“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Have you ever noticed, that when you sign your name, there is a rhythm to the way your hand moves across the paper? Perhaps you even say your name to yourself silently as you sign it. Your signature is a part of your identity. It is essentially you, no one else can quite sign your name the way you do. Your signature is like a drawing of your personality. I recently became aware of this way of looking at writing when I met a handwriting analyst. From a small sample of my handwriting and my signature, this gentleman divined some very accurate interpretations of my personality. His description of what he saw in my signature was particularly fascinating to me. How could a few lines so accurately convey my personality to someone who was trained to perceive and interpret those silent messages? When I exhibited my artwork in Saratoga Springs, New York, I had the opportunity to see a client named Judy that I had not seen for several years. When Judy approached my booth, she instantly gravitated toward a piece in my display titled “Long Shadows”. I explained it was a style I called line drawings; the form of the horse simplified and condensed into line. At the mention of the description, she looked a little confused for a moment, but she said nothing for a little while. She stood transfixed and then quietly exclaimed how vibrant the painting was. I was delighted that she was so moved by it, for I had displayed the piece for several years and no one had ever really paid attention to it before. In fact it was fortunate that I had even shipped it to display at this show, for I had grown disheartened that no one could see in it what I had intended to paint. We started talking again about horses and life, and while we talked she kept looking at the painting. I explained that the sketch was of a mare in foal I had drawn while she was grazing on a hillside. I had been inspired by her elongated shadow cast on the hill by the setting sun. Judy told me about her husband and his equine veterinary practice. She said he could often determine what was ailing a horse by touching it; by feeling the horse’s energy. For a moment, I wondered why she had changed the subject. Then I happened to look at Long Shadows, and suddenly I perceived of the painting in an entirely new way. The vivid colors made me realize for the first time that I was painting not merely the form of the horse, as I had previously described, but the energy of the horse. Our discussion about her husband’s healing abilities had triggered me to view my own painting in an entirely new way. I was deeply affected by this spontaneous vision. I had looked at the painting countless times, and yet I had not truly seen it.
I shared this vision with Judy, and she confirmed my instincts. This was how she had seen the painting herself. She said when I had described the style as a line drawing, it didn’t seem to capture the vibrancy of the piece. Her conversation had been a spontaneous attempt to put what she felt into words. She decided to purchase the original, which confirmed how profound it was to her. The spontaneous experience of connecting through my painting opened up our conversations to other topics where we discovered we had much in common. We agreed to meet again the next day for coffee. Her interest in my painting rekindled my own appreciation of it. That night, I reflected on our encounter and the way I had previously felt about the line drawings. Though this style had been the genesis of my desire to become an equine artist, I had privately come to think of the line drawings as less popular or not as impressive as my other, more realistic work. This impression was subjective, for I had sold every piece I’d ever created, but I had come to the conclusion that because a large number of people didn’t comment on the paintings when I displayed them, that they must be less impressive than my other work.
Another reason I had come to think of these paintings as less impactful was because I didn’t have to labor over them. They usually came about as spontaneous sketches of horses from life. The sketches hibernated in my sketch pads until I felt inspired to make one into a painting, which usually was created in a matter of hours. My prices for these pieces reflected my assumption that because they didn’t take much time to create, they weren’t as desirable as my realistic work. Then I remembered a comment from years ago when my friend Andy, who was a graphic designer I had worked with on some shirt designs, commented that he could not duplicate my lines. He had attempted to save me the trouble of redrawing a horse sketch that hadn’t reproduced well, so he tried to trace a few of the lines. He later told me that, hard as he tried, he could not duplicate the flow of my lines. At the time this revelation had been just a curiosity to me, but now I was beginning to see it in a new light. With the new insights I had discovered about how to view these drawings as energy, rather than form, I began to change my feelings about their uniqueness.
Original Spirit Sketches
I recalled how the style itself had come about. I had learned to do the technique called gesture drawing in art school, where the drawing teacher had us sketch poses of a live model in brief poses of 30 seconds. It was a technique called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. During each pose there was only time enough to capture a sketched impression before the model changed position. Many of the other students grew frustrated with this technique; they wanted to create a finished piece that looked like something real. They thought their time was wasted in these “practice” sketches. In contrast, I was fascinated by how a few lines could capture a pose. This probably came from my childhood, for I had often drawn with an Etch-A-Sketch. I had spent countless hours learning how to draw with two-dimensional lines, so this technique seemed natural to me. While practicing this form of drawing, I had learned important lessons of how my frame of mind and emotional state could affect my drawing. I could see what happened when I tried too hard. When I worried about whether the sketch was the right proportion, or I concentrated too long on the exact pose of the model, the drawing would become stifled and inexpressive. When I loosened up, and engaged the intuitive side of my brain, the drawing flowed like elegant handwriting, and the form of the model appeared in surprisingly beautiful drawings.
I began to realize this style was similar to the fine art of Sumi painting, otherwise know as brush calligraphy. Artists who practice Sumi literally spend a lifetime learning to create a perfect line. They believe that the line conveys the CHI – or primal life energy of the subject. As an artist, this creative pursuit is a process of trusting that one’s intent, combined with the flow of the energy or CHI, will create a painting that will convey to the viewer the sense of the subject’s power
CHI is the primal life energy in all creatures, and the force between Heaven and Earth. CHI is the breath of the Earth, the movement in our bodies, the dance of our feelings and our thoughts. CHI connects us with everywhere and everything, and lives in our deepest inner selves. It is the primal force of our lives. ~ Chungliang Al Huang
I began to realize that this CHI was what I was painting. The life force of the horse. The lines could convey the identity of the horse to the viewer, like a signature could convey the personality of the writer to the practiced eye. My drawings were like the energy signature of the horse. The next day I told Judy about the insights she had inspired. I had come up with a new name for the line drawings. She waited expectantly. “Spirit Signatures”, I said. “The energy of the horse as expressed in essential lines, like a signature.” She smiled, “That’s it!” She exclaimed. Then she told me the exciting news that she wanted to commission me to create a “Spirit Signature” for her husband for a new product line he was creating of horse supplements. This was a wonderful confirmation that these works of art expressed everything she felt they could convey.
I was profoundly grateful that Judy and I had met and connected at such a deep level. Often, just as relationships reveal things about us, it was through sharing my artwork that I myself could define it. I learned a valuable lesson that day. I began to realize that the amount of time it took me to create the drawings was irrelevant. If I could make a friend in a matter of a few hours, surely in that same amount of time I could create a masterpiece.