Warming Up

I was making yesterday and I realized something about the nature of warming up. If I don’t warm up, I immediately start making decisions. The point of warming up, for me, is to get to a place where I am not interfering with my making. Only then can I allow decisions. However, I don’t like the word decisions. I prefer actions and reactions. It is a semantic choice, but action and reaction allow me to react in every way, viscerally, intuitively, deliberately. When I am warmed up, I have reached a place of trust where all impulses are allowed, whether they are good choices or bad, whether they are well understood or vague impulses. If I am warmed up, I am willing, first, to use my entire brain, not just the conscious, deliberate, and intellectual impulses, but also the sensory, physical, and emotional impulses, even the vague, illusive impulses that bubble up from the unconscious. The feeling is that, through warming up, I reach a place that allows me both to hear, and to act on impulses from my whole self. One could say the goal is to allow impulses from the heart, belly, the muscles, as well as impulses from the intellect. The important issue, from my point of view, is to reach a point where I have lost concern for making good choices and, instead, have reached a point that allows me to act on all impulses, good or bad, simply to, one, be in my own skin, and two, to have the freedom to allow all actions so that I can see what they are about.

Years ago, I had a very good painting student who often got stuck. The piece of advice that I gave him that helped the most was the suggestion that painting can’t be done in one’s head. The possibilities can only be studied, manipulated, solved, on the canvas. Painting ideas and impulses can only be studied in the physical world, i.e., on the canvas, through paint. That means the painting requires the freedom to engage vague and half baked impulses, crappy impulses, in fact all impulses that one has any curiosity about. I often show my students parts of the film The Mystery of Picasso. Students are shocked at the number of changes and meanderings Picasso goes through in each painting. I show the film specifically as evidence that even a painter as experienced as Picasso can’t solve the painting in his head. He solves it by painting. He acts on every impulse, allowing the painting to both improve and get worse, because only through that physical world of action and paint can he see the value or evolution of his impulses.

If I don’t warm up, I fall immediately into constrained decision making, confined to impulses that I can consciously and intellectually characterize. I also tend to bias my choices toward those choices that I think will be good choices. The freedom to go into work free fall, where all impulses, large and small, vague and explicit, good and bad, can be studied has to be fought for. It is not automatic. Warming up is where the fight begins. The warmup is the tool that helps me reach that place of inclusive working where both good and bad choices are allowed. I never decide when warming up is over. If I am lucky, it simply turns into inclusive, engaged making at some point. If it doesn’t, I just keep warming up. If a specific studio session ends up being nothing but warm up, so be it. I can’t learn and grow if my explorations are limited only to what I suspect will be good choices.

Another way I have spoken of this issue is through considering the difference between painting as a noun or as a verb, paintings as objects versus painting as an activity, as a discipline. If I think of paintings purely as objects, I’ll limit my choices to choices that lead toward the resolution of those objects. If, instead, I see paintings as vehicles through which I can study the activity of paining, then my criteria of choice really shift. If the painting is a tool, then I have the freedom to try anything that I might learn from, anything I am curious about. I would far rather learn a great deal from a painting that ultimately implodes than learn far less trying to avoid screwing a painting up.

My point is simply that most of us, when we start making from a cold start, try to make well. Making well is far too narrow a framework if one really wants to grow. To grow, one needs the freedom to learn from every kind of choice. Warming up allows me to reestablish my freedom to try anything and to learn from everything.

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