Why Nature is Good for Artists, and for You
How walking into the woods can enhance your focus and your purpose in life.
No matter what people say; we painters work better in the country, everything there speaks more clearly, everything holds firm, everything explains itself...
~ Vincent van Gogh
Art and Emotion
Art (I believe) is about focusing people's attention and sparking an emotion. That emotion could be peace, joy, confusion, or fury, but good art sparks something within us.
Art should reach out to you, grab your attention, and make you feel.
Part of the fun and the magic of visual art is that a single painting may spark very different emotions for different viewers. This is why people's personal taste in art is as different as preference in food or music. Every viewer comes to a piece of art with their own lifetime of experiences, lenses, and opinions. Those things combine with the art itself to inspire emotion that is totally unique.
Regardless of how each viewer will ultimately feel when they see it, an artist needs a clear understanding of what a piece of art means to them before starting a painting. They need to know what they want to express or share.
This desire doesn't need to be profound or earth-shaking. It can be as simple as creating a painting that will make someone smile or help them feel at peace. However, having a clear goal in mind aids every step of the creative process. It greatly helps a painter to know why they're painting each piece.
Humans are social. We gather in groups, and those groups share ideas and opinions. This is how we've expanded and built upon our cultural experience since the dawn of time. It's how communities and civilizations are built. We share.
We share thoughts, concerns, opinions, and beliefs. We also share the emotions that are evoked by these thoughts. Psychology continually studies why emotion is contagious. It's all too easy to get swept up in the feelings of a crowd, be it a cheering football stadium or a candlelit vigil.
All humans have the potential for empathy. This is why we get swept up in other people's feelings. Some people experience it more than others, but many artists are particularly attuned to noticing others' emotions. It's part of that common (and often inaccurate) stereotype of the overly sensitive artist.
It's also a very practical tool. When you're creating visual art, it helps to have a keen sense of visual observation. The more detail you take in, the more visual research you have to draw from when you're creating. The more you notice and understand how people feel, the better you can create a particular feeling in your artwork.
The drawback to this heightened emotional awareness is becoming overwhelmed. When people surround you, you're accosted by opinions and emotions. It can be hard to hear and recognize your own private feelings amid the cacophony.
This can muddy the waters when trying to clearly express a creative idea. Getting away from crowds can make it easier to sort through personal beliefs and emotions, making them easier to express in art.
Getting away doesn't have to mean wilderness. It could simply be sitting alone at home, but being physically removed from other people often helps.
Famous thinkers are renowned for taking solitary retreats to deeply engage their own inner workings and passions. The book Deep Work explores this concept and its vital importance in today's distracted world.
Finding mental space isn't only about solitude, however. As odd as it may seem, it also helps to look at things that weren't made by people. Furniture and clothing all contain inherent choices of style and value. They tell stories about the hands who made them or the culture that inspired them. They have opinions. Because they were made by humans (just like art), they intentionally inspire emotions.
Trees and mountains do not. They weren't made (or at least not made by people). They just are. They absolutely inspire emotion, but that emotion comes entirely from our own life experiences and lenses.
The emotions we feel when looking at nature come from within, not from without.
Time in nature is a detox from society and social opinions. It's a hiatus from being told what you should think or feel or do. It allows you space with your own thoughts and emotions to hear the quiet inner voice of intuition and meaning.
For artists, this time is vital to help refocus and polish their own personal vision. Artists see the world in unique ways. Sharing the individual lens through which they view life is (by definition) what makes them artists.
Outside input is valuable. It is fuel and fodder and motivation to create, but it must be taken in and internally processed. The good bits should be kept, and the unhelpful bits need to be discarded.
Time in nature is the kiln where all the external input is put to the internal test. You can filter out all the things that don't serve you and focus on the pieces that do. Ideally, when the fire dies down, you're left with a clear diamond among the ashes. You'll know what is important to you and what you want to inspire people to feel in your art.
It may still be as simple as wanting to make someone smile, but you'll know why.
Finding the space to understand your own thoughts and feelings isn't only useful to artists. Knowing where you stand, what values are important to you and why, is the foundation to living a meaningful life. It can guide your choices in everything from financial investing to working out to which milk to pick up at the grocery.
You have to know who you are before you can be true to yourself.
So, it might be worth trying a hike and devoting a little thought to yourself, with no one else around. You never know what you'll learn!
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If you're looking for more, check out these other art-and-artist-related posts:
Art & Identity: Why We are Interwoven