Monkey Mind

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you--your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics. . . and one by one, if you keep painting, they walk out. And then if you're REALLY painting, YOU walk out.  Philip Guston

Philip Guston, “The Studio”, oil on canvas

Philip Guston, “The Studio”, oil on canvas

My head can be a very noisy place when I'm painting. I hear a teacher scolding, "No, no, why are you painting a landscape?” and the artist I was just reading about taunting, "Now, that's a dumb idea for a composition. . .and so poorly executed!" And then there's that art critic, asking me, "Why are you even bothering with that brush? Haven't you heard painting is dead?"

“Mural”, Jackson Pollack, oil on canvas

“Mural”, Jackson Pollack, oil on canvas

The Buddhist term for this internal babble is "monkey mind," and it's an apt description of what a jumpy, noisy, distracted mental state feels like.

The monkeys that live in my mind while I'm trying to work are never helpful. They're just there to get in the way, to discourage and defeat. These little pests I conjure up out of my own uncertainty, can, if I let them, make themselves very comfortable in my head.

Katsushika Hokusai, “Monkey Playing with a Monkey Toy”, ink on paper

Katsushika Hokusai, “Monkey Playing with a Monkey Toy”, ink on paper

Back when I was new to painting, I didn't know about the monkeys, and I thought all that chattering was the voice of truth. I'd agree, "You're right, I don't know what I'm doing. Yes, this one isn’t any good, and the next one probably won’t be better."   But despite these discouraging inner dialogues, I kept painting, and over time things quieted down.  

Anonymous artist from Rajasthan, Tantric image, watercolor on paper

Anonymous artist from Rajasthan, Tantric image, watercolor on paper

I finally realized that, every now and then, my creative work will be invaded by squawking, shrieking monkeys. But if I can ignore their antics they'll slink away and curl up in a little corner of my mind for a very long nap—until the next time a crisis of confidence wakes them up.

Joan Mitchell, “Beauvais”. oil on canvas

Joan Mitchell, “Beauvais”. oil on canvas

Some of the voices in my head deserve to be listened to. There’s the nag who insists it’s time to challenge myself, to break an old habit of working, and try something new. The ghost of my mother, who enjoyed so many activities, from baking to music to sewing, reminds me to have some fun, and not be such a perfectionist. A crotchety old soul (Van Gogh?) tells me to remember that the best reason to paint is for love.

Vincent van Gogh, “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh, “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, oil on canvas

Over the years, I also learned this important lesson: Never let the monkeys kill a painting.

John Constable, “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud”, oil on paper

John Constable, “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud”, oil on paper

When new painters hear the chatter, "That's no good,"  they sometimes abandon what they’re working on part way through. Before they know it, doubts have taken over, more paintings are thrown away than finished, and their confidence to simply try has flown out the window.

They don’t understand yet that doubt is an unavoidable part of the process. They haven’t learned what experienced atists know, that you need to take everything you start to its finish, because you just don’t know what you’ll find there.

Franz Kline, “Mahoning”, oil on canvas

Franz Kline, “Mahoning”, oil on canvas

The key to growing as a painter, to being an artist, is to just keep going, past the negative noise, past the phantoms, and the fears. That's when things start to get interesting.  

After the teachers and peers, the revered role models, and the monkeys of self-criticism finally exit our heads, we can take our risks, and solve our problems. In that quiet emptiness, the discoveries begin.

Susan Abbott, “Seattle Street Corner”, watercolor on paper

Susan Abbott, “Seattle Street Corner”, watercolor on paper

Your comments are welcome below!