Digital Tools for the Timid, Ink for the Brave

Black ink and brush, 3 drawings in one by Eric Waldemar

When an ink-filled brush touches paper, it might or might not lead to something thrilling, but there’s no turning back. One pauses, settles the mind, limbers the fingers, and then the process begins. It can go wrong, and a lot of the time it does. That first mark redefines the situation on the paper, and the next mark responds to the first, in a process that combines intention and intuition at every moment. Too long a pause, or too controlling an intention, and the poor thing dies on the page. Begin again. In any case, the moment comes when one has to either touch the brush to paper or put it away. In an instant, it comes to life, or the paper is spoiled.

I can sum up the main difference between physical media like ink drawing and digital tools like Photoshop in one word: “Undo.” (In other words, Ctrl/Cmd-Z”.) With black ink, there is no undo, no trying it 10 ways and then deciding which one works best. One has to actually take a chance, and act with the possibility of failing.

As for the image: “Less Than Three, 3, More Than Three.” Someone has to finally tell the truth about what the number three  really is, what it means, and it’s not going to be me. I merely mean to draw attention to the question. Oh, come on.  Really. It’s a trace of a passing moment with brush in hand, spinning out some little chain of rhythm and un-named form. Nothing more, but I like it enough that I’ve kept it around for a long time. The title is silly, comes later, and mostly serves to amuse me (and act as a mnemonic device – oh, yes, that drawing.)

Let’s not get carried away with mystifying the process of art-making, but on the other hand, let’s not forget that when it works, it’s like something fell out of the sky. An inky brush touching paper defines commitment and captures spirit in the moment. If every gesture can be undone with a click, a magic process becomes a merely graphic one. Sometimes. Take this rant with a grain of salt, from someone who uses a wide range of tools, physical and digital.

Brakhage, Buddhism, & the Difficulty of Sustained Attention

One reason I’m grateful for the years I spent immersed in Stan Brakhage’s films is the insight it’s given me into the nature of my own mind. This is also, of course, the central topic of Buddhist practice, and last night after Suranjan Ganguly’s monthly Brakhage screening at CU Boulder, I was talking with Homare Ikeda about how watching Stan’s films mirrors certain aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.

In Brakhage’s abstract hand-painted films especially, each individual frame is important. Though one can’t individually analyze each of the 24 very different frames that might shower onto one’s retina in a busy second, each frame, in relation to adjacent ones, contributes to the churning motion and intricate rhythms that make these movies, at their best, uniquely moving and powerful.

One knows this, that every moment counts, yet everyone who knows this body of work well is also familiar with a kind of sensory exhaustion that comes and goes as one watches. The level of attention that these films require really can’t be sustained continuously for an hour straight. The mind drifts for a moment, and the eye, involuntarily, takes a rest. One sinks for a moment into inward, often wordless, thoughtfulness. This moment of quiet mind is itself a gift, a difficult state to attain amidst the frenzy of daily life and obligation.

On the other hand, one often “wakes up” to realize that one’s mind has inadvertently shifted,  has drifted from concentration on the filmic moment into background chatter. Plans for the next day, cranky resentments, memories, errands to run. The urgency of moment-to-moment attention in Brakhage’s work makes these startled moments of awakening exceptionally intense, even alarming, like nodding off at the wheel of a fast-moving car. Bringing attention back, one is once again immersed in the texture, spark & tumble of Brakhage’s painted imagery. A moment, or a minute, or two, has passed during one’s absence.

Every Buddhist sect and lineage begins (and perhaps ends) with meditation practices that force one, again and again, to become aware of the wandering, chattering nature of ordinary, daily, busy mind. Whether one is focused on one’s own breath, a mantra, a tangka image of a deity, or a rhythmic Tibetan chant, the taming of one’s own undisciplined mind is the underlying project, and becoming aware of it is the first step.

The experience of meditation is related to watching a great hand-painted Brakhage film in this regard at least: One is reminded again and again of the limits of one’s attention. By learning to focus attention on purpose, we come to more clearly perceive our own minds and actions. To get there, though, requires that essential first insight, the realization that one is not actually fully aware. That one can be more so, and that the reward for that effort is, among other things, a richer, more vivid life, all the time.

“Devotees” of Stan Brakhage’s films and related experimental cinema are an odd breed, and one thing they share is a mind that they’ve conditioned by long practice to be capable of sustained attention, to a degree that few outside of spiritual disciplines even aspire to. As with other sects, cults, and conversions, most people in this crowd have a story about how they stumbled in and somehow got initiated into this profound and demanding body of work. I have mine.

If the body is just a change of clothes…

Man takes off muddy clothes. Ink, brush, pencil by Eric Waldemar

"In From the Bog," ink & pencil, c.1992

Well, what if? Suppose for a moment that you’re just passing through.

The details of your personality, your quirks, tastes and preferences, what you look like – these come about from genetics and surroundings, sure, at least mostly. A lot is random. The course of your life is shaped from whatever happens to be going on as you wade into it again and again, every day.

That combination of obvious variables is often what we consider to be our “self.”  Our personal history defines us most of the time in daily life, for ourselves and others. But if you’d somehow been brought up 10,000 miles away from where you actually were raised, by different parents, in a different culture, by some fluke…  What part of you would still be the same? Any?

Whatever that ghost might be, it’s not the same thing as your “personality.” You could have come out very differently, given different circumstances. But then there’s that nagging near-insight, about some fragment of yourself that wouldn’t be altered at all by a shift in time and place. You could change the eyes or even the species, but you’re still there, looking out, going through it all.

The drawing, by the way, was done about 20 years ago, when I was living on a hay farm in Clifton, Colorado. I’d spend days up to my calves in mud, opening up creases in the field when the irrigation water was flowing. (The property’s water rights permitted only a small number of hours of water flow per month, so when the fields were flooded, there was much to be done before the water gate was shut off again. In the desert.)

I’d come in with inches-thick mud covering my whole body, and would have to dry and scrape my clothes before I could put them in the washing machine. Been a long time since then. It feels like a whole different “incarnation.” I’d like to get in touch with Kim Mariner, to get some insight into what that guy who lived on his farm was like. Who was me, actually, at the time.