Art and Emotional Life

All paintings are tools to help us feel more fully and to imagine more clearly. So too with this one. It is a new painting I did as a reconsideration of a plein air oil I painted two summers ago on Deer Isle, Maine. It has very stated darks, never hard to find up in Maine. But also two different kinds of highlights- a cool white light on the distant horizon and a warm foliage in some foreground bushes. All three of these differing notes of color produce their own unique personalities. The painting ties them together into a lasting relationship.

Usually our moods are a whole mixture of things, some promising and others troublesome. The state of Maine has attracted artists to its coast for centuries. Probably more than anywhere else on the eastern shore of the US it combines some of the most awesomely beautiful coastline with some of the most awful weather. It rains a lot. When it's not rainy, the fog can roll in and obscure whatever you want to see for days on end. Yet even with that, and partly because of it, Maine remains a fabulous place for painters.

As so often happens, I began this painting with my portable easel set up on location only to have the weather change and I was left to try remembering what it was I was after. You can end up painting the landscape you'd like to be seeing more clearly through the mists. A little like an ink blot test, you strain your eyes and start imagining what it is you think you're seeing. A lot of the subject can end up being simply projected from your less conscious side out onto the landscape. When a painting works well, there is a lively conversation between the artist's interior and the actual exterior world. In trying to describe this quality in words we often fall back on "moody" or "soulful."

I like paintings that celebrate visual excitement, new discovery, and rich complexity. But it has to feel genuine, and to do that, the art also must make room for more difficult emotions- uncertainty, change, and even a sense of anxiety or loss. I think what people are looking for when they turn to art is a reaffirmation that there is a place for all these feelings in our experience. And they look to art to show them it is possible to achieve balance between the exuberant and felicitous side of living and the places where sadness and difficulty lie in our lives. A good piece of art does that. It finds a way to bind together visual delight with more somber strains of beauty. I think that in doing that it offers us great comfort.


  1. Very well said, Philip. Art is so therapeutic not only for the artist but the viewer too.

  2. Thanks Mary.

    Many years ago I was skeptical of claims that the making of art in itself had helped out emotional life. I've since changed my mind.


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