Art as Collaborative Energy

Photo: Cloudy Sunrise by Cheryl Empey, USA

I re-learned a valuable artistic lesson this week.  It’s about energy and the creative process, when I’m not working in flow.

This is a difficult time for me. My mother – who is ordinarily very strong and healthy – is in the hospital.

I’m continuing to work as much as I can, but some days are better than others, as I worry about my mom.

Two days ago, a client said some thoughtless things, best summarized as, “Yes, well I’ve been through worse, so how soon will you deliver my painting?”

That’s why I chose a sunrise photo (at right) to illustrate this post.  As awful as that exchange was, what the client said was a turning point.  (I’ll explain in a moment.) The sun was beginning to peek through the clouds.

The commission

This painting has been through ups & downs.  It’d look like it was turning out as lovely as my initial vision… and then things would go horribly wrong.

When the paint dried, I’d get it back to the good point… and it’d go sour again.

And so on.

When I woke up yesterday morning, I remembered that art is often collaborative energy.  When the work is created for someone else (as opposed to creating it just for the sake of creating it), I’m convinced that their energy is involved, as well.

That’s been confirmed in quirky ways, in past commissions.  A client will say something like, “How did you know that’s the fabric from our kitchen curtains when I was little?”  Or, there will be some other element that I just happened to get right.

I never take credit for that.  I always explain that, on some level, I just show up with the paintbrush… or the sewing machine, or the glue for the shrine, or whatever.  The finished art is always the result of collaborative energy, so the client gets the art that he or she is supposed to get.

Nine out of ten times, it’s a happy result.  Now and then – and this painting was one of them and I didn’t spot it for months – the result is not what I’d hoped for.  Oh, it’s never truly awful art… it’s just far from what I usually create.

So, I woke up yesterday and decided to work on the painting all day.

At 5 p.m., it would be finished.  Even if I wasn’t thrilled with the results, it’d still be a completed painting.

The day went better than I expected.  The painting looked pretty good at 5 p.m.  Not great, but not as bad as I was afraid it might.  It’s a good painting – better than “motel room art” – but it’s not a painting that  I’d sign.

I hung it up to dry in a hallway we rarely use.  The photo at left shows part of the canvas. (It’s the same as the photo at the top of this page. I included it a second time so you won’t have to scroll up & down.)

Around 6 p.m., when I took another look at it, I realized that the painting is gorgeous… if you cut off the bottom 1/4 or so.  It’s a large canvas, so this could be done, and the horizontal orientation would shift the focus to what’s truly beautiful in the painting.

(This reminds me of the adage of many fiction editors:  When the author thinks the novel is finished, remove the first three chapters and the book will improve dramatically.)

However, at the outset, the client and I had agreed on the painting’s dimensions, so I’ll let her decide whether she wants to trim it or not.  I’m pretty sure she has a specific location in mind where the work will be displayed.

Nevertheless, I’m always demoralized when art doesn’t turn out as I’d like it.  I can rationalize all I want, and though I maintain that the client’s energy is a significant factor in every commission, the art still represents me as well.

I’m doing my best to remember, as Seth Godin says on page 163 of his brilliant book, Linchpin, “When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity.”

He’s right.  I won’t accept commissions in the future.  Commissions turn art into a job.  For me, art has to be a passion. When it’s a job, the energy is lost.

Spalding Inn, Whitefield, NH

Painting something fun, instead

At that point, I had a lot of blue (French ultramarine and pthalo) and white on the palette.

This other canvas – a personal, fun project – needed work in some blue areas, and I thought, “Why not?”

Within three minutes of working on this canvas, I was so re-energized and happy, it was like the storm was over and the sunlight was sparkling on the world around me.

The photo at right shows part of that canvas.  (It’s a moonlit scene, and the white rectangle is blank because I haven’t added a building in that spot.)

This painting seemed to come alive with color and tones.  It’s the kind of work I’m accustomed to doing, and I absolutely love it.  (I talk about this in my post, When You’ve Got the Blues…)

Though this painting isn’t finished yet, it’s so beautiful, I almost regret that it’s already been requested by someone.

Well, to be honest… I regretted it only for a second.

Once again, I feel that this is a work intended for someone else, and their energy is part of the creative process.

It was an important moment, and I woke up today feeling vastly affirmed as an artist.

Since then, I’ve been painting morning sunrises, and I’m enjoying art again.  What a relief!


Follow up: My mother’s illness was, indeed, serious.

And the insensitive client…? Her house went into foreclosure, and I think a divorce was involved. The house sat on the market for a very long time; the client had bought it right before the 2008 financial crash.

I’ve never taken another commission. I’ve learned that the inspiration for the work has to come from inside me; it can’t be dictated by anyone else. Especially when her criteria are for the size of the canvas and the colors in the painting to match the living room location where she’d hang it.

As the late Larry Gluck used to joke, that’s just motel art.

The blue landscape painting turned out gorgeous, as expected, and that painting is in the collection of friends who’d suggested the painting in the first place. They had a personal interest in the subject of the work. I hope they liked it. I really enjoyed the process of painting it, and definitely loved the finished work.