Transpersonal Experience and the Role of the Artist

George Inness, "Indian Summer,"
George Inness, “Indian Summer,” 1894, 30 x 42, Private Collection

As a young person, I always had big questions about my experience of the world, my personal role within this world, and how these two concepts are intertwined. Because of this innate curiosity, I end up majoring in philosophy at Fordham University. Specifically, Phenomenology, which studies human experience in order to answer some of those big questions or at least provide a thread of insight.

Characteristically, the artist uses visual perception to discover the world for themselves and, secondarily, to reveal that personal vision to others so that they might share that vision. But the artist doesn’t just “see” nature; they feel it affectively through their body.

“I not only saw, but felt in my body all that I saw.”

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 1960, p. 214.

The artist feels through their body what they perceive. When viewing a landscape that I am painting, I have found myself not only perceiving the objects that I am painting, field, tree, and sky, but I find myself venturing up that hill and experiencing that long grass by running it through my fingertips, smelling its earthy smell and observing its color and forms up close. I have not left my painting position. But I have opened myself bodily to what I am experiencing visually and emotionally. I have broken through that wall that separates me, the subject, from nature, the object. This bond formed in me between what I see and feel and the object before me is called a transpersonal experience.

Walt Whitman expresses this so eloquently in “Salut un Monde,”

What do you see Walt Whitman?

Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?

I see a great round wonder rolling through space.

I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, pal-aces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface.

I see the shaded part on one side where sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side.

I see curious rapid change of the light and shade…

Walt Whitman

Whitman rises above the earth bodily and looks down at what he sees. He is experiencing the activities of man from a distance, seeing them as diminutive compared to the rolling mass of the earth and the action of the sun. He takes on a cosmic role, not because he is an egoist, but because he embodies a unity of vision between himself and nature. Every artist does this, whether consciously or unconsciously. “But how is this possible, unless there is a bodily felt participation in things, an emphatic inhabiting of things, an openness to being touched by things, even at a distance?” (David Levin, Transpersonal Phenomenology: The Corporeal Schema, Northwestern University).

George Inness, "Landscape, Montclair,"
George Inness, “Landscape, Montclair,” 1894, Private Collection

As a painter, this interrelationship between feeling and perception is directly transferred to the canvas through the painting gesture, the brushstroke. I felt what I saw and felt what I painted; the gesture, the bodily movement of my arm and hand conveys all that I see, all that I am embodying in the moment, conveying a transpersonal experience through an open reverie. I am no longer separate and isolated from my subject. The subject and I are one and the same. This bodily attunement puts me in the presence of all things with no fixed boundary and leaves me utterly open to a newness and timeless encounter. Levin believes every person can reach this heightened and interpersonal connection to the world, but many lack awareness of this connection or cannot make the emotive leap. Levin states, “Transpersonal development restores the aliveness of this primacy, which tends to get subordinated, during our socialization, to the structural identity of the ego.”

The artist’s role is to be aware, attentive, and open to a transpersonal encounter. The artist, who is constantly practicing and immersed in self-reflection, paves the way for this experience even before they commence the painting of an image. There is a fluidity of engagement in the very practice of one’s art. The artist participates in a sympathetic relationship with their subject, attuned to the “spell” of the object and the emotive emanation elicited from the object to the artist. This desire carries us out of ourselves and changes us. And it is the very thing we share through our work.

George Inness‘ painting exudes this fluidity of engagement. Many of Inness’ late works contain vast spaces on the canvas with minimal variation in the color or paint quality. He flicks random strokes on the canvas, not necessarily identifiable as an object, creating spontaneous marks that add an aliveness. Inness gives us an experience of the transpersonal, an open engagement with the world. We imaginatively add to these passages, delving into Inness’ experience as if it was our own. This open, highly imaginative structure is one of the greatest achievements of painting. We are transformed and renewed through our perception, feelings, and embodiment of the subject- a transpersonal experience.

Finding Effective Greens to use in Landscape Painting

Judith Reeve, “Hazy Morning, High Meadow,” 16 X 22, oil, 2022

For the last few months, I have been experimenting with a new series of greens on my landscape palette. There are innumerable greens in a multitude of variations in the landscape of the Catskills where I live. Each tree has its individual quality of green due to its species. One can visually pull out a specific tree on a forested hill by its value of green and the color intensity of that green. The ground plane also has an acidic yellow-green so evident in the Northeast. It is a challenge to set all these greens down on the canvas in a satisfying relationship that speaks of one’s emotions in that moment and the phenomena of experience before one’s eyes.

Paint has its limitations. Pigment can only give you a mere reflection of the color and variety of nature before you. It can only act as a correspondence to your visual experience, and the artist is never completely satisfied with this transference. The painting can only serve as a signifier, a place setting of that wholistic intimacy of that painting moment.

Still, the artist must study how to get the variety of colors necessary to translate nature. And for me, greens in the landscape are some of the most challenging colors to mix and then later feel satisfied with. I found from experience that those intense yellow greens, present everywhere on the East Coast in summer, are vexing upon post-completion of the image. So in June, I attempted to increase the range of my green mixes, seeking a variety in color temperature, and intensity. Here are some of my experiments.

Judith Reeve, “Landscape Greens with semi-neutrals,” oils, 2022

Above is a chart I created to assist with my landscape painting. If you look at the top line, I have created a series of greens moving from YG, G 1, G 2, G 3, to GB. I made the mixes by combining Indanthrene blue (W&N) + Yellow [Azo yellow lemon (Old Holland’s, Scheveingen yellow lemon) + some raw sienna] at full intensity. This Indanthrene blue is new for me, and I chose it this season because it appears as a more true blue than Ultramarine, and it is also more intense like Prussian blue. The samples of these colors appear on the top line, right.

In the right column, I have placed a series of colors descending from P, BP, B Hue to R. These colors are a little difficult to see as pure colors, but one can see the changes they create in the rows. Notice that the P, BP, B Hue, and R each contain some amount of red, the complement to the green. It is relatively easy to get high-intensity greens but extremely challenging to get greens that are semi-reduced in intensity but remain visually vital. If one just uses red to get these semi-neutrals, you end up with a minimal range of color temperature.

To understand this chart, I have taken each high-intensity green along the top line and mixed it with one of the colors in the right column. Each column of green displays the semi-neutralized mixes as that green descends toward its complement of red. For example, G 1 appears at full intensity on the top line; G 1 + P [Ultra. + PR 264 + Cad. R] on line 2; G 1 + BP [Ultra. + PR 264] line 3; G 1 + B Hue [P + G] line 4; G 1 + R [Mars red] line 5.

Through my practice, I found that the mixes generated below the G 2, G 3, and GB were excellent. The most valuable combinations for the summer landscape have been G 2 +P; G 2 + BP; G 3 + P; G 3 + BP; G 3 + R. The GB combination helped add variety to my darks, especially the GB + P and the GB + R. But now that the green in the trees is waning and fall has set upon the landscape, I am using more of the BP combinations, including the YG + BP and G 1 + BP (and G 1 + P). As the leaves turn to reds and golds, I find myself adding VR to many of my greens, creating another row of green mixes that is presently not on my chart.

What the chart has done for me is open my mind to new mixing triangulations. I had probably mixed many of these combinations before, but because I have made it conscious, my mixing has been more directed and accurate to my lived experience before nature. Plus, I am more satisfied post-painting with the harmony in my color arrangements.

If you love to experiment as I do, consider a Zoom session with me, and I can assist you with color mixing or another element of your painting practice. Use the contact page to get in touch. Enjoy painting!