I’ve been working on a painting I’m calling Henbane Moon, since it features a branch of henbane with some dried pods on it. It’s based on a photo I took of some of my henbane in the summer of 2013, but I’ve modified it quite a bit, because for one thing, I don’t believe in tracing photos or even imitating photographic effects, and for another, modifying a picture is what makes it art, IMO. And not just in my opinion, but also in the opinion of others. I read a pretty good book on painting landscapes called Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, written in the 1928. Carlson won a lot of awards as a painter but also taught landscape painting. His paintings are fairly traditional, so it is all the more striking when he says that beginners tend to copy everything they see in a scene in front of them. As we become artists, we begin to leave out or put in elements that bring out the essence of the scene for us as individual artists. This leaving out and putting in is what makes an artist an artist. Technique is just a tool for the expression of the artist’s personality, he says.
This makes such perfect sense to me, and now I think of it every time I make sketches for paintings or work on the paintings themselves. With the sketch I made from my henbane photos, I exaggerated the characteristics of the henbane pods to make them seem more like henbane pods, I shifted their position so that they were more symmetrical, I deleted the true background, I removed a couple dead leaves, and I completely changed the lighting. I did all of this to make my depiction of these pods more of a depiction of these pods as I see them–their henbaney quintessence. Although I am considering this my first version of this painting because I am not happy with the way the sky came out (and I still have to experiment with putting a mist around the Moon, which is why the Moon is not perfectly round–it wasn’t important since it is going to be covered with mist), I am satisfied with it in terms of my depiction of the pods themselves. The painting gives information about the plant in a pleasing way, but IMO, it is not pleasing enough, so I will work on the sky more.
But I have thought of this whole putting in and leaving out as a manifestation of maturity of vision in terms of magic as well.
Lately a kind of nostalgic orthodoxy seems to have overwhelmed all sorts of spheres of our culture. I see it in art in people who get their undies in a huge twist about abstract art, like it is killing their babies and making them live on the street. These same folks believe that “real” art is done with the methods of centuries ago or at any rate is realistic. Abstract or non-representational art makes their blood pressure go up and they snarl about how such artists can’t draw. The same reheated orthodoxy is popular in magic nowadays as well. Folks assert that we must follow the rules of grimoires exactly, that if we are not for instance drawing a sigil with real dove’s blood on calf skin parchment as opposed to using a red ink on paper, that we are not making authentic magic. We are informed that if we don’t actually SEE a spirit we are working with, the experience is not real and instead we are suffering from terminal New Age fluff-bunnyism. Others insist that anyone who is not part of a tradition that allegedly goes back to angels who got kicked out of heaven–or at least goes back to Pagan times–is not a real witch. Etc.
For example: After I put up the herbal codes page I have on my shop site, I saw a link from a traditional witchcraft group about how my info was so New Age and laughable really and that REAL witches kill animals for spellwork and use their blood and bones and anyone who doesn’t think so is a Wiccan, which word is used as a term of abuse for someone they disrespect and has nothing whatsoever to do with real Wicca. I frowned when I read this, partly because the tone reminded me of grade school but also because I thought I had seen herbal codes mentioned as far back as the Middle Ages, so having four planets in Scorpio, I decided to research it. Well, herbal codes go back to the Greek Magical Papyrus, which is the late ancient world. And that is a hell of a lot older than any traditional witchcraft. So using some sap or resin instead of some animal blood is perfectly authentic. It just does not fit into the new orthodoxy of magic.
Orthodoxy, shmorthodoxy. Like art, the bottom line is whether magic works. I can testify that using ordinary ink on paper does indeed work, and so can thousands of other magic workers in the course of history. I am sure you have had similar experiences in your magical practice. Sometimes the simplest magic that was never a part of any big huge impressive tradition is the most powerful, and sometimes the most orthodox magic that has the best and most props and cool ingredients and secret words is a huge flop. Partly that’s because of the skill of the practitioner, but partly it’s also a question of the spirits or the energy or the will of the gods or whatever we want to call it. Sometimes the universe works with us and sometimes it works against us.
But what’s all this got to do with my henbane painting? Only this: just like as artists become more skilled, we learn what to leave in and what to take out to make the best image, to make art instead of just a picture, so as witches we learn which rules we can bend or break or even invent in order to make the best magic. And what is the best magic? It is the magic that works. Not the antique magic, not the magic with the best props or seekrit sauce, not the magic with the big names, but the magic that just plain works. That is real magic. We can learn this by doing, by seeing what happens when we take things out or add other things in. Yes, I have heard all the dire warnings about the spooky & ‘orrible things that will happen to someone if they don’t follow the orthodox rules of magic exactly. But IME such folks are far more likely to be spurned by the orthodox people around them than to be injured by pissed-off spirits or karma, which is otherwise absent from our world.
This is not to say that I think following some tradition or book magic is needless. But it is like the list of properties of pigments for the artist. That is basic knowledge that then must be of use to the artist’s own personal expression of the world. But a list of pigment properties is not art, just like the rules of a tradition or a grimoire are not magic. The magic–and the art–is in the synthesis that the artist or witch creates from their knowledge, intuition, gut, and practice. Magic should be no less an expression of the witch’s personal vision than a painting should be the expression of the artist’s personal vision. That perspective makes a hash of magical orthodoxy or of slavishly imitating the Old Masters of painting.
And with that, I am off to start my foxglove seeds. Because spring will come eventually.