Thoughts: How do they do it?


Last week I was in New York City and managed to squeeze in a couple of hours at MOMA (The Museum of Modern Art). Every visit there is a mix of visiting old friends and favorites, and new art. Every visit has me looking at some new aspect of art. I don’t know why one time I will be attracted to Picasso and another time I will be drawn to someone more traditional. I don’t know why at time Pollock draws me in and holds me for long stretches of time, and other times I just shrug and say “Meh”.

This trip, though, I found myself focused on proportion and spacing. Looking at paintings and wondering what led each artist to just that mix or space and spacing, wondering what would have happened if they had done this differently. How did they know just how to get it just right?

I know from my own experience that every brush stroke matters. I can work all afternoon on a painting and then, with a single brush stroke out of place, or a single color in a wrong place, the entire painting suddenly loses life, goes flat, is ruined. In some cases, you can paint yourself out of that problem, but just as often, you’re done. Time to whitewash the canvas, or cut the watercolor into bookmarks.

What is is that makes something “right”? And what is it that one thing out of place throws all that other good work out the window? And how did these guys know (or did they know?) how to get it right? Was it instinct? Was it formal education? Or was it dumb luck, with lots of trial and error and failures and whitewashed canvases until they stumbled on the right mix?

That same thing goes in any kind of endeavor. A poet wrestles to get just the right words. One sour note and the whole poem is sour. A photographer can shoot a dozen photos to get that one that is just so. A relationship can cruise along and one thing (for some) can end it all.

I suppose part of it is education. Photographers learn some basics about composition – the law of thirds, repetition, contrast, and the like. Painters have color wheels (or at least I do, even if I refer to it rarely) and learn about layering and other techniques that help them build a painting. Poets study rhythm and style and sound. Everything we do has an element of education to it. But if all we did was follow the rules, art of all kinds would be unbearably boring and filled with dull sameness.

Instead, what happens is that people do things. Try things. Take a leap. Experiment. Fail. Play. Tinker. Go wild. Toss some rules and adhere to others. Mix discipline and madness, and come out with something. Some times it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s awful.

I spent my hours in MOMA looking at paintings of all sorts, looking for patterns of what works, what felt right, what appealed to me, and what didn’t. I was hoping I could find something to help me in my own painting. Mostly, when I paint, I am happy with my results. I am more instinctive than smart in my painting, but as abstract as my work is, there is far more thought that goes into it than most people realize. When I blow one, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why? And what led me to think that really bad stroke or color was a good idea?

I never found the pattern. But it was fun thinking about it. It made me look at things differently. Not just in art, but in any visual thing – architecture, gardens, films. Placement. Proportion. The visual slight of hand that draws our eye here or sends our emotions there. And awareness of how much though goes into things we often pass over without thinking.

And most of all, an appreciation for people who DO think about design things. From our silverware (I bought mine because of how it felt in the hand, and someone designed that.), to our furniture, our spaces, the lights in our house, to the dashboards in our car – it was all designed. Hours of thought and inspiration and work made these things happen.

It amazes me how rarely we wonder how that design came about. What were they thinking? What were they feeling or going for? We pass it by and like it or don’t like it. Much as we do with people, never thinking about the journey that got them there.

That’s probably fine. I suspect we’d go mad looking for the “why” of everything. Our poor brains would break into overload. Probably explode. But I find life is so much richer when I do think about those things. It gives me a new layer of appreciation and gratitude. It’s why I can stop in the middle of a meal just feel the perfect balance of my fork, and smile. It’s why I can stare at a seemingly simple painting like the one above and savor it with its four colors and few lines. I do that a lot, stop and just look and think and wonder.

And I always come out with gratitude.

Hopefully, my brain won’t explode.

Be well. Travel Wisely,


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