I am crouched on my studio floor preparing a simple imprematura (an initial stain of color on white ground). I am mixing paint with some thinner and scrubbing it into the surface. I have chosen a red-orange tempered by Cobalt Violet, which yields a color similar to the one that one of my favorite landscape painters, Tom Thompson, apparently used. This rather ordinary function, for a painter, is not really art I suppose, nor is it particularly creative, but my experience of scrubbing the paint into the surface is intense and satisfying. The sound of the bristle brush on the board pleasantly thrums in my ears, reminding me of crickets across a dry field at summer camp when I was a kid. The Venetian Red and Cadmium Orange are like fire and iron, like the earth of the desert or the high bluffs of Monument Valley. The colors evoke so much feeling and so many memories. First I put down the red and orange and then I reach for the Cobalt Violet, my favorite tube of paint, and mix that in, watching as it tames and tempers the color and grounds it in the deep bass tone of cobalt. I am enraptured and hopelessly seduced by the experience.
I’ve been reflecting on sensitivity and how highly sensitive I find myself to be. The simple act of scrubbing some color on a board is a substantial experience for me. Watching two ducks swim beneath the willows together moves me to tears. Sometimes my sensitivity makes ordinary family life quite difficult to manage, especially when I’m challenged by switching back and forth between “normal” life and art making.
I am what is referred to as a highly sensitive person (HSP). There is a lot of media these days being focused on this little-discussed category of human, one that apparently makes up 15-20% of our species. If you think you may be highly sensitive or don’t know about the phenomenon check out this recent article in the Huffington Post, “Why So Many Artists Are Highly Sensitive People.” The experts say that many artists have the constellation of traits that define “highly sensitive” and for many of us it is both our greatest strength and toughest challenge.
In my case, this way of being has been further amplified by spending the last 30 years deeply engaged in practices that have systematically increased my sensitivity. Sometimes I feel like an instrument that measures and senses tiny subtle things, or executes a precise delicate function. The more refined and sensitive I am, the more accurate my observations and nuanced my responses. But what comes with this sensitivity is vulnerability. You can’t take some instruments out in the rain or on rough roads. Sensitivity can be a useful asset but it needs to be acknowledged and managed.
Over years of living with this mixed blessing, I have developed some coping mechanisms:
- I turn to music: When I am feeling overwhelmed or unfocused, I listen to classical music, almost always Chopin Nocturnes or the Bach Goldberg Variations (Glen Gould) over and over. These pieces are timeless and they usher me into a timeless realm. In my opinion, they improve when played multiple times.
- I take frequent walks: It is said that Leonardo Da Vinci told his students to stop painting and walk around the block every 30 minutes (a nice activity in Florence!). I heed his advice and it is most helpful in diffusing intense feelings that build up while working and bringing things back into balance. This also gives me “fresh eyes” on my work. I always come back refreshed and inspired.
- I just sit and look: I allow myself to spend as much time sitting and looking deeply as I need to. I might look for ten minutes and paint for two, then look again. Sometimes it is too much to look and paint at once and I need to do one at a time.
- I practice the Zen of the palette: I find it helps to prepare my materials very slowly and consciously. I take time to put paints on the palette and mix my medium. When I run out of paint and go to get more, it is like a ritual that refocuses me and reduces my sense of overwhelm. If my palette gets too crowded or messy, I pause and scrape it down or start with a fresh one. This is not only calming but very pleasurable and it deepens my relationship to my paint.
- I consider and adjust my breath: When I get frazzled or overwhelmed while I’m working, I observe my breath and always find myself breathing in my chest. Bringing my breathing back to my abdomen always helps a lot. I also practice breathing with my brush strokes, exhaling as I apply the paint to the surface, and this gives me greater accuracy or capacity for expressive release.
- I get perspective: Periodically, I need to get away from my painting when my sensitivity to the tiny details and surface gets so engrossing it causes me to forget the big picture. Viewing my painting from far away, looking at it in a mirror or taking it into another room gives me a new perspective which always helps me to remember what I’m trying to achieve.
As a painter whose work is directly linked to the observation and interpretation of Nature, being highly sensitive is generally a great asset. But in many ways, both within my painting life and certainly outside of it, heightened sensitivity is a liability or at least something to be carefully managed. I hope that in this society we can collectively become more interested in practices that increase our sensitivity and that we come to value the compassion, empathy and love of life that often results.