IN THE BEGINNING
My regular readers, friends, colleagues and clients know that I believe all artistic outpouring to come from the same well-spring of creativity.
It doesn't matter whether you are a film-maker, a poet, a painter, a musician or an actor. In every case, what is being channelled is the same human, spiritual core. I am deeply interested in how artists of any kind approach their 'canvas', be it a physical or a metaphorical one.
I have recently been watching the 2015 documentary “Listen To Me Marlon”, a compelling and engrossing portrait of the actor and activist Marlon Brando. The film utilises many hours of audio material recorded by him at various points in his life, some of which were made under hypnosis. Brando comes across as a deep and beautiful soul.
Reading about Brando, I was particularly fascinated to learn that he would often chat on set to cameramen and other personnel about their weekends and other ephemera, even after the director had called for action. Brando felt that, only once he could begin the dialogue with the same naturalness as that casual conversation, was he ready to commence the scene.
I need to be in a similar mental state when I begin a painting. Preconception and premeditation are thrown out of the window on every occasion when I start. Frequently, I am not even looking at the canvas when I make the first mark; I liken the gesture to opening a door, whether violently or gingerly. I am reminded of the magical realm into which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter when they open the wardrobe door in CS Lewis's 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'.
My incomparable piano teacher, Peter Feuchtwanger, taught his students that movements at the keyboard should never be premeditated, or tension would set in. He recounted how the legendary pianist Clara Haskil, when beginning to play, would make the listener feel that the piece had not 'begun', but that it had always been there, that “nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.”
In a similar way, Marlon Brando's dialogue on set flowed out of his casual conversation, as if it had always been there.
There is no starting-pistol in the making of Art. A drop of dew or melting snow can fall off a leaf neither too early nor too late. The other day, I went into the studio to approach work on a fresh canvas in the series of small paintings on which I am currently engaged. In the usual way, my arm uttered the first gestures, unfettered, and I was not displeased with the results; indeed the canvas still hangs there, awaiting the next move when the moment is right.
Suddenly, after producing those marks, my eye was drawn to a shelf in the studio which was full of a lot of rubbish. I found myself tearing aside this years-old detritus to find a very small, forlorn and forgotten square canvas on which I had begun work, at a guess, some twelve years ago. It had been abandoned, unsatisfied and unsatisfying until I remember picking it up again some years later, revisiting it briefly but again failing to establish a connection. Since then it had languished on the shelf, with only spiders for company.
When I picked it up this week however, things were entirely different. I immediately sensed a hitherto unrecognised, crackling energy in this tiny, grimy canvas. Feverishly, I dusted it down and engaged myself with it, eschewing any thought or preparation, completing the painting in one sitting.
A SCENT OF NIGHT - Haydn Dickenson (2022)
For me, the process of painting is akin to a state of self-hypnosis; but that is a subject for another article in which the spirit of Brando may once again be invoked.