Know Your Limits

Since taking up artwork again, I’ve been trying to focus on making images of plants traditionally used in  witchcraft and magic. I’ve done a number of paintings  of belladonna so far, each one an improvement over the previous, although I still need practice. I know I want to do a series of images of the witching herbs I am discussing in my book on herbal magic (if I ever get that thing done–I have promised myself I will have it done by my 60th birthday this November). But I want to do more than images of plants.

Memento Mori by William M. Harnett

When I began painting and drawing again, I had this image in my head of a still life that would be pertinent for witches. I got the idea from looking at vanitas (or “Memento mori” – “Remember that you will die”) paintings. These are part of the group of still life paintings that became popular with upper middle-class people in the 1500s-1600s, especially in Holland, which was on the road to becoming one of the wealthiest countries on Earth at the time. These paintings depicted a group of objects that were meant to remind us that our lives are not infinite. Often they include a skull, some kind of timepiece (like an hourglass here), a snuffed candle, old books in bad condition, and flowers losing their petals or being eaten by insects. Yes, morbid, but I loved some of the renderings of skulls and books, so I set my sights on doing some witchy ones eventually. I knew it would take me a good while to become skilled enough to even tackle such things, because I wanted to be able to paint them in the same realistic style as the originals were painted (except I intended to do them in watercolor). I began messing around with drawing old-fashioned interiors in the meanwhile as a way to kind of work up to doing backgrounds for something like that. Again, I had a specific image in my mind that I wanted to start with as my first such still life and I knew that it would take time and practice to get to the point where I could do what I wanted to do with this kind of painting. So I knew my limits at that point.

Then I got distracted with landscapes. Because landscapes, of course, are a kind of extension of painting images of plants, are they not? At least, to me they are. 🙂 And I have always loved landscape paintings, although I could count on one hand the number I painted back in art school. I was not courageous enough to paint landscapes at that time because they were not cool or hip and happening, and I was young and full of ideas about what culture should be. Landscape paintings were for dull bourgeois types to hang in their den in the suburbs. Yes, landscape paintings sold, but they were not Real Art. So I pretended I didn’t like them while secretly admiring old-fashioned landscape artists like Constable. What can I say? I was a youngster.

But now that I am older and much more at ease in my peculiarity than I was then, I feel fine about saying I love landscape paintings. I love nature and beauty, and what could be more beautiful than a fine landscape? Not to mention for me they have a spiritual content–the landscape is an expression of the divine, IMO. Nevertheless, landscape paintings might well include interesting buildings, so I began to collect images of such buildings that I could use as references. I saw one that was some kind of little building in Italy that did not give any indication what it was used for. Not a church, because there was no cross on the top. But I liked it. So what the hell–even though I still had a ways to go just on the latest belladonna painting and I had sense enough to know I would not be doing any vanitas paintings for a while, I decided to go ahead and try a landscape with this building in it.

Unfinished not-good painting by me

Well. Here is the painting I started and decided was not worth finishing because I am not up to it at this point. I mean, I have never painted a tree but I thought I was going to do a painting with a bunch of trees in it. Good grief. I think I need to start with painting some trees. I have done some good drawings of them. I will retackle this image when I have gotten to the point where I can express it on paper. I am not at that point, and it is going to take a while to get there. Maybe a couple years. Yes, “Life is short, and the craft takes so long to learn.”

What struck me about this experience with this painting is that art is a lot like gardening. You can’t fake it. You can either grow a plant or you can’t. You can either paint a house with a bunch of trees around it, or you can’t. And no amount of fancy talk, websites, blogs, followers, initiations, covens, and whatnot will change that. This is actually one of the things I like about working with plants magically, and here I am reminded of it with painting. You can learn how, but it takes time and lots and lots of failures. You can’t garden without killing a bunch of plants in the process, and you can’t paint a house with a bunch of trees around it if you have never painted any trees.

The same thing is really true of magic as well, but it is far easier to fake magic as far as other people are concerned (and maybe even oneself). We can make all kinds of claims for ourselves as magic workers without ever having to offer up the kind of proof that is afforded by a garden or by a painting. I am not sure why, but for some reason, we are not encouraged to think of practice being necessary when we talk about the acquisition of magical skills. We’re fine with acknowledging that yes, we have to learn how to garden and we have to learn how to paint. Nobody is born knowing how to do those things. But we have a much harder time believing practice is necessary with magic.

Oddly enough (oddly to me, at least), I have heard ceremonial magicians acknowledge this fact, whereas I have not really heard witches acknowledge it. I have spoken with some ceremonial magicians about the rather long and involved rituals they do that come from grimoires. Customers have called me upset that they have done everything just as described in a grimoire but nothing has been the result. No demons appeared, they didn’t find any treasure, and beautiful women did not dance naked before them. Wtf? I asked people who I considered to be accomplished magicians about this, and they said, they have to do the ritual again. And again. Until it works. So amazingly enough, everything is not solely dependent upon having precisely the right tools or doing the ritual at precisely the right time. It’s a question of practice also.

You can bet I will start practicing painting trees.

5 comments to Know Your Limits

  • I love the way the Moon looks in your painting!

  • I only wish I could paint a tree like that! There’s good reasons I do what I do, and my inability to draw ‘real’ things is a part of it!

    I hear you on the praxis thing. I know I have irritated a good many people (including close friends and family) who wanted to ‘learn magic’. And I told them what I was told: Pick a simple ritual, like the LBR, and a simple meditation, and do them 2x daily for a year or two while you read a whole shit-ton. And then don’t stop after that year, but see if the work you are doing has changed. What do you now think the LBR actually does? By what mechanism? What is your meditation like now? Are their logical changes to the work you are doing that you can try and see what changes occur? If you do candle magic, can you do it differently, and are the results different? If so, how?

    I’m not saying you can’t do other things, spells, sigils, what have you, but you have to practice a lot, if you would like to see real results. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for what I call “deluding yourself into spiritual paralysis”. And that’s no fun!


  • “You can’t garden without killing a bunch of plants in the process, and you can’t paint a house with a bunch of trees around it if you have never painted any trees”

    Well, but you can certainly try and you aren’t going to kill anything in the process… unless you paint with… ah 😛

    But really, deep down, I think all things are this way (the “can’t be faked” part). That’s what distinguished an amateur from a master. But let’s not forget that a master was once an amateur.

    Good for you for taking up art again. I hear “Drawing on the right-side of the brain” is a good book to really start drawing stuff in a short amount of time.

  • Aquari

    “Oddly enough (oddly to me, at least), I have heard ceremonial magicians acknowledge this fact, whereas I have not really heard witches acknowledge it.”

    In my experience, one of the few things that traditionalist and modernist witches readily agree on is a distaste for ‘frivolous’ magic, a general attitude that magic must be a response to a genuine need, either because magic is Serious Business, or because intense heartfelt desire is necessary to power the spell. This tends to exclude casting ‘just as an exercise.’ Also, repeating a failed spell tends to be discouraged under various rationales. You’ll often see the assertion that mature practitioners rarely ever actually use magic, while frequent casting is treated as the misplaced enthusiasm of the beginner.

    Among the consequences of this that I’ve noticed, is that it adds an unwholesome relish to alleged ‘psychic attack’ scenarios and inter-practitioner conflict. ‘Finally,’ people seem to say, ‘a valid reason to see what I can do with the gloves off!’ If life has to supply you with permission to use your capabilities, you will go looking for such opportunities.

  • I actually really like that unfinished painting.

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