness. The room I am in, other people, and external sounds are barely noticed.

As the painting progresses, I am drawn to amplify shapes or ornament an image or area that I have painted. A certain part of the painting feels darker or lighter, or it is coming out or going in. Things are happening, and I search the painting and myself for signals, flirts, and clues to follow. Elements of the painting may be revealed or appear in a random, unpredictable order. I feel as if I am simultaneously moving in a direction and moving without direction. I sense a figure and feel into its position, location, and relationship to other aspects of the painting.

Edges may show up in my process as judgments, strong emotions, or beliefs about how the painting looks, its contents, composition, etc. “Edges may come up at various points in the amplification and unfolding process, such as letting go of experiences in occupied channels, or moving into experiences in unoccupied channels” (Diamond & Jones, 2004, p. 126). When I get to the edge of my known experience, I can feel suddenly stuck, lethargic, bored, distracted, unsatisfied, or disinterested. My mind starts making judgments: “It looks good. It looks bad. There is too much black. I have ruined it.” Sometimes I cross an edge with carefree abandon and sometimes I cross it haltingly and with tears. If I really like all or part of what I’ve painted, I may not want to go on. Then, I find myself staring at the work for extended periods and not painting. Other times, I want to go further but loose connection with a sense of freedom, get stalled, and don’t know what is next.

In these difficult and edgy moments, finding the last thing that had vitality or going further with a denied dot, dab, line, or color helps restore momentum. Similar to Process Work interventions that return to the edge when the process suddenly becomes stagnant or loses energy, returning my focus to impulses that I may be overlooking or avoiding gives me a sense of where to begin again. I may notice an urge to add in color and detail or to layer in another element or figure. Allowing for the possibility that I may “ruin” or radically alter the painting helps me detach in the moment, jump over my fear, and fall into the unknown by boldly risking the next brush stroke. And once I move into this unknown realm, once I have crossed the edge, I find myself effortlessly following some subtle and indescribable path again.

I describe experiential painting as a meditation focused on following the arising creative impulse. That impulse could be a line, a dot, a color, a movement, a feeling, or an irrational idea or perception. Sometimes, the tendency or impulse is barely perceptible, and I can only sense into the brush stroke or color hesitantly, moving slowly, letting my hand and eye resonate with something emergent in my awareness but unformed. Sometimes the spirit of the moment is carefree and loose, and I boldly jump into the colors, movements, and sensations while applying the paint to paper. In these moments, impulses come rapidly, and reflections on color, shape, and proportion become unimportant. I am taken by the momentum, by the altered state that pours through me and carries me and the painting forward. I continue in this way until I sense the painting is complete, until I am satisfied that no more parts of the painting are calling to me, or until I run out of time. Not all paintings are completed; not all of them reach a point where a feeling of satisfaction and completeness is achieved. Some are left for another day or are simply left unfinished.

Cindy Trawinski
May 2011