Turning Illusions into Reality

The more I practice painting the present living moment, the more I am aware of the passing of time and the challenge of using a “still” medium to explore something that is constantly moving. In my last post, I wrote about the “unique present moment” but did not talk about how dwelling there is complicated by its dynamic, liquid nature.

I can  tell the time if I look at the face of my clock. If I study it closely, I can see time passing before my eyes. Over  the months of painting, I am coming to know the view of the pond  so well that I have started to see the moving shadows like the hands of a clock and can tell the time of day by the position of the shadows. This practice has given me a heightened sensitivity to the constant movement around me, especially the movement of light and shadow. I watch the shadows sweeping the ground as morning moves to evening. Sometimes it feels like all that really matters is this dance of the shadows. I know this movement is the movement of our planet; it is what makes the days come and go. I am led again to the awareness that I am painting on this day, in this moment, which is singular and unique and will never happen again.

A couple of days ago I came up to the pond at about 8 am on the first really cold morning of the season and the scene before me appeared to be made of gold, in a new way I’d never perceived before. This gilded view was framed by the velvety dark tones of the water and reeds still cloaked in shadows. It was astonishing! The grasses looked like a Rembrandt painting, rich brocades, just like the sleeve of the man in the painting “The Jewish Bride.” Some perfect and arbitrary combination of factors-the morning dew, the slant of Fall light, the moisture in the air, the falling leaves of the golden willow-all conspired to create this brief visual miracle.

It threw me into a panic. How can I ever capture that? The intensity of my desire and the overwhelming sense of urgency took me by surprise. I felt I was being handed an opportunity but perhaps one that was not even real, an opportunity to do something impossible. How can I paint a moment using a process that takes time? I dove headlong into the work, scrubbing the surface, flinging paint down, stumbling over myself, over my brushes, shivering with the cold. I was aware of the absurdity of this drama, my frenetic calligraphy, my grasping and trying to keep it from slipping away. Tomorrow the rain is coming, soon the Fall is ending … everything will change. There is no way that I can get it, no possibility of capture. I wondered if I could at least make some marks and put down a few colors that would speak of what I was witnessing, or should I just stop and stare, recording memories I could draw upon later?

Why do I care so much? Why do children want to capture and keep in jars the amazing things they encounter in the forest? I observe in myself a thirst to make this time-bound experience timeless. But alas, the clock is ticking and suddenly the sun illuminated the rushes and they sprang to life, called out of the shadows by the light. Cerulean blue, cadmium yellow light, cobalt teal, all the colors that were sleeping in the shadows awakened before me. The more subtle, antique Rembrandt golds slipped away as if suddenly frightened by the shrill brightness. I exhaled and released my grasping and striving. Something seemed to end and was gone forever. I felt out of breath. I felt fortunate to have witnessed the small 8 am miracle of golden light, but I had a sense of loss as well.

There must be a way to show up fully in the present and yet not get attached and feel disappointed when moments pass away. Is it possible to see that golden moment as nested in a larger process that is not so fleeting? In some mystical traditions, “that which changes” is considered unreal, just an illusion. From that point of view, perhaps instead of making reality into illusions (paintings) the painter is actually turning illusions into something real.


18 thoughts on “Turning Illusions into Reality

  1. Beautiful, Adam. We should talk about capturing the moment and what that means. I do have some thoughts on it which of course come from my writing. xo love, Judy


    1. SO humbling yes but isn’t it an exciting ride? I find when I look at the painting later, away from the thing in nature, if my moves on the canvas were connected to an authentic experience, visual or otherwise, something of that amazing moment will be there.


  2. Beautiful post Adam. I was with you the whole way as i was reading it. I often experience passing moments so vividly and viscerally it’s almost impossible to plan things, i get immobilized by the present. Your furious attempt to capture the ephemeral made me smile- I often find myself doing that in many areas of my life. This Thanksgiving, watching the girls and spending time with them, I thought how I knew them so intimately, in the very fiber of my being, but then with passing time and distance- who are these people really?? Fleeting elations, disappointments… it’s all part of this mysterious form and paradigm in which we dwell. It’s a great practice to witness them like cloud patterns floating by. But to not have attachments, I think, is to deny what makes us human. The bittersweetness we feel is evidence of how much we love and the grief we feel when we lose the things we love. xo

    Jennie Oppenheimer 415 601 8444 c jennie@zocolo.com



  3. Thanks Adam – love taking a moment to join you in your journey and while the light is fleeting and unique it’s a gift for you to see…to hold and to share.


  4. It was thrilling to relive your panorama of 8am morning emotions and at the same time, to visualize the change in the shadows, light, the willow and the reeds. Well rendered. You also captured the panic I sometimes feel faced with the majesty of nature, trying to capture it on a flat white surface with brushes mashed around in gooey substance. Thank you for this. I see a book of your paintings with this text.


    1. yes, when in the presence of our subject in Nature there is something totally absurd about the activity of trying to actually paint it right? But then somehow paintings born of an honest effort to do the impossible often do succeed…and that gooey substance is so beautiful…..


  5. This is wonderful and so moving. It’s funny to hear about the time and even panic in the process of creation because the paintings seem to capture a moment perfectly. But perhaps that result–rather than the process–is the spiritual reality to which you refer at the end.


  6. Adam – I just now read this! Your question How can I paint a moment using a process that takes time? and your comment There must be a way to show up fully in the present and yet not get attached and feel disappointed when the moments pass away – are so thought-provoking and strike to the heart of what I’m focusing on much of the time now. The fact that your experience/your art/your life are so intertwined is inspiring. Though I have reached it for only isolated moments – I’ve found when I’m present with full sensory awareness and no thought, there is no attachment, disappointment, or emotional reaction. Love to talk more with you about all this. But bravo for putting this all down – you’ve captured the moment in words and expanded it in so many ways. Thank you. xx Daidie


  7. I also meant to say that the richness of your writing is such a reflection of the richness of your painting – both expressing the richness of your perception. I love “the velvety dark tones of the water and reeds still cloaked in shadows . . .” I agree – a book of words and paintings is what you’re moving toward. What a treasure it will be! xx Daidie


  8. Very beautiful, to hear you painting in words, Adam. A book of words and pictures would be delicious, I agree! For me, writing is the frustration, because it moves through time with a beginning, middle and end that I can’t contain in a single moment, whereas a painting exists all at once and I can take it in as a whole. Not quite the same conundrum you described, but perhaps just slicing it from another direction. 🙂


  9. Adam, my serious and empathetic side wants to tell you that I really felt your beautiful, expressive words, and that I shared as much of your inner life as possible. And thanks for the brilliant, heartfelt way you said it. My facetious side wants to say, next time bring a camera… I know, it’s not the same, but still… Just as you will only have the memory, the rest of us will only have your words.


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