Even if it is impossible to really recreate the direct experience of seeing a painting with only a reproduction as a source, I now believe it is quite possible to create a similar kind of this presence in absentia: to make a painting a part of your life, of the inner workings of your mind, soul, senses.
I’ve started this essay with an impossible goal in mind: to recreate experiencing “The Return of the Prodigal Son” in person based on a reproduction. Sometimes setting oneself an unattainable goal is the only way to understand things which would have remained concealed or fuzzy in the realm of “possible”.
In my case, the result was a clarified distinction between two modes of experiencing a painting. The first mode is direct experience of being in the painting’s presence. The second has to do with the painting’s presence in absentia: the way it changes you and plays a part in your life even when you are not in front of it (anymore). It is similar to our engagement with poems, or songs: quite apart from the experience of reading (or listening), they can acquire a permanent place in our inner space. They live there, mostly below the threshold of consciousness, but surfacing from time to time.
My last direct experience of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” happened about twenty years ago, but its unwavering presence within this weird thing called “me” has been influencing my life in a myriad of subtle ways. And this presence has been strong enough to work its way to the very centre of my consciousness this year, and to take over a huge chunk of my life over these last few months. This ongoing encounter is far from over, and this time I only had reproductions to work with. But I am sure that this work will imbue this painting’s life in my inner space, its presence in absentia, with more power and vitality than it has ever had before.
Even if it is impossible to really recreate the direct experience of seeing a painting with only a reproduction as a source, I now believe it is quite possible to create a similar kind of this presence in absentia: to make a painting a part of your life, of the inner workings of your mind, soul, senses. And this painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, is doubtlessly worth the effort it takes, because it creates an incredibly powerful sensory “anchor” for the deepest and most meaningful inner experiences the human condition has to offer: moments of deep stillness and unconditional love. It gives you a powerful way to access a “peak experience” whenever you want or need it.
But just looking at a reproduction is certainly not enough to create such an anchor. A more active participation in the encounter is needed, and the remainder of this essay contains some suggestions of activities, or practices, I find most helpful in this case.
This set of practices invokes the intrinsic connection between emotional and mental states, on the one hand, and bodily postures and gestures, on the other.
We use this knowledge (although often unconsciously) to guess other people’s feelings, and a painting filled with realistic life-size figures brings this intuitive knowledge into play. The viewer infers the inner states from the depicted body postures and facial expressions, in the same as they would when seeing real people. Except there are no “real people” here; it’s all just a clever arrangement of paint on canvas. Standing in front of the painting, you are the (only) one actually experiencing all these feelings and mental states.
This effect is unavoidably weakened when we look at a small reproduction, but there are things we can do to strengthen it for ourselves, to experience this connection almost as though we were seeing the original.
- One possibility is fairly straightforward — just try and replicate the character’s postures with your own body, one by one, as though you were enacting the scene. As you embody a character, witness the change in your own inner state.
- If you’d rather draw than act, there are also so called gesture drawings. A gesture drawing isn’t meant to depict a gesture (or a pose) as it looks, “objectively”. Instead, you use your imagination to identify with a figure, feel the bodily gesture subjectively, as through from “inside”, and express this feeling through a drawing gesture, through the movement of your pencil (or pen, or charcoal) across paper. It is supposed to be a very quick drawing, no more than half a minute, probably less. And one doesn’t need any drawing skills for that: just don’t overthink it and let your hand express the subjective sensation of the pose.
- There is also a somewhat more abstract (and simultaneously more direct) approach: try and embody the painting as a whole (not any figure in particular). Just stand up and make a gesture, or find a pose, as though you were this painting. Again, don’t overthink it — it’s not about thinking, its about enriching the sensory experience. Just ask your body to express the painting, and witness its response. This may seem childish and counterintuitive, but this practice can provoke a deepened insight into the painting in you (and of course, one can also make a gesture drawing of the painting as a whole).
Geometry of stillness
Quite apart from the realistic effect of a painting, it also affects our senses on a more abstract level — as an arrangement of lines, geometrical figures, interplay of light and dark areas.
It might seem that this aspect of a painting is most fully preserved in a reproduction — it is much easier to reproduce faithfully than colour. But one and the same geometrical arrangement creates distinctly different experiences depending on its size (especially depending on its size relative to the human body).
The underlying abstract geometry of this painting plays a pivotal role in creating the experience of stillness, of a single moment expanding into eternity. How does this happen?
I think the best way to enrich this experience is to try and figure this out for yourself, but here is one example of what I am talking about.
An essential component of this composition is the huge symmetrical triangle on the left, enclosing the father and the son. In the three-dimensional (illusionary) pictorial space, it is a pyramid, standing firmly on the ground. Were a pyramid of this size and shape standing in front of you, you wouldn’t expect it to move. In fact, it would be hard to shift even if you tried to. (For the sake of contrast, imagine a painting designed around a similar-sized pyramid, but upside down (standing on one of its apexes): this would create the impression of extreme instability, of something just about fall down, not even remotely likely to stand still.)
This is just one of several elements of the painting’s abstract design that co-create the impression of stillness. What else is there?
It helps to make some simple structural sketches of the painting: just the geometry, no realistic details. Pay attention to the major vertical and horizontal divisions of the picture plane, sizes and shapes of its major areas, relative distances between important areas, for example, between the six faces (if you only see five faces, zoom in on the dark area in the upper right corner).
The colour of love
A painting’s colour arrangement is completely harmonious if all its colours, if mixed together, would give a shade of grey. This means all the hues of the visible spectrum are present in equal measure, and the eye has nothing to seek outside the picture plane.
What do you think: is this painting completely harmonious in this sense?
Of the three primary colours (red, yellow, and blue), only red is present here in its pure form and with full intensity. Yellows are subdued, and there is no visible blue. But this doesn’t mean that blue isn’t there: without a blue component, there could be no black, no silver, no skin tones. Although red is doubtlessly a dominant note in this harmony, it is counterbalanced by the surrounding darkness.
Here are two suggestions for understanding (or rather, for sensing) how colour works in this painting:
- Zoom in and try to find all reds, and examine how see how they are distributed around the picture plane. The father’s cloak is the obvious “centre” of red, but you will have zoom in to discover all other patches and hints of red. Pay attention to how they spread across the prodigal son’s body and face.
- Create a colour chart of the painting (with paints, pencils, pens, or even in some computer program). Here is a description of how to do that. If you do this with paints, a good idea is to try and limit yourself to primary colours — it will give you a better understanding of how this colour harmony is created.
If you try all or any of my suggestions, please tell me about your experiences in the comments section! I would really love to learn how they work for you…