Recently, I was given a gift to attend a two-day workshop with a master painter, Jeffrey T. Larson, who paints in a realistic style.
He started out by instructing us to “first hit the precise high and low notes”, match colors with the strongest or weakest elements in the image, then work the gradients in between. This breaks down the painting into pixels making it less likely to get lost in the small details to begin with.
The discussion he presented also flowed along with his understanding that he will never be able to capture the exact image. His painting will always be a series of unique gestures or “mistakes” as he said.
How often whatever is seen is already changing, I thought. The next thing he mentioned was the fact that the skylight overhead was already presenting a new reflection as the day passes.
We watched as he started with a blank canvas, adding bright colors and alternating with the darkest areas. It appeared to me his notes were perfect, his vision excellent. I innocently asked him, “Do you have perfect vision?” Everyone laughed. I was thinking about how I have glasses and bifocals and he did not wear glasses and appeared to have perfect vision for his task.
It occurred to me as I sat there aware of the breath, breathing in and out, that the high notes or low points in the body are also being understood and that with awareness the gradients of feeling or leaning in any direction are happily understood. Each stroke is like each breath as one tunes into the rising or falling of the abdomen.
Jeff continued to gently repeat, “just hit the main notes, then you can move on later.” This clarity of purpose is also clear in the first jhana: just focus on the breath, then when you have ascertained what is mind and what is body, you will see cause and effect, and on and on.
Our assignment was to paint a turnip. Using a small case of old paints I picked up twenty years ago at an estate sale for a dollar, I selected primary colors, mixing them to match the purple note, the shadow gray, etc. My palate became full of various spots of mixed colors. I wondered as I stirred: what is the right note? I glanced back and forth from the sitting turnip to my canvas. Hmm, I compared the turnip color to the colors on my palate trying many times to match the color.
Jeff came along at the end of the day, and gently picked up my brush, and in a few minutes put each high point and each low point on the canvas. He put bare white right where it needed to be, dark purple, a mustard yellow, and jet black on the bottom. He quietly handed my brush back to me, and I humbly understood him.
I’ve followed instructions in meditation, but wasn’t getting how to paint until he showed me: First things first.
After working all afternoon, I could see what a skill it is to understand color, mix colors, and stand there all day putting dabs of paint on a canvass. How does one learn this except by practice? Can one allow the information to pass through and see clearly? Yes, but the stirring and mixing takes time and practice. The application of the brush stroke and how to blend precisely takes experience.
It was much simpler to sit back and look around the room at all of the people painting in silence and see the changing colors in each person bending toward their palate, squinting, and leaning toward their canvass dabbing on a small spec of paint.
I pulled up a chair and sat watching. The eye organ meets light and it passes through a tiny place inside the head, which separates it out into gradients. How wonderful. The empty canvas of the eye organ meeting with awareness already paints everything in total perfection. With that noticing, equanimity arises and there is just seeing the hand, the knee, all the colors in perfect flowing union.
The entire world is a canvas.