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      The dharma of seeing a painting: An approach on how to experience exceptional paintings. 


      As part of the Secular Dharma course run by Bodhi college, Stephen Bachelor discussed the influence of painting on his thinking and how painting could be used as part of dharma practice. As a keen looker at paintings, I wondered how my own interest in painting was related to my practice and interest in dharma. Over the last year or so I have thought about what goes on when I look at painting and how the more analytical approach I adopted in the past has, through a growing interest in dharma, become tempered and enhanced by focusing on the felt experience of being with painting. After a year or more of considering painting in this way, I now look at the experience of seeing paintings as part of my practice.


      Below is a summary of my musings put into a form which might be of some use to others with a similar interest in exploring dharma through painting. I have not listed any particular paintings but I may do so in a subsequent piece. I have posted a link at the end of this to a blog by an artist and mindfulness teacher who has been looking and seeing paintings with a similar eye.


      The suggested exercises are divided into two sections: the first is focused on looking and the second seeing. 


      Looking: The evidence


      Analysis; first some facts

      • Who painted it? Who were they? What do we know about them and the circumstances of the painting?
      • When was it painted and where?
      • Why was it painted?
      • What medium was it painted with?
      • How was it painted – what techniques were used?


      Setting the stage;

      • At what point in the history of the development of painting was it painted?
      • What was the status of the painter at the time of the painting?
      • Who was it painted for?


      Composition and intention: what is it for?

      • What is the overall design of the layout and why is it designed this way?
      • Narrative; is the design/layout telling a story? If so, what story and why tell it and why tell it in this way?


      Holding attention: what keeps you looking?

      • When you first look at the painting notice what you look at and the sequence of things you see. Why did you look in that particular order?
      • What is the main focus of your interest? How did the painter make you look at it?
      • What devices are used by the painter to lead you around the painting?
      • What are the characters (if any) looking at? Notice how you follow their gaze.


      Depth: how much room is there?

      • Many painters create an illusion of depth in their paintings, the distance from the front (the picture plane) to the back. 
      • How deep is the painting? How much room is there for the characters to move around?
      • How is the illusion of depth created?
      • What is the purpose of the depth or lack of it?


      View point: where are you looking from?

      • Where is your point of view? The position from which you are able to see into the painting
      • Why did the painter create this particular view point?


      Examining the composition design and potential narrative can explain the landscape of the painting. How is it designed to maintain attention and engage the viewer? Vary this examination between viewing the whole picture and the individual elements of it. Focus on asking the question why this way, why that way?


      The above analysis could be called an art appreciation or art history approach to understanding painting. It is very useful in making the painting more familiar to the mind, giving the painting relevance by finding points of contact. Just as coming across a broken old stone in a museum with some marks carved into it at first seems like any other museum piece but once you read that the carving is the same piece of writing in three different languages one of which was previously indecipherable, the significance of the Rosetta Stone becomes evident and the mind perceives it in a different way to other stones. Knowledge makes paintings become more familiar, more part of the mind.


      Analysis of paintings can become very detailed and indeed become a life’s work, but for our purposes a simple overview is sufficient to introduce the painting into the mind and enable a comfortable conversation to begin.


      And rather like a conversation, spending time with a significant painting works on different levels. We may be interested in what is being said but bored by the delivery. We may agree with the content but feel uneasy about the person delivering it. In a conversation we are as much interested in feeling comfortable and at ease as we are in the content of what is being said. The same is true of paintings. As we analyse a painting we become more familiar with it and familiarity is as much about feeling as intellect, perhaps more so. 


      The second part of being with a painting is about what the conversation feels like; how we experience the painting. Since we are talking about a painting the conversation is visual rather than language based. The experience is about seeing.


      Seeing; the experience

      Let go of what you now know about the painting from the analysis above. Knowledge needs time to permeate being. To become part of experience knowledge has to become integrated into the structure of the mind, not sit awkwardly on the surface. Think of seeing the painting as similar to watching a movie. We might know things about the movie before we see it, the director, actors, plot line, context, genre and what others have said about it but when we watch the film we tend to let this knowledge slip into the background as we enjoy the movie.


      If the painting is representational/figurative, that is it presents a scene of the world that might have been recorded by human vision (as opposed to an abstract painting where there is no obvious representation or recording of a scene) this representation of the world is likely to dominate the encounter. Notice how paint and brush strokes can make us see a vision of the world that looks in some sense real. Notice how difficult it is to see the paint as just paint. Turn your head to look at the room and any people in the room and notice how your mind interprets the photons of light that land on your retina and are conveyed by electrochemical signaling to neurons in the brain as real things. Notice how difficult it is to see photons as just photons. Our brains interpret the world as perceived by our senses as real. Painters (and filmmakers) exploit this habit to present images to the eye which also get interpreted as real. How else would we see characters in a scene and feel anything about them unless we thought they were in some sense real?


      We have already looked at the narrative of the painting in our analysis now we want to turn attention to experience. If there are characters in the scene how do we feel about them? Take some time here to assess your feelings and what promotes them. As in a film we react to different characters in different ways. The director wants us to feel differently about the different characters in the film and the actors try to elicit these emotions from the audience. How do the actors in the painting want us to respond to them? And how are we responding? Spend time with the feelings, notice and dwell with them. After spending a little time with the actors, turn your attention to the scenery. Film directors use the scene to create atmosphere and again atmosphere is something we react to emotionally. How are you reacting to the scene the painter has created? What emotions/feelings are created? Now let the whole scene, actors and scenery unfold together and playout. 


      As touched on earlier, seeing a painting can be approached as a kind of non verbal conversation. There are at least two people, the painter and the viewer in the conversation but there may be painted characters in the conversation as well. Consider also the current viewer and the original viewer as participants in the conversation over time. Dwell some time with each person and ‘listen’ to them, how do you feel towards them? Compare this with a ‘real life’ conversation with people you met for the first time and how you felt about them, what is it about different people that elicits different emotional responses from us? We often assess the authenticity of those we meet, how much we can trust them. How authentic are the various characters in the conversation you are having introduced to you through the painting?


      A note on abstract painting

      Until around 1900 most painting was representational/figurative and as we have seen the representation of a three dimensional world, in paint, on a two dimensional surface, was the creation of an illusion. The illusory nature of representational painting is one reason why painters turned to something we call abstract art. That is, painting which does not make use of representations of the world. While abstract painting is often considered difficult to understand, from a dharmic perspective it is actually easier to respond to, as a layer of artificiality, one layer of illusion, has already been removed. Through abstract and semi abstract painting painters can create images to which we can respond directly without interpretation. It is perhaps interesting to note that there is not really an equivalent to abstract art in film making. Film is moving photography and photography uses light not imagination to capture images. The only way for film to be abstract would be through animation. In a sense abstract painting is already animated, it’s just that the animation happens in the mind rather than on film. This makes it far more interesting than an abstract film could be. An abstract film would be one interpretation and the person whose interpretation it is, is not us. When we see an abstract painting, the sequence of images and resultant thoughts and emotions are uniquely ours.


      As well as characters and a setting, painters, unlike film directors, have total control over the whole work. Paintings are crafted from raw material, not already formed actors with minds of their own in a world that already exists. In painting there is nothing at all until the painter creates it. The elements a painter uses to create the world of the painting – paint, colour, tone, marks, texture, etc., are as interesting to see as the characters, if any, that inhabit the world.


      A painting may seem static but seeing it takes time. It sounds obvious but seeing a painting happens over time and each moment is a different moment in time, like a different frame of a film. It is useful to keep this in mind as we see. Let your eye move over the painting. Your eye moves over the surface of the painting over time, each moment the image/frame is different but closely related to the frame before. Like listening to a symphony, the passage of time brings closely related sounds initiated from different instruments. 


      Seeing a painting produces similar images produced by different colours, tones, representations. In a symphony we can focus on a particular instrument, say the violins and isolate it from the whole, in the painting we can focus on a particular element, colour for instance. Does one colour predominate? Does a colour occur in different places in different intensities in different volumes? How is one colour placed against others? Do colours blend together or contrast with adjacent colours? What reaction does this create in you? Sense how the colour/s affects your feelings. 


      A thing about painting and why it is particularly human is that the image is made up of marks made by the human hand eye combination – unlike photography for instance where marks are made by photons of light. It is then worth looking at the marks that make a painting. Things to consider; sensitivity, hesitancy, movement, confidence, speed, labour, effect, affect, technique. Because in this section we are considering experience rather than analysis, focus on how you react to the marks, how you feel when seeing them.

      Depending on the painting there may be other elements besides colour and marks that can catch the interested seeing eye and can be explored, but these two provide a good starting point and guide to the process. 


      Finally, although this may also be the initial approach, simply sit, or stand, with the painting; no Intention, no analysis, no exploring, simply be with the painting.


      The dharma of looking and seeing

      The exercises above focus on two different approaches to experiencing painting. But the suggestion is that painting is perhaps enjoyed the most by a combination of both techniques operating almost seamlessly together. At times looking analytically and then dwelling with the felt affect. This is probably using the right and left hand hemispheres of the brain alternatively and in conjunction not favouring one over the other which is perhaps why it feels good to do! 


      Experiencing a great painting in this way I think can become a form of meditative enquiry. Dwelling with a painting can encourage experiences of being. An experience not based in language or thought or subject object dualism, but in wonder. 


      The link below is to the mindfulness teacher and artist I mentioned at the top of this piece.


      Presh Art Reviews


      If you have any thoughts on seeing painting as a dharmic process please do write a comment, I would love to hear from you.

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