Painting with Paint

April 9, 2014

Apologies. This post isn’t about abstracting better and harder and more usefully. It appears like my last post was still aimed too high and I’m not entirely sure how to fix it. Instead let’s take some time off and play with some fun ideas instead.

This post is intentionally a little scatterbrained. Bonus points (two) if you can figure out the theme that ties it all together before I get to the end.

I: Painting with Paint

As you might know, I’m an engineer by trade. Engineering equivocates with a lot of things in peoples’ minds, but “artistic” usually isn’t one of those things. Luckily, I know a little more about the arts than your average engineer (having a mother who all but raised you in a performing arts theatre probably helped with this), but I’m still a little confounded by them. Why do they exist? Why does western culture as a whole seem to care about them? Why are they valued?

I read an article recently about it being surprisingly easy to miss fundamental human experiences, and this got me wondering. If it’s so easy for other people to be missing fundamental human experiences, it’s probably really easy for me to be missing fundamental human experiences as well. Maybe a proper appreciate for the arts is one of these things?

And so I dove right in and started asking my artistic friends why they valued their art, and why they thought western society valued art as a whole. In particular, I asked my friends who paint. Their Replies Are Absolutely Startling and Will Make Your Day.

Actually, they’re really not. They’re just about what I expected, to be honest. Painting, for the most part, isn’t expected to be directly beneficial to the world, but millions of painters dedicate their entire lives to it, risking financial debt and potentially living a life shrouded in the fringes of bohemian obscurity and misunderstanding from the public at large. They know this, and they’ve explicitly accepted it.

But, most of them told me, painting is unique as a form of self-expression. It has the ability to make people feel; it’s an intimate bond with someone you might have never met. Studying a painting can give us a unique insight into the context in which it was created. For the sake of brevity in the further reaches of this essay, I am going to lump all of the above into “self-expression”. Not because it’s any more important than the other points just mentioned, but it’s the first one I wrote down.

This got me wondering. Surely painting isn’t the only human pursuit which caters to these ideals and principles. And of course, as soon as I thought this, a few examples came immediately to mind. Writing (both prose and poetry). Music. Both seem to fit the bill pretty closely. While they use different mediums, it’s pretty easy to see that they (along with some other types of artwork) form a category. And we’ve got a name for it: art.

Wow! What a brilliant realization! That’s exactly where I started. I know, but please humor me for a little while longer.

I don’t think anyone would object to my calling creative writing as “painting with words” – indeed, the idea of a “word picture” already exists in idiomatic English. Likewise, nobody would call me a heretic for describing music as “painting with sounds”.

While I don’t know much about painting, I know a little bit about music, and a pretty good deal about writing. I absolutely love creative writing, because it makes me feel like a god. I can create characters and worlds; I can design them in my mind. But I think the mark of a good writer is achieving autonomy in these characters after they’re fleshed out. A strong author’s characters should be believable. Their actions should never come out of left field. The world and context of the story should always be internally consistent. It should always make sense.

And so, as an author, really the only thing I need to do is create well-fleshed-out characters and worlds, and then I’m done. The story actually writes itself. I’ve got a bit of an ability to manipulate things in the direction of how I’d like them to happen, but I’m constrained by what’s believable. This notion of self-writing stories based on well-thought-out initial circumstances is something I will hereby call “artistic autonomy”. I have the ability to steer, but the characters will drive ahead with or without me at the wheel.

Thinking about this concept of artistic autonomy, it’s pretty clear that it exists in music as well. A composer can guide the song where he wants it to go, but he is unable to dictate every step along the way, at least, not if he wants it to sound pleasant to the ear. The composer creates a context, a theme, a style, and he is able to tug the reins of the music, but if he wants it so sound good, there are certain rules of music by which he must abide. Just like writing must be constrained by suspension of disbelief, music must be constrained by the acoustic appreciations of the human brain.

A few times before I have heard my painter friends lament over canvas they just can’t finish. They’re never entirely sure why, but nothing seems to “work”. This strikes me as artistic autonomy as well; the painting seems to have a will of its own that the painter is not quite tuned into. All of her attempts seem to be in vain if she is unable to commune with the will of the canvas.

It was exactly here that I stopped caring about my original question, about why we value art. Right here at the moment of this thought I realized that “the arts” are absolutely fascinating in their own right. My original query had been missing the trees for the forest.



…but it’s a pretty general principle of mine to look at the forest regardless of the trees. I’m a naturally curious person, and having sorted out this mystery, I found myself instead fascinated by the idea of art forms which we hadn’t yet invented. If indeed self-expression and artistic autonomy are the underlying properties of an art form, then surely I should be able to synthesize my own form of art, as long as it satisfies the constraints of being done for self-expression and experiences artistic autonomy after the initial conditions are set. What seems to distinguish the arts from one another is the medium. The X in “painting with X”.

To be fair, our ancestors seem to have been pretty clever. They came up with most of the mediums I could think of with which it might make sense to paint. Yarn? No, that’s knitting. Sand? Sand castles. Chocolate? Baking.

Except for one thing, they all seemed to have been taken already. Except maybe for thoughts. “Painting with thoughts”. Yup, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’d go for.

II: The Ocean of Infinity

Imagine with me for a second that you are on a beach. On an island. In the middle of the ocean. Sounds nice and relaxing, doesn’t it?

Oh, does it? I guess I forgot to mention: it’s a beach made out of boulders. And you’re stranded, all alone. You have no idea how you ended up here. You can’t remember being anywhere else but here, but here is terrifying and you want to leave very badly. Also you can’t swim, but that is because you are a wizard.

Take a little time to fully appreciate that image. I spent at least two minutes coming up with it. You’re welcome. But I digress.

You only know one spell, “wingardium leviosa”, and it’s a pretty cool one. This spell lets you lift things with magic that you wouldn’t be able to lift with your body. Kind of like in Star Wars, but, y’know, more… wizard…-y.

Assuming that you’re a shit engineer (because really, why would a wizard need to be a good engineer?), how do you go about getting off the island? Assume you have all the time in the world, and don’t get hungry. And that the ocean isn’t very deep.

That part is key.

III: Painting with Thoughts

So I might have fibbed a little bit, when I mentioned that all the good arts have already been taken. Painting with Thoughts seems to have been already taken as well, yet there is still hope.

It also seems to have been forgotten.

Painting with Thoughts pattern matches pretty closely with what philosophy used to be, a long long time ago. Philosophy back at the beginning of history, when the ancient Greeks were interested in playing with ideas because they were curious, and didn’t have much else to do. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be what contemporary philosophy is – if you read my last post, you might notice that I have what might be described as “a slight tiff” with modern, mainstream philosophy. To me, mainstream philosophers seem to be little more than intellectual try-hards.

No, instead I think amateur philosophy is what our art form should aspire to be. It should be that feeling of lying down and gazing up at the stars and basking in the sense of amazement when you stop and realize just how big the universe really is and just how small we really are. We should strive to imagine what life was like, before the internet, or industrialism, or electricity, or agriculture, or history or and if I could turn invisible, would I really use it just to hang out in women’s changing rooms?

If you were wondering, the answer to that last one had better have been no. But still, we’re allowed to entertain the question and see where it takes us. Probably somewhere fun, at least temporarily!

Of course, what I’m calling Painting with Thoughts already exists in the world. You used to do a lot more of it than you do now. Becoming an adult has probably torn most of it away from you, just like it has from me. Painting with Thoughts is nothing more and nothing less than our common notion of “daydreaming”. When was the last time you heard that word? My point exactly. It’s being curious about what would happen if you suddenly turned into a tornado, or if a velociraptor suddenly came crashing through the coffee-shop window. Or what it would entail if you could live forever.

Daydreaming is an art form (a rudimentary art form, granted, but we all need to learn to walk before we can run). Daydreaming is the art, thoughts are the medium, and curiosity is the passion. You don’t Paint with Thoughts to create beautiful images or inspiring poems or delightful songs; no, that’s not the point. Instead you Paints with Thoughts to satisfy your curiosity. That’s all, and that’s beautiful in and of itself.

IV: A Brief Meditation on “Curiosity”

Curiosity is a really strange phenomenon, if you stop to think about it. Curiosity has exactly one goal, and a bona fide exotic one at that in our world that knows so much about Darwinian natural selection: curiosity serves only to extinguish itself.

Being curious drives you to figure out the answer, which makes you stop being curious. (I haven’t meditated deeply on this, but it seems like a pretty profound concept. Maybe I should.) Prima facie, it seems like the journey of the inquisitive mind is now over – the curiosity has been sated. There is nothing else to be had here.

Careful readers who can remember what being curious feels like probably all just started shouting at me in unison as they read that last sentence. NO! That’s not how curiosity works! After you’ve learned whatever it was that you had set out for, you suddenly become aware of neighboring questions, all of which demand answers. The initial curiosity has left for the night, but not before inviting all of its friends from down the way to the educational kegger you’re throwing in your brain’s backyard.

Maybe that metaphor got away from me a little bit. Let’s try another one instead.

If the entire collection of possible “what-if”s is an ocean, it’s certain to be an infinitely large ocean. As you chase the answers to questions, you are exploring a little piece of the ocean, and once you’ve gotten there, you’re in a position to explore a little more of the ocean. It’s only a little jump away!

It might not be the fastest way to get across the ocean, but if you have all the time in the world and never get hungry, you’ll get somewhere. Eventually. Especially if you’re not really looking for anything specific along the way.