To Paint is to Love Again, Part 2: What is a Picture?

What I like so much about Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again” book is the joy of discovering a new way of looking at things — everyday objects and views which one is attempting to transfer onto canvas or paper. And the same with viewing artworks — when Miller asks “What is a picture?”, he wants to get us to engage with the art we see in a fresh way.

When learning to draw or paint, the most important thing is learning to see, or, as Henry Miller calls it, to look-see. Learning to look at the world without predefined ideas of what one is looking at; study shapes, light, shadow, contours, and colours as if examining something for the very first time, not knowing what the object and or how it functions. In other words, it is drawing and painting with the right side of the brain — the nonverbal and intuitive one, temporarily muting the “rational” left side. Because this skill is so important and yet so difficult to master, there are books teaching people how to achieve that, with exercises such as drawing images upside-down by doing which we can make the left-hemisphere’s verbal system disengage and the sub-dominant visual mode take over the task. But Henry Miller didn’t have any books, he simply learned to see the way a painter sees, by observation and meticulous studying of the surrounding. Of course, learning to see is not the same as being able to transcribe what one sees in paint (and Henry elaborates on that too), the latter can only come with practice. But it’s the first step.

One of the ways of learning to look-see is looking at paintings and finding the ones that speak to us. They don’t need to be painted by a famous artist or hang at the Louvre. A good picture is a picture that touches us, makes us feel, think, dream, weep or laugh. When looking at a painting, we must, likewise, silence the left hemisphere, forget who the author is and whether the artwork has been stamped with some art authority’s approval, and just let us see what the piece can do to us. It is therefore unfortunate that some people will only engage in look-seeing a work they were told is good and worthy of seeing. This unnecessary filter not only clouds our ability to truly see, but also makes us miss a whole lot of wonderful art, if what we care about is its market value. Also, let us not forget — and Henry Miller writes about it too — that often those ignored, “mocked and jeered on” artists can later become the most important artists of their time. “It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees”, he says, so here’s an invitation to open your eyes and hearts, and allow painting to take you to a place of wonder.


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 2: What is a Picture?

What is more intriguing than a spot on the bathroom floor, which, as you sit emptying your bowels, assumes a hundred different forms, figures, shapes? Often I found myself on my knees studying a stain on the floor – studying it to detect all that was hidden at first sign. No doubt the painter, studying the face of the sitter whose portrait he is about to do, must be astonished by the things he suddenly recognizes in the familiar visage before him. Looking intently at an eye, or a pair of lips, or an ear – particularly an ear, that weird appendage! – one is astounded by the metamorphosis a human countenance undergoes.

What is an eye or an ear? The anatomy books will tell you one thing, or many things, but looking at an eye or ear to render it in form, texture, color, yields quite another kind of knowledge. Suddenly you’ve seen – and it’s not an eye or an ear but a little universe composed of the most extraordinary elements having nothing to do with sight or hearing, with flesh, bone, muscle and cartilage. This is one way of seeing.

Another is to close your eyes and imagine a prancing steed or an elephant on its hind legs. To do the animal you must not only see him in your mind’s eye, but you must touch him, rub your hands over his flanks, respond to the feel of his satiny or scaly hide. Sense the enormous weight of him, thrill to the nervous quiver running through his tendons, feel the warmth or cold of his flesh.

I find all animals difficult to do, even the birds of the air which can be rendered so easily, some of them by a swish of the brush. I therefore avoid animals as much as possible. If I must include a horse, I make him as horsey as I know how, which is usually ridiculous – like two men in a sack.

But why speak of animals? Everything I want to reproduce is a task. Even houses. As often as I gaze at houses, and I am extremely aware of architecture, when it comes to putting them on paper I am baffled. The roofs never set right for one thing. And if I want to give them in perspective, I’m absolutely stymied. I generally compromise by laying them on their sides. Does it matter much? To some, yes. Some people turn their backs in disgust. Not painters. Painters seem to be intrigued by my easygoing devices. Now and then, one will say to me: “I wish I had the courage to do that”, as if it had taken courage on my part. When I explained that it was because of sheer ignorance, sheer inability that I made the houses as I did, the answer usually is: “No matter, you had fun. It makes a picture just the same.”

What is a picture then? Obviously it’s a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Like a book, a piece of sculpture or a poem. One picture speaks to you, another doesn’t. Think how many millions enjoyed “September Morn”* or “Whistler’s Mother”**. Some pictures invite you to enter, then make you a prisoner. Some pictures you race through, as if on roller skates. Some lead you out by the back door. Some weigh you down, oppress you for weeks and days on end. Others lift you to the skies, make you weep with joy or gnash your teeth in despair.

What happens to you when you look at a painting may not be at all what the artist who painted it intended to have happen. Millions of people have stood engaged in open-mouthed wonder at the Mona Lisa. Does anyone know what was going on in Da Vinci’s mind when he did it? If he would have come to life again and look at it with his own two eyes it is dubious, in my mind, that he would know himself precisely what it was that made him present her in this immortal fashion.

In times gone, I used to wonder on finishing the watercolor, a watercolor that has begun as something utterly different from the product in hand, whether such things happen to real artists as well. I discovered, of course, that it was a fairly common occurrence. It could happen to a Picasso. So one. Think a moment, is it so very different, this unintentional metamorphosis of a subject from the more familiar experience of starting out to visit a friend with whom you intend to discuss Bergson or Einstein and winding up in a brothel drunk as a goat? Among painters, as among writers, there are those who stick to their guns, who follow the scent like bloodhounds, as it were. And there are others who sit like birds of prey on some imaginary limb or ledge, ready to pounce on the happy accident, which will lead them to some unknown, undreamed of destination. Each one, in following his native bent, talks a different language. In the end, no matter what language they talk, we get pictures. And eventually, the dealers and critics will inform us into which categories our pictures fall, even those which defy categorizing. The astonishing thing is that those who are mocked and jeered on, particularly by their fellow painters, sometimes turned out to be the foremost painters of their time. Usually they were the laughing stocks of the academy, the ones who couldn’t be taught, who lacked talent, as they say.

To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision. To see is not merely to look. One must look-see. See into and around. Or, as John Marin once put it, “Art must show what goes on in the world”.

* “September Morn” is a controversial oil painting on canvas painted in 1911 by the French artist Paul Émile Chabas. After being exhibited at the Paris Salon, it was received with applause and rewarded with a gold medal but not long after that, when its copies made their way to America, it became an object of bitter controversy. Apparently, it was the publicist Harry Reichenbach who started complaining about the painting’s indecency with the goal of making more fuss around the work to sell more copies (you can read the full story of “The September Morn hoax” on The Museum of Hoaxes website).

** “Whistler’s Mother” is one of the most famous works by the American painter James McNeill Whistler, and is often referred to as an American icon and a Victorian “Mona Lisa” (in a very interesting article, Peter Schjeldahl from The New Yorker investigates why on why the painting is so iconic).

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 1: Maybe You, Too, Can Paint?

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