Dancing with the angels – Part 3

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I actually began this series, “Dancing with the angels”, several weeks ago when Facebook friends were asked to share their experiences regarding the common phrase “in the zone”. Is it a real phenomenon and if so, what’s it like? 

Interviewing 12 elite artists and seeking input from Facebook friends, I was pretty amazed to find so many similarities in the answers. That alone tells me that there is indeed such a phenomenon, and with only a few tweeks, everyone pretty much agrees regarding the experience. There are differing opinions on how to get there and some disagreement on
whether being “in the zone” enables us to produce work over and beyond our normal level of understanding. Some, without hesitation, insist it is possible to create work ‘over and beyond’. Others say we are only able to produce work up to our level of understanding.

I tend to side with the second group. My argument is pretty simple, maybe too simple. However, if someone is able to create something spectacular, it tells me they are capable of doing it again. Within them somewhere is the knowledge and understanding that enabled them to do it in the first place. The word ‘normal’ is probably the stumbling block of the question.
To illustrate…I wouldn’t expect Jackson Pollock, while deep deep “in the zone”, to be able to produce anything close to a Rembrandt, but it wouldn’t surprise me, if with a particular flick of the brush or bucket, he created something over and beyond anything he had done before.

Well, let’s hear what our Facebook friends have to say…and at the end I’ll summarize.

Value study for Best Friends – 4.5″x 4.5″ – Oil on paper

Zan Barrage:   Being in the zone happens only when you have a clear vision of what you are attempting to put on canvas. The clearer the vision the faster you get in the zone. When we struggle and are ever conscious of what we are doing, I bet it is mostly because somewhere along the line we did not clarify the vision and we are making it up as we go along.

Cathleen Windham:  When I’m in “it”, I know it. Can feel it. I understand why and where every stroke of my brush is going, and exactly why I chose and mixed that hue. The result is work I feel very good about.

Jimmy Longacre:  Not sure I can define the specific trigger, but it seems to follow prolonged periods of intensely focusing, with strong desire, on gaining better understanding of this or that aspect of my painting. The result is a feeling of “getting it” in some measure and a satisfying feeling of ease, confidence and rightness in what I’m doing.

Burnt Siena block-in
First applications of color

A. Jillian Crider:  I didn’t ‘do’ anything to get there, other than working on a piece of art that I liked, and therefore not ‘forced’. Result – one minute looking at a blank page, then next second looking at a completed work and staring in awe wondering how it got there. Did I REALLY do that?

Michael Pointer:  I used to think that it was something that just happened. Now I understand that it is a process of preparation that leads to the zone.

Nettie Carnett-Kennedy:  A vision of the outcome definitely seems to be a prerequisite. The ‘zone’ is a very real state where nothing exists except you and the painting…and you are driven by a force outside yourself to complete it. If you try to stop, it calls you back. Time does not exist, nor does hunger or sleep. You become tired but it won’t let you rest…the painting has taken on its own life and energy and your very soul is in direct contact with our Creator.

John Hulsey:  My best paintings have come from those moments of complete absorption and focus on my painting. This was an easier state to achieve when I was much younger and had no other commitments or concerns. Nowadays it requires meditation to get to that calm, focused center.

Shadows defined

Jana Johnson:  I too have experienced the zone while painting or sketching – but often don’t realize I’ve been in that state of mind until I stop working and step back to get a different perspective of my work which then breaks the spell of the zone. It’s then I’ll often notice for the first time I’m roasting from the heat, or freezing from the cold, or it’s way later than I thought it was, things I wasn’t even conscious of when in the zone.

Bruce Newman:  I have never gotten ‘in the zone’ by conscious thought. When it happens, I believe it comes from the confluence of interest in the work and a feeling that I am on the right track. It comes, essentially, from doing not thinking of doing.

Brocha Teichman:  I find, time and again, that it’s about my clarity of vision at the start, and holding on to that, that keeps the painting honest and keeps me in the zone. When your vision and your hand aren’t having an internal fight, that’s harmony. Such paintings usually fall right off the brush…if only that happened more often.

Jimmy Leach:  Only get there when one gets lost in the act of doing painting, outside forces vanish, so one must DO painting to get into the zone of painting.

Lights clarified

Mike Perez:  It happens…but not sure what triggers it. Having a subject one relates to and is interested in helps a lot. Listening to music that one really feels, helps get me in the zone, even if it is the same song over and over. After a while, I am not really listening to anything but the rhythm. I recently heard Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, describe it in an interview from the 60’s as getting into a state where the mechanics are in the subconscious and thus the mind is fully freed for creativity…(in his case improvisation around the structure of a music piece). It feels great! and then, there are those days where the left side of the brain takes over and it is hard to get anything down that you are happy with. I have wondered whether some Irish Cream would help get in the zone, but I have heard the effect is temporary. You really like what you are doing at first but after a while it doesn’t look so good. 

…and then there’s…

Howard Friedland:  I was once in the zone but got a ticket. It was a No Parking Zone!

Best Friends – 12″x 12″ – Oil

In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (mee-hy  cheek-sent-me-hy-ee)…whew!…and I thought I had a difficult name…anyway, he extensively studied the phenomenon we’ve been considering. He coined the word “flow” in 1975 to express what we are calling, being “in the zone”.
He decided on the term after interviews with several people who described their experience as being carried along in a current of water…as in “going with the flow”.
In a 1956 study, Mihaly determined that the human mind is capable of processing 126 bits of information per second and that a typical conversation consumes at least one-third of that total per second. Now I know why it’s so difficult for me to talk and paint at the same time…and why it’s virtually impossible to be in the zone while engaging in a conversation. After extensive research in the 1980’s and 90’s, Mihaly outlined several conditions needing to be present for any of us to have an “in the zone” experience.

Necessary conditions for “in the zone” activity:

  • Must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and be able to track progress. This gives direction and structure to the task.
  • The task must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the artist adjust to changes and enables him to stay in the zone.
  • There must be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and the perceived skill of the artist. Artist must have confidence that he is capable of doing the task at hand.
Emotions that disturb the flow are many, but these three are near the top: apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Apathy occurs when there is a low challenge accompanied by weak skills. Boredom: low challenge/high skill; Anxiety: excessive challenge/inadequate skill.
Just as negative emotions can prevent one from experiencing the “in the zone” phenomenon, positive emotions likewise aid its appearance.
Fully immersed, energized focus is a prevailing description of what we are talking about.
As an artist, the “flow” can be only entered while performing an activity, and more likely when we’re wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for an intrinsic purpose.
We’re not going to be “in the zone” while passively sitting on our hands staring at a blank canvas.
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