Light and dark

When you begin to paint intuitively, you inevitably spend a fair amount of time worrying about how your paintings look. At first you may want to paint safe little pictures, maybe abstracts or geometric shapes, anything that won’t reveal too much of you. But at some point, you find that the complete permission to paint anything draws you toward the imagery of your deepest fears. Demons, monsters. Blood and guts. Penises and other body parts.

I remember, early on, painting a car accident, with me spread out on the ground, dazed and bloody, and a strange little man behind the wheel of the car. The supposedly violent imagery felt so peaceful, so freeing. That is one of the many paradoxes of painting in this way.


The intense imagery that arises can be a little intimidating to the beginning painter, especially if s/he sees the more experienced painters painting knives, sex organs, skeletons, and blood. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an agenda here, that the teachers encourage the darker images and discourage the lighter side of life—the flowers and sunsets and rainbows. Conversely, a woman walked out in the middle of a painting workshop because she believed the studio’s agenda was to train “visionary painters.” I knew she had noticed my painting, which happened to include some intense blue-winged angels and flames and otherworldly swords. So I laughed a little at being thought of as “visionary.” The next day I could be back to painting bloody knives, and then how would she classify me?

Allowing this personal, often surprising imagery to come out can also be scary to those who are on a spiritual path and have certain preconceived ideas about what that means. It’s tempting to want to “go toward the light,” thinking only positive thoughts and painting only positive images. But I’ve learned that it’s meaningless to go toward the light when all you have is a mental concept of what the light is. The mind has a strong hold on us, but its tyranny can be shaken by repeatedly circumventing it and relying instead on a deeper source of understanding. You may want to paint something deep, beautiful, mysterious, and spiritual. But if you get profound satisfaction out of painting what you fear, something will open up inside you and will take you to the depth, beauty, mystery, and spirit you seek. If there’s rage in your heart and you try to paint joy, it simply won’t work.

And so the journey goes, each painter finding her own sign posts along the way, taking the detours and expressways that are designed especially for him or her. There’s an incredible release that comes from painting the truth, whatever it is. That is the secret of painting. That is the engine that will drive you as far as you are willing to go.

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