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.
I’ve been working a lot on art lately. Although I went to art school for about two years back in the early seventies, I didn’t learn much about technique at all. Back then, I had a set of Winsor & Newton watercolors. What’s pertinent about them is that they are pretty traditional. They’re transparent and most of them don’t granulate, meaning that they give a pure, clear color with no texture. This was just what watercolor was back then. Very simple, straightforward, and no glitz.
When I wanted to get back into painting again a few years ago, I bought a set of watercolor pans from the same company, the same type of paints. I didn’t know how much things had changed in the watercolor world. I didn’t end up using the paints back then, so it didn’t matter one way or the other.
Only this past year have I begun painting again in earnest. The first thing I discovered was how much more economical tube paints were than pans. But then I found that a lot of new paint companies had arisen in my absence, and they were selling some pretty darn glitzy paints. For instance:
When you see something like this (Moonglow from Daniel Smith, for those who’d like to get themselves some–and check out the other beauties they have), it’s hard to go back to your simple little Perylene purple. Moonglow’s got three different pigments in it, plus it granulates like mad (those specks of color, which give it a LOT of texture), plus the description has got a ton of spin. So I succumbed and bought a number of such paints (although not this one) that have rather spectacular effects in terms of granulation and whatnot.
When I began painting with them, though, I noticed a problem. The glitzy paints called attention to themselves in a way that the subtle paints did not. So if I tried painting leaves with the glitzy paints, they looked a lot more like a painting than a leaf. IOW, they highlighted the process of painting rather than the end product. And even though it is cool to be in the moment and in the process, it is also cool to produce something that has worth in itself: a painting of a belladonna flower, not a painting about painting a belladonna flower.
I kept not liking the results, even though I absolutely loved paints like Diopside Green and Lunar Black. They just were not helping me paint. It reminded me of many years ago, when I used to knit. For years the only glitzy yarns available were tacky variegated yarns that typically ended up being featured in Grammaw’s crocheted afghan she draped over the back of the davenport. But when hand spinning began to become popular, all the sudden there were all sorts of very glitzy yarns out there–yarns that were handpainted, that had different colored slubs embedded in them, that had various sized bobbles in them, and even more, like iridescent thingies or beads or even feathers spun into them. I thought they were so cool, but when I tried to knit with them, I found that they did not serve me well. They were great if you wanted to draw attention to the yarn but not if you wanted to draw attention to the garment or its texture. I ended up going back to very simple yarns that did not have any particular texture of their own and so allowed the knitting stitches to really come through. These even had natural colors from the sheep itself instead of fancy dye painting. Using these, I created a lot of interesting garments, and this is the kind of knitted garment I still prefer (think fishermen sweaters, for instance).
So I am very reminded of that now, with my paints, and I’ve begun to refocus my paint collection on the old-fashioned transparent, single-pigment, non-granulating, non-glitzy paints. These are helping me create images that do not call attention to their paintedness as much as to what I am depicting. Boring? I hope not. I will save my glitzy paints for when I want to paint images that would be helped by them.
So what’s this got to do with witchcraft? I’ve found the same thing there. When we do magic, we can do it with fancy equipment, with fancy incantations, with fancy ingredients, fancy timing, fancy initiations, and fancy lineages or we can do it simply. This is not to say I don’t love me a good prop. I do, just as much as I love that Moonglow paint. But I have found that the fancy prop does not help my magic as much as a plain old transparent yellow helps my painting. And I do more magic with plain things than with fancy things, because with fancy things, I start getting distracted from the purpose by the tool. The thing keeps drawing attention to itself instead of helping you reach your goal. For instance, my tarot cards. I’ve used the Thoth deck since the seventies. I have a deck that is rather beat up and the Devil card is torn (symbolic? probably). I taped it back together but decided maybe I needed a new deck. I bought the big fancy full-sized Thoth. I bought some other fancy beautiful decks. But which one do I get the best readings out of? My old scotch-taped little Thoth deck that I store in an old box instead of a fancy carved wooden chest. The other decks are hardly even worth bothering with, pretty as they are. I’ll bet plenty of you have got similar stories.
The other part of this issue is what I mentioned above about not learning technique. When the technique is unfamiliar or even unknown, it is easier to be enticed by fancy tools. We can come to believe that it is the tool that will get us where we want to go instead of our knowledge and skill acquired through practice that we bring to a tool. I didn’t know what I had back in art school in terms of my paints, and when I began painting again, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about paints. I just saw “ooh pretties!” Learning about the tools of watercolor combined with actually painting with the pretties helped me realize that part of what was wrong with my paintings was my paint. The more I learn about painting techniques, the more I practice, the more I see how much the simple stuff can do. I think it’s true with magic as well.
I haven’t been writing here much, because I have been doing so much art practice, like I said, and because I thought well, what’s it got to do with magic or gardening? But I’m going to start writing about it, because my art is tied inextricably to my magic and to my gardening. If it were not for magic and gardening, I don’t think I would have a subject for my art. I’ve been painting lots of practice images of belladonna, for instance, and now I think I’m finally ready to paint one that I will have printed and will sell on my site. I’ll be doing a lot more paintings of the witching herbs. I’ve also started working on a painting of what I’m calling a wizard’s house. I want to create images of witch cottages and witchy still lifes and scenes to do with magic. I hope you will find the process interesting. I’ll be posting stuff here as I get things done, maybe some sketches as well.