'Flow' is a form of meditation. It lets you focus, and in focusing you lose awareness of all the other things we normally chew over in our heads. Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with the term to describe the state we get into when we are doing something challenging enough to absorb all our attention, but not so challenging that we get anxious. Many people who are lucky enough to do something they love as a job may consider themselves to have 'never worked a day in their life'. But doing something you love and flow may not be interchangeable. Sometimes the thing you love may be hard, and feel very much like work. Ernest Hemingway may have said it best, 'There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed'.
For me, painting has been a form of flow. I had a studio at the Wimbledon Art Studios (WAS) for 4 years. I would come in and just paint. I wasn't trying to say anything. I did want to learn about texture and colour, but I figured a lot of that learning would come through just being able to release. I was also lucky that it wasn't my job. Whenever I have to think of starting to apply my business mind to my art, something inside of me screams. Don't get me wrong, I would love to make money out of my art but I know there are easier ways. Making money often boils down to hustle and networking. Basic 'doing business' where the business being done doesn't matter. Sometimes it is useful to separate out your passion and how you keep it going. 'Sometimes I do what you want to do, the rest of the time, I do what I have to do.'
Alex Rennie is an artist on the floor below where I was at WAS. He does wonderful large scale oil paintings with a skillful control of light and dark. Inspired by Goya and Rembrandt, his earlier works were dominated by portraits and figures, inspired by stories, myths and the old masters. His more recent work looks at construction timbers and building hoardings, with the same powerful light contrasts, but examining growth and transitions in cities. I am a big fan.
Untitled work in progress by Alex Rennie
I asked him whether he found flow in his work and interestingly, like me with painting, he recognised that feeling outside of his normal work. He has a band with some friends, and through music is able to relax. Art can be more angsty. My weekend endeavours were kind of a cop out. Alain de Botton argues that we could learn a lot from how Religion uses art. It isn't just art for art's sake. It is an exploration of something which we pushes us further into the stuff of life that is beyond survival.
The problem is this stuff can feel pretentious. It can feel like you are claiming expertise that you don't have. The artist's job is to push through this. The artist's job is to bleed. When an idea comes, it is only half formed and requires bravery to carrying on going. Each piece is venturing into a place that is not an area of expertise. Alex talks of drawing inspiration from 'The Art of War' to push him forward through times when he is struggling to carry on. Sun Tzu talks of keeping the high ground. Alex interprets this as a form of agency. Trying to act in times of doubt so that you are determining your own path rather than the path being determined for you.
The relationship with your art may be a love and hate one. It may require challenging yourself in ways that feel very uncomfortable. Perhaps if 'you have never worked a day in your life', then you weren't doing something you loved?