Why Insight Is More Like a Cat Than a Dog

Philip Koch, Bend in the Road, oil on canvas, 42 x 50"

Somewhere the Muse has a sack of good ideas. Capricious as ever, she takes them out one at a time and hides them here and there just to see who's sharp enough to find them. For the artist the question is where to look.

Maybe the worst thing to do is confront a big, blank white canvas and try to will oneself to come up with something. Insight is more like a cat than a dog. It doesn't come when called.

I've noticed a phenomenon over the years that the idea you are looking for is found when your not looking for it. Instead it comes when you're doing something else. For many years I was a serious runner who exalted in physically exhausting myself for the endorphin rush that follows. Running is great for day dreaming On my old jogging route one afternoon I was lost in though when I noticed one particular bend in the road just looked fantastic. Something about the rhythm of intervals between the trees and the telephone poles seemed just right.

The funny thing was that I had driven by this same spot for years but not noticed it, traveling at too high a speed I suppose. It took plodding down the road's shoulder in running shoes to let me see its great potential. The above oil is the larger studio version I did from a 20 x 25" oil plein air study. I like it a lot. Thinking of this painting's origin I try hard now to slow down and day dream, but keep still keep eyes open.

Some years back I was reading a book by a Jungian therapist (if you thought painters were strange, spend some time with Jungians) The author made a great comment. Apparently the ancient greeks who came up with their pantheon of gods and goddesses had a special attraction to Aphrodite (whom the Romans appropriated as their Venus). She was thought to have dominion over art and music, but also love and sexuality. She was nick-named the goddess of the sidelong glance, indicating her tendency to flirt and her roving eye. There are lots of juicy stories about her love life in books on mythology.

There's a message for us painters here from Aphrodite's personality. Somehow our creativity has to follow a sidelong, indirect path. In your mind you have a goal of producing a stunning new painting, but you can't get there running straight toward it. You think you know what you want or how to solve the problem with a certain passage in your painting. The solution, Aphrodite would tells us, lies in the spot next to where you're looking. So approach your ideas by at first circling around them, walking past them and then coming back to them from unexpected angles. Progress for the artist is like a sailboat having to tack to the left and then to the right to go into the wind. It takes a little longer, but it's the only way to keep from being blown off course.


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