A painting’s effect is, in most general terms, a change in the viewer’s inner state (at first, I wanted to call it “state of mind”, but this sounds too restrictive — since “mind” tends to be opposed to “body”, “heart”, “soul”; so I will just call it “inner state” (or I-state for short), meaning the whole “eye-head-heart-hand” system which is you).
You haven’t chosen the painting to study randomly – it must have some meaning for you, and the goal of this practice is to strengthen, amplify this inner state, and to create an “anchor” for it, so that it would be easier for you to reconnect with this state further along the way. It is the closest we can get, for the time being at least, to this place of “inner need”* from which the painting originally emerged. The I-state can be very personal and revealing — you don’t have to share it with anyone, it is just for you.
What I want you to do might seem very simple, but it can also be very hard: just spend fifteen-twenty minutes (or more — the more the better) looking at the painting closely and witnessing all the images, memories, bodily sensations, emotions, gestures, metaphors floating to your consciousness in response to it. Make notes in your sketchbook or in journal in the process if you wish (or do some journaling afterwards).
This inner response is not determined by the painting alone, but also by who you are and where you are in your life right now — the whole store of impressions and memories, your mood in this moment, etcetera etcetera. So pay attention to how your mood, and your inner state, changes in response to the painting. Where does the painting want to draw you? This inner state is fluid, not static (even though it seems a contradiction in terms), but try to connect with it, or the most intense part of it; to witness it closely, to pay attention to all the nuances in their dynamics.
One mental “technique” I find very useful in “synchronizing” my inner state with a painting I am looking at is to try and synchronize my breath with it. It may sound strange — because, after all, paintings don’t breath, but if you don’t think about it, but just try to do it, you may be surprised. It works particularly well when looking at a painting in person: the painting begins to move under your very eyes. There is nothing esoteric here — while breathing, we move slightly, and the angle at which we see the painting changes, hence the impression of movement. With a small reproduction on your computer screen, this doesn’t work so straightforwardly — that’s why I asked you to have a printed reproduction closer to the original size of the painting (or a projector). And if you can go and see the original, it’s works even better.
A word of caution: Even if you love the painting you have chosen immensely, you may encounter some resistance in going into this process, at least that what happens to me sometimes. I believe it’s partly because our “self” doesn’t like to “shift gears”, and such a pause in the hectic wheel of life is quite a shift for a modern person. And partly because this process involves an aspect of self-transcendence, detachment from self (not unlike a meditation), and the “self” doesn’t like that, either… If you encounter this sensation of resistance, just go through it, let it go, and stay with the painting. After all, it’s just a sensation.
It will be important to be able to return to the I-state in the course of your study. If you have witnessed a visual impression from your personal memory, or a particularly striking metaphor, or — better still — an association with a poem or a tune, create an “anchor” out of it, so you know what to recall to re-access the I-state. A poem or a tune might be particularly useful here, since you can always ask your mind to “play” them in the background.
It may also be helpful to imagine that you have a “knob” which you can turn to amplify your inner state: turn this knob on the I-state to remember it better in the future. Note your bodily sensations (painting, after all, is a very bodily activity!) — how your posture changes, the sensations of warmth or cold, etcetera.
It will be helpful to record this inner state in your journal, so you can return to your notes later on. This will be your own “point of reference” in the course of this study.
This post is a part of online program, “The Making of a Painting Masterpiece”.