Intuitive Painting: A Dialogue With Your Heart

Photo by Julie Jordan Scott -

Intuitive painting often starts with a question that can’t be answered in words. In the dance of form and colour, the sensual enjoyment of the paint, the excitement of not knowing what is coming next and sometimes just making a mess, some kind of an answer always comes.

I am preparing for the Creative Regeneration workshops I’m running here in Glasgow, Scotland next Sunday. The preparation makes me think not only about what exactly it is that I am doing, in explicit and shareable steps, but also a little more rigorously about why it works in making me feel clearer, happier and more energised.

I tend to be quite a wordy person and quite inclined towards thinking, looking for logical connections, breaking things down or building them up in my mind, attempting to communicate with other people mind-to-mind. I am not necessarily always skilled at this, and sometimes my attempts get well and truly blocked, but it seems to be a modality that generally comes quite easily to me.

While writing more creatively, be it poetry or prose, can also express things which don’t lend themselves to being dealt with rationally and logically, words are always by their very nature disembodied. This is part of their whole magic and the reason they can conjure up different worlds. One of the reasons we can drift off so completely into these other worlds, say when reading a good novel, is because they remain in our heads.

Painting and other forms of making art are a different matter. They are tactile, sensual, and physically present. Making art involves making mess. It involves making an object that can be observed. Intuitive painting is not representative; it doesn’t aim at reproducing images of things you can see, or things you imagine. It does not aim at expressing or translating any idea that you already have into a different form.

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Intuitive painting for me starts sometimes with a question that I don’t seem able to answer with my brain, and other times just from impulse, for pleasure, from the desire to enjoy myself in that way. It can either start entirely by chance, going for a random colour (although most people doing this kind of practice would say there is no such thing as chance, it would be a choice made by my subconscious, or by synchronicity), or it can start by sitting for a minute with the question, or the mood I have, then tuning into a colour.

I reach for the first colour, and then go with the particular brushstroke that comes. Sometimes it is a slash right down the page, sometimes a playful curve, sometimes I fill the whole page in. It is easier not to analyse than it is when writing. There does not tend to be such an internal censor about painting, unless we are professional artists or have considered ourselves to be artists. Everyone has school memories of judgement, stress, and not being good enough at a particular subject, which are linked to writing, and learning to write is the way in which we first enter the education system, with all the socialisation and directing of the mind that this entails. Painting is usually the fun thing, the thing which is not so judged, which is not used as a means to an end, for example for expressing or recording our knowledge of other subjects.

Painting is just painting. There are no mental habits around it fixed in our culture, the brakes are off. The first colour and form comes. You can paint with your fingers, and squidge it and smear it and enjoy that, or you can master the brush in a delicate, precise way to articulate certain movements and angles in a kind of dance that is beautiful in itself, but also leaves a physical trace. Looking at that trace, that colour, form and texture, the next steps come, what looks right just there, what the blank spaces left on the paper call for — whether balance is needed, or contrast, whether the picture as a whole is looking too rough or too smooth, too light or too dark, whether a consistent mood needs to be nurtured, or whether it all needs breaking up.

Often these micro-questions that I don’t even pose explicitly while painting, but which inform what happens as I put the brush, or my fingers, on the paper, are the very questions that need to be asked in relation to my initial, bigger question regarding my life or thoughts.

It’s a breaking down of the question, or a carrying forward of the impulse, that the mind alone would not have thought up, not without the creation of — and then feedback from — forms, movements and colours. The result is always a good one. Sometimes I carry on and on, in layers and layers, slapping it on, and sometimes there’s just one brushstroke and I put the paper aside and move on.

I need to catch the moment in which to stop. Then the painting itself is the answer.

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