Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “meditation”


"Pariah", oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

“Pariah”, oil on panel, 2013, 12 x 24 inches

My painting “Pariah” was an experiment in contrasts between the extremes of shocking subject matter and uplifting emotions, between surface appearance and underlying symbolism. It evolved out of an intriguing and unusual backstory, and I think anyone wishing to understand the painting on a deeper level than the initial shock value that its grotesque subject might offer could benefit from knowing the story. As an artist, I like to learn everything I can about a piece of art that interests me, in order to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for it. But if you like to interpret art completely from your own imagination, without the influence of explanations, this essay will definitely be a spoiler.

I completed this painting in late 2013 after forming its concept over the previous year of working on my Apostasy series. For that original group of 10 paintings my primary source material and visual reference was a batch of surgery photos “smuggled” to me by a nurse friend who happened to assist on a highly publicized procedure performed by a world-renowned pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles.

The surgery in question was the removal of a parasitic twin body–a set of legs and arms with a partial torso of their own but no head or brain–from a young Asian boy. This risky procedure also happened to be the subject of a documentary produced by The Learning Channel about rare cases of conjoined twins. As my friend explained to me afterwards, “there were cameras everywhere,” and so many unnecessary people in the operating room that it felt like a party, not a surgery. So, she figured, as long as I didn’t depict any precise likenesses while altering and cropping the source photos to fit my artistic needs, it should be okay for me to use them.

Little did I know, the day I first saw those photos sometime in 2011 would start a still unfolding artistic evolution, in which “Pariah” is but one chapter. I’d seen plenty of photos like those before, had often used visceral flesh and blood imagery in my work, being strangely attracted to the aesthetic of their glossy surfaces, warm colors and the soft organic patterns of flesh and body tissue. But never had I as close an encounter with the source of the imagery, nor had I seen photos of anything quite like the incredibly unique and rare procedure of separating two tiny conjoined bodies.

I stashed those photos for many months, looking at them occasionally while ruminating on the themes of life and loss, health and sickness, fragility and brutality that they suggested. It wasn’t until some health struggles of my own necessitated some frustrating forays into the modern medical system that the ideas crystalized and motivation appeared, and with a solo show at Last Rites Gallery in Manhattan approaching in the spring of 2012, I got to work.

Many of the surgery photos had an ambiguous quality that made them appear quite like mysterious snapshots of a strange and very serious, even frightening, ritual. I focused on these shots while culling down the imagery for my solo show, but never forgot one photo that was very unlike the others. Its stark brutality set it apart from those and made it too obvious for the intended ambiguity of the series, but its disorientingly grotesque beauty still haunted me, whispering a vague inspiration into my subconscious.

In this photograph, the disposed bodily artifacts from the surgery were arranged neatly like ornaments on a cloth-lined tray for scientific appreciation, in the precise locations they would have inhabited had they been the constituents of a fully formed little boy’s body. Oddly distorted in shape and size by the parasitism, the tiny limbs–two legs, two arms, a chunk of torso with bulbous intestines splayed out–looked tragically angelic, heavy with dead weight yet still full of lively color and capillary blush.

That loving commemoration of a dismemberment spoke to me more as time went on. It seemed a succinct representation of what a technological society does to its citizens, all of us in some way or another, starting at birth and continuing well into adulthood. One by one, or all at once, our wild traits, impulses, and inconvenient feelings are intercepted, punished, shunned, contextualized, repressed and denied, severed and forced into an individual and collective shadow psyche. Whether done with good intentions or bad, for better or worse, the disassembling is the same. This living dissection is the process of enculturation and assimilation: the purpose of civilization.

The inescapable cultural phenomenon filters down into individual lives, in turn influencing what we do to each other in personal relationships. Friends, family, lovers alike are each cut up into traits, moods, and moments. We categorize these desirable and undesirable, rewarding the former in order to encourage more of them, punishing the latter in order to banish them from our experience. We do unto others as it’s being done to us; part instinct and part conditioning. We end up severed, ashamed of some parts of ourselves while clinging to others. And so most of us grow up with fragmented psyches craving wholeness, wanting instinctively to be put back together again in the compassionate embrace of person and deity alike.

How fitting, then, to use that image for a painting honoring the pariahs in our world, and in ourselves. I wanted to create a visual wish that those who’ve been eclipsed could wear that crescent ring of light as a halo. That the broken could be seen as beautiful in their imperfection. That the cast out, the unloved and unwanted, could all have their day of acceptance.

"Pariah" (detail)

“Pariah” (detail)

I like to paint what many people would deem ugly and shocking things because I believe the grotesque needs to be fully accepted, and even seen as beautiful, in order for inward and outward progression to occur. I believe that each and every aspect of reality has its own intrinsic value while also being a necessary part of a complete whole.

Although not obvious to anyone seeing the work, in “Pariah” I enjoy the contradiction between its subject matter and the feeling I had while painting it. In other words, the unity of dark and light that resulted from painting a child’s severed body parts while meditating on compassion and love. Like the unification of all dichotomies, I believe the intersection of brutality and empathy is a fruitful place. I wanted this painting to be my document of that, and, once the backstory is understood, a map of sorts for getting there.

Notes & Advice 7

I came across this great quote the other day from the duo behind The Artist’s Road website and thought to share, since it beautifully summarizes the often overlooked everyday struggle most artists face: to find our purpose for creating and to create something of originality and value to others. To bring a grounded perspective to this existential riddle of sorts, they remind us of the valuable (and also overlooked) societal role of the artist, and finish by describing a helpful personal practice I’ve been using for years.

“So it is with artists, oil painting artists, draftsmen, and creative people of all stripes. Creating something that never existed before, even if it is only within our own personal world, is our job description. It is our reason for being and we believe that by sharing our efforts publicly, we serve the greater good, despite cultural and economic signals to the contrary. Economic support for what we do is useful, but not a measure of the value of our ideas.

“Historically, culture often lags behind the ideas and efforts of the artistic community. How could it not? Ideas move at two hundred miles an hour across the synapses of the brain, and giving physical form to our ideas need not take long. The key for all of us is to keep dreaming and imagining and believing in our vision, no matter what. We are the privileged ones, whose daring role it is to look at the disparate parts of the world and “connect the dots” into a new creation. This takes some courage, and discipline.

“Fear is the enemy, and fear is the only force that can limit, and sometimes kill, creativity. We cannot allow fears of criticism or failure or economic losses to enter our studios and interfere with our creativity. We must carve out a sacred space or time within which we can be temporarily free of these fears and concerns, so that our imagination can be free to wander and dream. We have found meditation to be a powerful tool for sweeping the mental clutter into the corner so that we can walk around in our imaginations. Our art has improved because of this discipline. It is always the first 30 minutes of any day for us.”

–John Hulsey & Ann Trusty


Notes & Advice 4: Clear Seeing and Accurate Drawing

Earlier this month I attended a 3 day intensive drawing course hosted by an artistic mentor of mine, Edward Povey.  This course started from the absolute  foundations of drawing–clear and simple seeing, lines, and shapes–and progressed by the third day, after a brief foray into tone and value, into a full-fledged classical still life.

While I had taken a similar foundations of drawing course around a decade ago (wow, that sounds like I’m old…and an “adult.” Wierd.) in art college, I wanted to revisit these incredibly important disciplines in order to sharpen up my artistic skills.  Edward taught the course with a combination of classic drawing exercises, and insightful personal anecdotes about the nature of seeing. His philosophy emphasized the faithful recording what we see, in the tradition of “the humble craftsman.”

Exercise: reproduce the Picasso drawing upside down, without regard to subject matter. Simply observe line, shapes, and proportions.

Many of the exercises were taken directly from the popular book by Betty Edwards Drawing On the Right Side of The Brain (which I personally have never read, but can now vouch for after this experience), such as the Vase/Face exercise which you can see here.  One of the most demonstrative exercises consisted of trying to reproduce a complex line shape in exact precision while simultaneously counting aloud, from 50 to zero. I won’t spoil the amusing results of conducting such an experiment by describing them in detail here, in case you should decide to try it yourself. But let’s just say, it puts the two sides of your brain into a major state of conflict.

All drawing consists of, is working with one’s own mind.

The most poignant lesson that was reinforced for me over the 3 days was the emphasis on clear, simple seeing.  Much like a meditation practice, this places emphasis on simply seeing the physical reality before us in all of its detailed truthfulness, without the confusion nor illusion of belief. For example, our mind knows and believes that a human arm may be approximately 3 feet long, but when seen in sharp perspective, the appearance of the arm becomes far shorter (aka ‘foreshortened’), and we must account for this when drawing it on a 2-dimensional surface.  This cognitive dissonance between our belief about the arm and the reality of how it appears on our retinas (and therefore must appear on the paper) is the reason why drawing complex forms with complete accuracy is incredibly difficult.  Therefore an artist must learn to disconnect from certain areas of thought in their brain, and tune into the unembellished truth of reality, breaking it down into simple criteria of line, shape, and negative space (the areas or shapes between/around featured subject matter).  Extreme precision in this task can be achieved with measuring techniques and devices, but it is not impossible to do so completely with one’s own eyes and mind.  It takes patience, practice, and a willingness to let go of our ego and all of its beliefs.

Words of wisdom.

As a painter of realism, this practice is indispensable for me.  All of my aesthetic illusions must be grounded in, must stem from, the fundamental truth of how objects or spaces look in reality, or else their believability will be compromised.  Not to mention, the strength of all representational art in the first place, regardless of chosen specialty or chosen illusions, lies in the accurate reproduction of 3D forms onto a 2D surface.

Subjecting oneself to the rigors of classical drawing training is the most efficient way to stay sharp, no matter how advanced or practiced one is. It’s the same concept as strengthening muscles by going to the gym.  After a while, certain drawing exercises are likely to make less of an impact as they become more familiar/easier, and just as with physical strength, the artist can increase the artistic challenge by adding time limits or more complex subject matter. I strongly encourage all artists to revisit the simple disciplines of drawing as a way to “work out” their skills of observation and their representational accuracy.

Here’s my completed drawing from the final day of the class:

Form & Emptiness, Graphite on Paper, 2012, 12in x 9in

Form & Emptiness (detail). The title of this piece is a reference to the Buddhist teachings on the nature of reality, as represented by the dominating dark form in the center of the composition bearing my reflection, and of course by the empty glass and mug. This title is also a reference to the similarities between the clear seeing techniques used for drawing, and the awareness cultivated in meditation practice.

Realism Techniques 3

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Here are two more quick paintings from my visit to Jeff Gogue’s studio last summer, which I’ve blogged about here and here.

These paintings were executed (almost) entirely in Jeff’s very direct Alla Prima working process, with his stripped-down palette of Titanium White, Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue, and Transparent Orange.

"Extinguished 1" Oil on Panel, 12 x 12 in, 2011

The goal during the several hours it took to paint each of these was, first and foremost, to let the spontaneity and expressiveness of each brushstroke remain apparent, to let the paint breathe in all of its wet, visceral uneven glory. In other words: not turning into a self-indulgent artist and over-brushing everything to death. Or, in other, other words: not using my normal sharp-focus realism techniques or process.

"Extinguished 2" Oil on Panel, 12 x 12 in, 2011. These candles are a metaphor for the passing of time and worldly things, the aging of mind and body. The still-smoking wick represents the fundamental stillness of mind, accessible through meditation, which becomes clear once all thoughts, concepts and constructs have been extinguished. The half-melted candle represents the slow aging and decay of the body, our physical vessel.

The theory behind this approach is that over-working the paint takes you out of the moment, masking the raw emotion that may be transferred from body to brush to canvas, that infuses a picture with a sense of life and mystery.  Emphasis is placed on accurate and efficient reproduction of what you’re seeing: hold brush confidently, make your mark with discriminating force, leave it alone.  As a realist, this exercise is a valuable lesson in efficiency, allowing you to access the ability to commit the most information with a single stroke. More accuracy with the least amount of physical brushwork or artistic manipulation.

Its simplicity is quite beautiful, really, like Buddhist meditation practices.

It’s also quite painful for the neurotic who wants everything to be smooth and perfect, everything resolved and solved so that the final illusion is primary while the physical surface of the painting melts into oblivion.  The working process I’ve developed over the years is patterned after many of the Renaissance masters who used many layers and subtle glazes to achieve convincing illusions.  These results are often dependent upon a process of highly refined brushwork, and arrived at through precise technique, planning, and strategy. So, needless to say, each of these candle still lifes were a monumental struggle from start to finish, as I forced myself to make marks and then leave them alone–moreover, to make “mistakes,” and then leave them alone.

Ultimately, I’m pleased with the results as well as the experienced gained from the exercise. When I returned home and began painting again in my usual manner, I found myself able to loosen up my brushwork to achieve illusions more efficiently. Incorporating the ‘observe, make mark, move on’ attitude helps me, as a painter of realism, focus on committing only the necessary information, more accurately and more quickly. I see this as the next level of learning, after an artist learns simply how to work with paint. It’s the process of learning how to work smarter, not harder. To achieve greater results, in less time and with less struggle.

Art & Life: 12 suggestions for breaking through artist’s block

Artistic blocks and dry spells are a phenomenon that nearly every artist expereinces at one time or another in life.  A recent email from an artist friend of mine inspired me to compile a list of suggestions, based on my own experiences, for getting past personal hurdles and into the studio to create anew.

1. Read more classical literature, or fiction in general. Creativity in writing–describing imagery and emotion through the written word–translates very nicely to mental images and from there, into visual artwork.  Well-written books contain beautiful creativity with language and often deal with inspiring ideas and themes.

2. Read the book “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s basically a big career peptalk from artists who know what the struggles of creating are like. I found it very inspiring and encouraging, and then went out and produced my “Rebuilding” series after reading it.

3. Go to more gallery openings and art museums. Even just a quick stroll through a museum can be enough to fill your head with fresh imagery or new ideas, or artists to research further and thus get inspired.

4. Seek out artists you look up to or admire and try reaching out to them via email or other means.  If they’re willing, pick their brain, ask their advice.

5. Draw from life! All that’s needed are graphite, paper, and an object or figure placed in front of you. Take all the pressure of creativity and concept out of the equation by simply drawing what you see, accurately, efficiently, like recording data, with no importance placed on the final outcome. Set a time limit if needed. And keep it as simple as possible so that in no more than 5 minutes you can be set up and already drawing. Let your mind go while you simply record visual information. It will jog your “muscle memory” and your artistic instincts will activate after a while, once the creative pump has been primed by the physical act of mark-making.

6. Do “loosening up” exercises like painting or drawing with your canvas or composition upside down, working in 2-value light/dark only, setting a time limit to force yourself into instinctual decisions and spontaneity, fingerpainting or splatter painting or palette-knife painting, etc. Put no emphasis on the quality of the final product, simply get into the act of carefree, unhindered, un-self-conscious mark-making. Through this, various exploratory avenues may likely suggest themselves through ‘happy accidents.’

7. Take an art class, even if it’s something you’re already familiar with. Surrender yourself to the teacher’s process and instruction just for the sake of loosening the restrictive frustrations you’re under, giving yourself the positive experience of ‘a fresh start.’

8. Simplify your life—maybe you’re taking on too many burdens or unsatisfying and daunting life projects, leaving no energy left over for other needs and desires, like making art and expressing yourself. For many people, a complicated or overdramatic social life can take over. Not to mention vices such as intoxication or substance abuse.  Learn to set boundaries and achieve balance.

9. Visit another artist’s studio and watch them work.  Imagine yourself in their place, picture yourself solving the visual problems they’re currently working with in their piece.  This can jumpstart your creative and productive mindset.

10. Experiment with a meditation practice, such as mindfulness of breathing or more inquiry-based methods like Vipassana.  Taking the time to clear your mind or simply look deeply into the thoughts that arise can lead to valuable insights or momentary glimpses into fascinating subconscious realms lurking just below the surface of mundane or stress-based thought patterns.

11. Keep a dream journal next to your bed so that it’s easy to write descriptions of the bizarre worlds and situations you encounter in your sleep, immediately upon waking.  The free-formed, non-linear nature of the dream state is fertile ground for unique and highly personal creative ideas and symbolism.

12. Travel.  Simply put, going somewhere–anywhere–that is outside of your daily routine or environment stimulates the mind and the senses like nothing else.  New experiences in different places force us to activate the creative and problem-solving areas of our brains, making the sights, tastes, and smells incredibly poignant to our previously under-stimulated minds.  This often translates into powerful impressions, memories, ideas, and inspiration.