Labels on sight

People are built to see and then categorize what they see. This applies to all our senses. Research, and observation, support this. Look at how many books there are!

Nature and nurture aside, we are not hunted by vicious animals anymore. I think we get in our own way, impede our journey to peace, by living in the labels.

I want to relate something I was taught by an art instructor when I was a teenager.

I was taking a drawing class, the sort of thing that was run by the county as a continuing education program. The teacher was well known locally, and quite accomplished. If you’re up on your fine art styles, his paintings rode the line between Impressionism and Realism. You might be able to call it Painterly Realism, and get even closer to what his art looked like.

Regardless, he was good.

The class in question was “Figure Drawing,” but we spent more time on portraits. Let me tell you, self portraits are murder. I’d like to tell you why: we have trouble drawing what we see in the mirror.

I believe there are two excellent reasons for this, and they share the same root: judgment.

My teacher taught me, and I’ve discovered this to be true, that you can’t apply a name to the subject of your drawing. When you apply a name, a category, or definition, you have produced a story from everything you know about that thing.

I’ll give you an example. The model for your drawing is in front of you. You look at it, recognize it, and use the proper name. Let’s say it is a sunflower. Identification and categorization occur instantly: this is a yellow flower, with big seeds that you can roast and eat. Other things follow in short succession, if not just as quickly. They grow very tall, and they grow in the summertime.

When you put brush or pencil to paper, you draw the image of your expectations for what a sunflower is TO YOU.

Your accurate, but weighted, judgment has impaired you. You are not seeing the lines, unique colors, position, and shapes, in front of you. Artists call this a “cartoon.”

Returning to a self portrait, when you see yourself in the mirror, it is terribly difficult not to self-identify. I see my face, and I know that I’m James. You see yourself, and your know your name. In that moment, we begin a process similar to drawing the sunflower.

My reflection, and identification, carry the load of however I feel about myself. I see my wrinkles, gray hairs, poor self image, and the man who has hurt himself, and others. The burden of my stories has been activated by what I see, and subsequently, name.

When I put pencil to paper, the cartoon that emerges bears the same weight. I exaggerate my flaws, because I’ve paid great attention to them for years. If I capture anything at all, it will be the hurt my face shows…still, it is not at all accurate.

To render what I see in the mirror, I can’t name what my eyes see. There are only lines, shapes, and colors. These things are impersonal, un-judged, without category, or meaning, beyond understanding what is to be repeated by my hand.

The flower, and I, the cartoons, arise from the same place: what my mind has labeled them.

Sunflower, and me, without the editorial part of my mind, are unknown, yet accepted. I act to draw what I see. I do not act to define.

Peace comes from a place where labeling does not exist. In drawing, there is the movement of your hand, which is driven by your eyes, and whatever it is you see. You are a vessel that information passes through, changing state from three dimensions to two.

To reach that place, there is a choice you must make: to identify, or not. This is as much intention as it is actual work. For us, dropping labels is hard.

The payoff is worth it.

When you feel that place where your judgment no longer exists, you enjoy the same experience that Zen masters enjoy. It is the same as a Hindu mystic communing with the All. You reached a beautiful place that is difficult to discover.

You can call it “dissolution of self,” but I wouldn’t. Why? Calling it that draws story out of you, which leads to expectations of what that experience ought to be. Also, those words are frightening to the Western mind. We are all about the self, individualism, and personal power.

Instead, try words like, “this thing I felt, “I experienced this,” or “I did it.” They are not as fine an expression as simple silence, but we are creatures of words and communications.

Equally, do not judge the perceived quality of the drawing. Those lines you drew are true. Those shapes you rendered are true. Your skill level might dictate how well they resemble the thing you drew, but skill, training, and quality of art supplies, are meaningless. There is reality reflected on that paper, on that canvas.

For a time, you were at peace. You became art. It is within you to experience this.


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