As I was painting today I was thinking about breath. In yoga there is a very deliberate inhalation and an exhalation to every pose. I was noticing how I hold, or slowly inhale, my breath when I work. This seems to occur when I am trying hard to do something. It comes when I am concentrating and there always is a certain amount of determination involved. In yoga the inhalation is the exertion part, the physical effort to align your limbs into a specific pose. The inhalation consolidates focus and attention.
Once the lungs are filled, the breath reverses, and we exhale. A slow and effortless release. An unfurling. The breathing out feels easier and it centers you back on the ground. Often, after an intense experience, we just automatically exhale which seems to return a measure of calm to our being.
I realized that these two states – the intense focus (inhale) and the letting go (exhale) coexist in the act of painting. They are, in fact, opposites and contribute to different kinds of mark making. For me, and this is something I am working on presently, having too much determination, too much effort can result in a painting, a work of art that feels forced. The effort, if it is desperately attached to outcome, will tarnish the final result. If there is a subject matter or an idea within the work, a large portion of it will be obscured by the sheer effort that is distractingly felt in the finished art.
“Trying too hard” unfortunately can become part of the subject matter. Like a guest at a dinner party, who incessantly tries to be funny, a painting that tries too hard can be slightly annoying.
So the remedy is to do more of the opposite. Just breathing out helps me. But what exactly are we doing when we exhale? What exactly are we letting go of? I don’t think it really matters but it generally has to do with control. It might be trying to control paint in such a way that it stays within the lines, it might be trying to control any aspect of our life. Whether is it about making sure your art always looks the same, having relationships go a certain way or expecting a business to go according to your plan–it just all never seems that controllable and at best it is just partially so.
Often things go completely, absolutely awry. Especially in art. We take a big breath in, make an intention, doggedly pursue our desire till it becomes apparent that things probably aren’t going to go our way exactly as we had hoped. And then we have to let go.
And this is exactly when something can sometimes happen that is simply far better than we could of imagined. There is something waiting in the exhalation that is better. It can’t be planned and it can’t be controlled. These are the happy accidents, the drips of paint that fall from the brush in just the most perfectly, unexpected places, the mistakes, the hunches, the chance meetings and the surprises along the way. Interestingly they seem to usually come on the exhale. The letting go of control seems to allow some kind of portal, some kind of invitation for wonder to occur. In the poem “What to Remember When Waking” the poet David Whyte writes, “What you can plan is too small for you”.
I love this line because it really encourages us to focus, not on what we were not able to forcibly achieve but rather to open up to the possibility of what can be accomplished when we are not even trying. We just have to let go.
In exhalation, Nicholas
the founder of Art2Life.
With over 20 years experience as a working artist and educator, I’ve developed a systematic approach that brings authenticity, spontaneity and joy back into the creative process.