Mystical Realism has yet again brought me to the easel, not with any particular idea in mind, but with an untranslatable message from the heart. Knowing I will fail to depict what mind cannot even grasp, I once more resort to the subject closest at hand: Myself. As always, Mystical Realism has no intention of dictating a story with a particular message; instead it wants to give form to the raw experience of pure inspiration itself, arising without any reason and without any conceptual meaning.
Inspiration. What is it? Derived from the latin word "inspirare" ("to breathe into"), the meaning was originally a true godlike power, flooding out from the very core of one's pure being. Mimicking the act of creation itself, the resulting artwork finds a form in the world of objective experience, as an icon made in the image of the formless inner subject.
Today, on the other hand, the simple reason you get an idea is called inspiration, the vain act of coming up with some kind of "artistic" concept, or even stirring your emotions bad enough to feel the need to raise your middle finger in the form of an artwork. Some people claim to be inspired by their personal situations, by other people, by other works of art or even by societal issues. As always, when something sacred from the heart is desecrated by the mind, it has made others say the phenomena itself does not even exist. That creating a piece of art is entirely a technical thing, not that different from building a house.
The Mystical Realist viewpoint is actually much closer to the latter view. However, Mystical Realism divides the way we experience the world into two main modes. The first deals with the absolute, undefinable reality experienced by the "heart"; the second deals with the relative, defined existence of the mind. What Mystical Realism calls inspiration is not to be found in a mind of identification, but in the pure "heart", prior to all identification. Inspiration may not "exist" as a pinpointable phenomena in the mind, yet it bubbles up from the very real dimensions of our psyche, beyond all definition and form.
Inspiration is in essence a mystical experience. Taking place in the absolute reality of the unitive heart, it is a temporary loss of the mind's definition of a separated "me", allowing the true impersonal depths of one's being into awareness. Of course, the heart's wordless gospel has to be translated into the symbolical language of the mind. Hence mythology, hence ideal art, hence Mystical Realism. And yes: This capturing in form is entirely a technical thing.
There was a time when all mythology and all art was naturally seen for what it was – Mystical Realism. Mystical Realism holds the view that art, just like mythology, should never deal with the relative world of what is only relevant now, but only with the absolute reality of the eternal in the human soul. If your "inspiration" is some kind of political injustice or social dilemma, a mystical realist would ask you to go write an article in your local newspaper instead of creating a piece of art. Of course, Mystical Realism can't dictate what art should be, which is why it no longer calls itself art, but – you got it – Mystical Realism.
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1. I decide to depict something of the difference between inspiration and dictation, the source of true inspiration being beyond all mind-made concepts and ideas, dictation only being possible with them. To make clear the distinction between inspiration and dictation, I show the character in the act of writing (could equally well be drawing or composing), but ignoring the actual page, totally absorbed in an inner dimension beyond all words and language. The sword is there to mark the sharp line between the two worlds, sometimes dangerous to cross.
The difference has been especially dangerous regarding holy scripture. Is it dictated and therefore literally true or literally false? Is it inspired and therefore able to symbolically point to a truth on a level much deeper than the binary mind? This is why I portray an evangelist, not receiving direct dictation in words, but inspiration impossible to translate in any direct or absolute way. Here the evangelist is aware and troubled by this fact.
Anyway, enough of the dravel. After making a drawing (shown above), I prime a 50x60cm canvas with a red bole ground. I then transfer the drawing using the gridding method.
2. With a wash of mars black mixed with english red I qualify the drawing, using value and shadows. As the ground of the canvas is essentially midtone, initialle the value scale is midtone and down. Before moving on to something more reminiscent of a traditional grisaille, I do apply pure chalk mixed with oil to some of the areas, changing this a little.
The intermediate chalk layers, not captured in the large image, happened on pure instinct, but I guess the reasons for them are two. First reason: It's an easy and fast way to achieve texture in areas eventually covered by the grisaille. The other reason is for creating textural brushwork in areas that will remain semi-transparent all the way down to the red ground. This is pretty much impossible to achieve in any other way, except with the use of different mediums.
The smaller image shows one of the chalk layers close up. It is a close up of the pages on the table in front of the character. To me the texture and characteristics of the brushwork looks a lot like something you'd see in a half finished Titian or Rembrandt. Chalks, marble dusts or other stone dusts with similar properties were readily available. In a time where the painters made their own paints, the idea of using chalk as a pigment would surely have occurred. Chalk also acts as the perfect "filler" or "extender" for more expensive pigments.
Given the versatility of the resulting paint I find it hard to believe a lot of the old masters wouldn't have used it regularly, as it lends itself especially well to an old master-layered technique. Its existence has even been proven in the paint layers of some Rembrandts. When ready-made paint in tubes became available, and more direct, alla prima methods of painting came into fashion, the use of chalks and similar pigments would have naturally fallen out of use.
3. I then introduce some titanium white pigment. First I use it pure and unmixed in transparent washes (this is partly why I wanted to create some of the texture beforehand). Then I mix it with black to produce greys. You don't have to mix the greys to any exact value here. Just as with the white washes, the main gradations of value are achieved with different degrees of transparency (glazes and/or scumbles). At last, I also qualify the form and the value scale with pure black. Notice how much of the red ground that remains visible.
4. Colored glazes! Simple and effective. The value scale of the grisaille does all the work here. All you have to do is apply a flat, transparent layer of roughly the right color. It really doesn't even have to be that correct. In fact, it can't be. As the resulting value and/or chroma will be dependent upon the degree of transparency, all you can do is aim for the right hue. It's actually not more complicated than deciding upon yellow, green, red and so on. The modeling underneath will hold the form for several layers, even if you let them dry in between.
Not to say that is what we are doing here. Instead we are allowed to play with the still wet glazes, apply new pigments to them, make them darker, wipe them off in places, even change the composition with more opaque paint. The only rule for now is that we don't allow titanium white in the mix.
5. The following stages are basically more glazes, making the entire painting surface darker and more rich in depth. In between some of the glazes we will have to put more opaque layers which are glazed again after drying. The glazes and/or scumbles, on the other hand, don't always have to dry before applying an opaque layer. We are allowed to paint opaque paint straight into the wet glaze, now even with white in the mix.
Once brought to a reasonable high degree of finish, what we have is essentially a complete version of the image. But notice it is somewhat pale and weak looking. Multiple glazes are great for creating depth in a painting, but a painting with nothing but glazes over a grisaille will soon look dead and kind of artificial. (Somehow El Greco managed to do it with great results.)
6. The final steps are where the magic happens. It's very hard to capture or describe, as it's a totally intuitive process. Sometimes it's wild alla prima painting, totally opaque, covering all those transparent and semi-transparent layers you worked so hard on. Other times it's still more glazes or scumbles. Most of the time it is a combination of all of these.
In a way this is the most fun stage of the painting. It's essentially a dialogue between how the painting looks and how I imagine a possible end result could look. This imagined end product keeps changing, depending on what I see happening on the canvas. At some stage I find the inner and the outer image begin to come together. Then it's just a matter of adding some finishing touches.
And there it is, framed with some raw boards artificially aged with black oil paint on a rag. I'm still not quite content with the result, but as I varnished it for an exhibition, I haven't been bothered to do any more to it yet. Maybe some day I'll feel inspired.