29 October 2012

Music of the Spheres, or abstraction with purpose

"Tiger Rag," a blind scribble sketch plus watercolor by ~runningwave~

Earth to runningwave. Come in, please.

I am on week 3 of an intensive online art class with Jane Davies.  The course is immersing me in abstractions. My goal is to learn how to work with a few art media and tools that are completely new for me, while practicing with other media I have not played with for many years.  It seems odd to say, but these abstract explorations are improving my ability to observe the world as an artist and to figure out improved ways to get what I see onto paper. My drawing style is already becoming looser, more free. I am having less trouble squelching the inner critic voice that wants to critique every mark and say, "oh, that doesn't really look like a tree. . ."  I attribute my progress mostly to the fact that my teacher, is a great motivator and fan of other artists.

I admire abstraction very much in other artists' work, but I never could quite get the hang of it. It have found it difficult to draw from life. I'm too easily distracted to sit and observe a thing for a long time. Not such an easy task when your head is too often in the clouds. That part will take a lot of work indeed, the quick sketch techniques that Jane Davies uses are improving my skills.

Approaching art from the abstract side, I find that my mind always seems to find ways to take a shape or line and bring it down to the ground, the real world. I'm practical that way. 

I have been discovering new insights into my creativity in the past few months. For one thing, I have noticed that my creativity is that it is very tied to music. When I hear music, it's impossible for me not to "see" pictures or colors, in my mind's eye. It's rather like a music video. Except that my brain has been doing this since long before MTV existed and music videos hit the mainstream. 

When I think back on it, music is tied to very important moments of my life. Music and my memory are also interconnected. I know that many people do talk about hearing a song and remembering their senior year in high school, or dancing with someone, or their mother singing to them at bedtime.

I realized in talking to my husband about music, that it's more than just music and memory. Most people do not experience music in such a visual way as I do. The vivid pictures I see when a song washes over me are so clear and so compelling. It is like a little movie, with scenes, lighting, stage sets, and dialogue. If the music is vintage jazz, the pictures are very different than if the music is rock or classical. The colors, lighting and mood of the "visuals" in my head change with the type of music.

Then I began thinking about the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who famously wrote about his own experiences with synesthesia, which -- for Kandinsky-- was the fact that sound produced sensations of certain colors. I was fascinated with this subject in college as a budding art history scholar, but I had not yet sat down to think about why Kandinsky's writings on spirituality, art, and color vibrations were such powerful concepts for me in my youth.  I never thought to ask myself why I seemed to innately understand Kandinsky's concepts of the relationship between sound and color .

So, how did I come to the realization that music and my creativity are connected? Bear with me, here, because this may go out on a New Age limb for some of you. I will get back to the ground, I promise you.

Flashback to last summer. There's a Native American shaman who lives in the next town over. He and his family host weekly gatherings at his lovely garden in a quiet suburb. You'd never know about these happenings unless a friend gave you directions, but mine did. 

As with many Native American gatherings, the drumming begins the gathering, just to clear the air. The musicians then play hand-made flutes to call in the spirits. There's a moment of silence, a pause before the shaman begins to play glass crystal bowls of various sizes attuned to different notes. He says each of the bowls represents one of the chakras in Tibetan spirituality. The largest of these bowls is more than a foot in diameter and it sits on the floor. The smaller, higher pitched bowls are hand-held. The folklore is that the crystal bowls help to realign your mind, body, and spirit. A kind of mental, spiritual, physical balancing, like the way you would tune-up a car, according to the shaman.

When I heard the bowls played for the first time I had overpowering sensations of colors. Closing my eyes the colors got brighter, more vivid. The vibration of these crystals at different frequencies changes the colors that I see.  How else can I explain that except synesthesia?

Since that first time hearing the bowls, I've been back to the shaman's gathering several times. And, yep, it happens every time. Sometimes the colors are more clear than others, and I think that may have to do with how mentally focused I am that morning. I decided to do some research and to take a test to learn more about synesthesia. I want to determine if I really do have it.

Even if I don't, I find that my abstract art is better, that I am more effective at working with color and line, if I am listening to music while working. I made the following line sketch, selecting the theme "inspiration" from a list my teacher offered. I worked to a song called "Alive" by Omnia while I drew.

"Inspiration" emotimarks, India ink and watercolor pencil
by ~runningwave~
Another related discovery, is that I tend to create higher-quality abstract art if I take a long, hard look at the first set of doodles, and see what shapes are emerging. What objects can I see in the patterns?

Music of the Spheres, watercolor sketch with wax resist and collage by ~runningwave~
When my art teacher asked me to produce a work of art based upon circles, I knew that I wanted to think about celestial bodies, stars, moons, and comets, as I worked. The result reminds me of Baroque music by Handel, like the Wassermusik suites. Above is my favorite piece from the class so far. I actually gave the sketch to my friend the astrophysicist, who was visiting town for her conference at the National Science Foundation. I was touched when she said she'd give it a place of honor on her office wall.

So far, my forays into mixed media art are taking me some places that I did not expect. Today, I am planning some interesting water & ink paintings using several wet-in-wet techniques that my teacher taught us how to do in an instructional video. 

There is so much more to come. In fact, this is high time that I make a public service announcement.

Those of you who follow me regularly here at Pull of the Tides should be forewarned. 

I am gearing up for Art Everyday Month, which is a November challenge event hosted by Boston-based artist, Leah Piken Kolidas.  I plan to create art, cook, or take photographs everyday this November and to post the results on this blog as often as possible.

I can appreciate the fact that some of you may not like additional spam and bombardment of electronic posts in your life. I plan to post more art and less words, if that helps you decide whether or not to stay tuned.

Still, I hope that one or two of you will continue to follow along. I love the comments I've been getting from fellow art-explorers out there, and I'm glad that you are journeying with me.

If you'd rather not be bothered, that's cool by me. I'll hope to see you again on the flip-side at the beginning of December.


  1. Your course sounds extremely interesting and very intense - I love the abstract painting that you produced - not only do the colours and textures work beautifully but it has a wonderful sense of balance and serenity. It's been fascinating reading about your relationship with music - I very rarely work without music and I do feel that depending on what I am listening to will depend on what sort of work I produce.
    I'm looking forward to seeing your work for the November project - I'd love to join in but am having trouble producing one small tag per week!

    1. Thanks for the praise and for sharing that you also work to music. I find the environment to make art to be one of the interesting secrets of artists.

      The Art Everyday project doesn't mean a finished work everyday. It could be a bit of work each day on a project, cooking a meal, decorating your studio, snapping a picture. The point of the project is to emphasize that art comes from flexing your creative muscles. Check out Leah's website, seriously. It is a refreshing approach to creative life.

  2. I'll be here! I can't wait to see what you produce. I would love to join you but I don't know if I can keep up the daily commitment. But, I can't wait to see what you do.

  3. I would wager that you already do something creative everyday, Maryanne. The point is to take note of the fact and to document it. See my note to Diana above.