There's Something About the Light


Claude came from a traditional home. His parents expected him to take the usual path many of us imagined we'd take, though we likely didn't control that image. It was built in our heads for us. You know the one: finish high school, attend a good college, declare a safe major, and, upon graduation, receive our neatly packaged box labeled Career.

Everything in its place. Everything under control. But what do we actually control in this life?

As a young boy, Claude wasn't hearing it. He wanted to go to art school, not study economics, nor manage the family business. His mother, as mothers so often are, was strong for her son, defending his artistic aspirations to Claude's father and pledging to support the budding painter should he enroll someday.

A few years later, when Claude was 16, his mother died. The boy began thrashing. Wouldn't you? When we feel helpless, like we just don't control a thing, that seems to be the only logical response. Claude thus ran away from home to live with his aunt. Four years later, something else he didn't choose: He was drafted into the army.

Claude spent seven years abroad, seeing the world, experiencing the sort of vibrant colors and cultures that could inspire even the most timid of artists to paint. Claude was no timid artist, and yet once again, he didn't paint, because once again, he didn't control the circumstances. While in the army, he grew too sick to stand, much less serve, and so he returned home to his aunt. She agreed to watch over him if he agreed to enroll in art school once he felt better. And when he did, he did.

Finally, at long last, everything felt in its place. Everything felt under control.

Of course, it's worth asking: What do we actually control in this life?

Just a year into his schooling, Claude couldn't stand how instructors chose to teach their subjects. It all felt so traditional and staid. But what could he do? That was how it was done. They believed in painting carefully posed objects, people, and scenes. Everything in its place, everything under control. But Claude wondered, what do we actually control in this life? So he left campus, found a mentor, and began experimenting. He went outside, to the real world, where the messy effects of time tends to warp the world around us. There, he captured this reality with broken colors and rapid brushstrokes. Most notably, he studied and documented the effects of time on a given scene, painting the same thing over and over and over again, using a new canvas for each moment the light -- and his emotions -- changed what he saw. He painted a bridge. He painted a sunset. And of course, he painted some water lilies.

Nothing stayed in place. Nothing was under his control. Because, really, what do we actually control in this life?

So often in our work, when we try to create something consistently great over time, we ignore the effects of time. Instead, we prefer to find THE thing that works, then automate it. We want to find the solution and put it on repeat. I agree that when we identify something successful, we should lean into it, but "leaning into it" shouldn't mean more of the same. It should instead become a continual process of discovery to create an ever-more refreshing version of that thing. As time marches forward, changing the world in small and sometimes big ways, we need our work to do the same. This means relinquishing the need for precision, because it's a false sense of control. That absolute, final, perfect solution doesn't exist once we move away from theory and shine that ever-changing light of reality on our work.

"Paint what you really see," Claude once said, "not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadow."

Factors outside our control will forever effect our work. No matter how successful something is right now, it's at risk of growing stale. We don't control that, and so we'd better get busy reinventing our work over time. Consistently great work consistently changes.

Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under our control. Not really. Because what do we actually control in this life?

Fortunately, there is at least one thing. Claude's story seems to offer us that much. We can't control all the variables that change and twist and warp the world and thus our work once we put it out into the world. But we can indeed control how we see the world. Namely, we can learn to see it through different lights. Sure, we didn't ask for THIS set of circumstances. We wish we had more, better, or different. We face boring tasks, repeat tasks, stale tasks. We can't control that. But we CAN control how we view them. We can choose to view them through different lights.

Claude did exactly that. He learned how to see the same things as everyone else ... in slightly new and different ways. Whereas his peers would want the absolute perfect bridge, he painted that bridge as it exists in the real world: ever-changing with the light. That's how he painted every bridge, and sunset, and of course, every water lily.

If the world is ever-changing, and we plan to put something out into the world consistently over time, then our work must also change over time. What we create doesn't exist in theory. It exists in a specific environment. Maybe start with the latter before thinking about the former.

"For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment," Claude said. "But the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

Later in his young career, when Claude and a few friends wanted to showcase their art capturing the ever-changing world, the traditionalists turn them away. As a result, the group set up their own, independent exhibits. They showcased their in-the-moment paintings documenting how both the artist's emotions and the light could change each version of something. Claude in particular would paint and exhibit the same scene three, four, sometimes eight or nine different ways.

In the end, we are all doing our best to create something that makes sense for the here and now, but this is a fool's errand, as the here and now is ever-changing. The only thing we can do is to act like Claude and create versions of the work. We can keep evolving, keep refining, keep reinventing. Sure, we can create that one thing, paint that one scene, in the way that makes sense to us NOW, but the real key is to do it again, and again, and again, allowing the effects of time to creep into our work. The goal isn't to create a masterpiece. It's to create an ever-changing, always improving body of work.

Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under control. But what do we actually control in this life? We control how we view things. We can view the same-old, same-old in different lights. And, if we understand how time works, we must. We're not static. Life's not static. It's impossible to expect our work to be.

By capturing the literal, Claude reveals the figurative. Literally, the light changes all day, which thus changed how he painted the bridge, the sunset, and of course, the water lilies. But just as the sunlight changed the scene, the passage of time should change how we view something. We may have done the thing seven or 70 or 700 times before, it doesn't matter. We can choose to see it in subtle new ways, to reinvent and refresh what we create over time. I believe that's the only way we'll succeed over time.

Of course, the traditionalists may not be happy with us. They weren't happy with Claude and his friends. In a fateful twist, one art critic dubbed Claude's independent showcase "the exhibit of impressionists." This isn't true art, he claimed. It's so imprecise, so free-flowing and rough. It's a distant impression of the real thing.

Isn't it all?

The critic meant the title as a rebuke of their work, but the young group of independent artists turned the tables. So in April of 1974, when Louis Leroy published his scathing review, that young artist in love with the changing light merely smiled at his friends. He knew: everything we create is indeed an impression. It's our attempt to capture a moment, which is now gone. The only way to get closer to reality is to mimic reality, creating version after version, change after change ... because change is what "reality" really is. The sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can get on with the work. And so the young artist and his friends embraced it. They took a criticism and made it their moniker.

You may not know the group's name -- Impressionists -- but you've likely heard of the young artist. He's the man who always tried to see the world through an ever-changing light, because in truth, the light is ever-changing. So he kept painting version after version of the bridge. And the sunset. And, of course, the water lilies.

Claude Monet.

Posted on March 13, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.