Right off the bat, here, I have an admission: I’m kind of an insecure person. (Though a lot less insecure than I was even just a few years ago.) I’m healthiest when I’m not around so many people, comparing myself to them, getting drawn into the dramas and the trends and the lingo and the petty concerns. So I know how to conduct myself around Gods and spirits… not so much around other humans. Even – especially – polytheist humans.
But I’m in the desert right now, visiting a grandmother. For some reason, going to the desert makes me feel clean, new, and invigorated; it always has. But I looked out the window as the sun was going down, at my grandmother’s marvelous view of Yucca Valley, and I knew I had to draw. So we rushed out to the garage – my grandmother’s a fantastic artist, and has years’ worth of accumulated tools and media – to dig out some pastels before the light changed. (And the light changes minute to minute here.) I drew the mountains and the sky, but I wound up accidentally using oil pastels instead of chalk! Well, OK, dig out the lamp oil, let’s make this work.
The finished picture was OK. Definitely not the best landscape I’ve ever done, if I’ve ever made a best landscape, but as my first oil pastel piece, it was good. Afterward the light had completely disappeared, and we moved onto blind contour drawings. Blind contour is when you look at nothing but your subject, and move your pen/chalk/charcoal/etc. on the paper without once glancing at what you’re doing. It takes no technical skill whatsoever to make a “successful” blind contour drawing, but mentally, it’s an intermediate to advanced exercise. It requires a complete surrender of the ego.
I’ve always had a nebulous concept of what that place beyond the “101” stage looks like, and wondered if I was there. Well, no, that’s a lie – I know I’ve had this sense of being beyond 101 practice for some time now, but coming into a conscious understanding of what that means has been difficult to me. But doing this art tonight made me realize that I do, in fact, know what it means.
In art, your hard, repetitious foundation is life drawing: learning to make marks, learning to set your imagination aside and see. It’s coming to know that you cannot re-invent the world in your own head, that objects have a look and a way about them that will always go contrary to what you think. The world out there will not be controlled by your eye or your hand.
Magic and deep devotional practice is much the same. You have your foundations, the building of muscle memory, the swallowing of ego, the widening of your perceptions. But there comes a point where you don’t need to do the life drawing, or the mark-making practice to undertake the 600-page comic book, or the large-scale masterwork paintings, or the sculpture. And when you undertake that work, you’re there. You know where you need to go, but you’re responsive to the needs of the work, in constant dialogue with your chosen medium, and it feels correct. You can’t imagine not doing it.
Some artists can keep going, deep down that rabbit hole, and they don’t need to resurface. But we aren’t most artists! We need to come up for air sometimes, to refresh ourselves, to reorient. Doing a little life drawing every now and then doesn’t hurt – to remember what things really look like is a form of discernment for the artist. After a year of drawing cups from memory and imagination and inspiration, we usually need to re-member what the real cup looks like.
But it’s that moment you both transcend the material reality and your own (very small) imagination with your work is when you’ve ventured into the vast wilds beyond “101”. It’s when you see the fractals of inspiration, the binding threads, everywhere, in everything. When you realize that shadow is not gray, but blue and green and purple. When you realize that skin is made of a thousand translucent layers of blood and tissue and melanin, that the only true white comes from the sun, and that you should never, ever use black straight from the tube.
That’s what it feels like. You know you’ve made it, then.
Made it to the beginning of the rest of your life, that is.