by Robert Genn
May 14, 2013
Recently, Jil Ashton-Leigh of Steveston, B. C., Canada told me about a wise Chinese art instructor who looked at her painting of the Fraser River and said, "Your mind--it is too fast." He told her to sit by the river for 30 minutes each day--no camera, no cellphone. "When you observe the river then you will come to know it," he said. If you're interested, you can read Jil's full letter, The Art of Patience, at the top of the current clickback.
Thanks, Jil. I first noticed my own problem about 20 years ago. I was losing patience with any outdoor painting I started. I was jumping up and running around with my camera looking like an advanced case of St. Vitus' dance. It wasn't the coffee.
It was something more serious. In my love affair with technology, I had mistaken my camera for a life. In my compulsion to grab every image, I lost sight of places I could pleasantly inhabit. I had become a mere collector without actually observing the things I was collecting, and I was feeling bad about myself.
Further, I realized I was living in a world that was "putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune." I took the advice of the great American art educator and author of The Art Spirit, Robert Henri. He warned of the potential problems of too much camera, too little time. To build observational skills when painting from a live model, he frequently placed his students and their easels in one room and the model in another. "There is no art without contemplation," he told his students as they trudged back and forth.
One fine day I had my "hour of decision." Just as a child eventually deserts its soother, I suddenly didn't need my camera any more.
Brothers and sisters, if you've been troubled, or if you've been teetering on the edge, both Jil and I need you to convert. Glad tidings are in the grace of patience. "All things come to he who waits," wrote the poet Violet Fane in 1890. Sit still. Look around. Be one with nature. Inhale life. Observe the nuances. Come sit by the river.
PS: "Patience has to be cultivated. Perhaps the entire creative process can be viewed as a patience builder." (Jil Ashton-Leigh)
Esoterica: Several years ago I was visiting William Wordsworth's cottage near Grasmere in the English Lake District. Alone, I followed his trails out behind and above his property and into the shining dales. Passing slowly by nodding daffodils and under scudding clouds, I suddenly got it. No wonder Wordsworth was such a great poet! He took the time to think, to wonder, to contemplate. While predating the phone and the instant camera, he nevertheless had a warning:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" (William Wordsworth, 1770-1850)