How Shadow Sharpens Sight

The following is from a talk I gave at DuPage College in 2008 at a Wellness conference.

Seeing Deep into the Well of Wellness

How Shadow Sharpens Sight

We are bathed in Shadow at night.  For years I painted  into the early morning hours.  I was empowered by the Dark Quiet while most everyone else was asleep.  The quality of night can be so conducive and seductive for creativity. It is a time when Outside is closer to Inside. The outer darkness  was comforting, full of mystery and possibilities.  Night is rich with potential.  This is the time that Shadow prevails.


Painters, writers, poets, composers, more often than not, work in solitude.  During those years, the seclusion and protection of darkness gave me a unique strength to delve deeply into my inner shadows. Night sharpens sight.

In our everyday lives we experience and navigate the world by observing forms described by light and shadow. Knowledge of shadows are essential to drawing and painting. Shading creates the appearance of a three dimensional object in a drawing, thus creating form.  Similarly, the optimal choices of colors, tints and shades create the illusion of shape and space in a painting.  In art, as in our everyday lives, shadow defines form.

Our psyches are very complex, perplexing, and wild places.

Shadow also defines the inner forms within our Psyches. Our thoughts and emotions are shaped and clarified by both the shadow and light of our interior world. One of the keys to well-being is knowing the Being that you are.  Without knowing All of who you are, which includes these Shadowy parts of ourselves, I believe well-being will be elusive and out of balance.

To look directly at our Shadow Self is at first daunting. This is a mirror that reveals every thought and every feeling with the most precise of details.  These parts of ourselves are often ignored, denied, or avoided.

In actuality this part of us is always very active, much more than we tend to realize or admit.  And absolutely necessary to our well being.

There are a lot of misconceptions about these Shadow parts of ourselves.  Misperceptions generally arise from ignorance, inexperience, and fears. Especially when dealing with experiences having originated within the Unknown.  Misunderstandings are quickly and often labeled bad.

Labeling these facets of our inner psychologies as unfavorable is detrimental and restrictive.  Just as a drawing or painting makes no sense without shadows, so too it makes no sense when we deny our whole selves.  It is our processes and practices with our inner nature that are essential to our wellness.

How do we see into this internal mirror?

What kind of sight do we use to witness our Shadow Self?

Conversations with friends and family, meetings with mentors, teachers, and professional counsellors, deep self reflection, journaling, being in Nature, and meditation are some ways in which to look into our interior selves.

Creativity is another way to access this inner mirror.  The mysterious and challenging process of creativity often initiates interesting interactions and collisions with your inner self.  Launching the potentials of introducing you to your inner mirror.

At some point in any artists process she must come face to face with her Shadow Self and her Light Self.  Art without these two aspects remains weak and shallow.  And I feel, if we as individuals, remain removed from our Shadow, we also are not as strong or mature.

To See into this mirror we use our Insight.  Self Reflection is of great importance to our well-being.  This I believe is where Shadow sharpens our perceptions and ability to know ourselves.  Insight moves and assists our lives forward.

This is the revolutionary and evolutionary inner process that is the Well of our well being.  I feel that art and creativity are tools that help us peer deeply into this innermost reservoir.  These are methods to see deep into this wellspring,

I will use two of my paintings to introduce what it is like diving into this informative abyss.

First some background on my work and approach to art making.  I have been painting since I was 15 and drawing since I was 10.  I completed many large stretched paintings while in high school.   Art was my driving force and all consuming focus until I was 40.

I was obsessive about art making.  Before 1997 I usually held numerous part time jobs.  Always allowing as much time as possible for making art.  I became a full time artist for the next three years, thus having nearly all my time to make art.   Additionally; since 1977  I have studied and eventually taught Karate and  Aikido.  I approached these arts with similar excess.

After whatever job or jobs during any particular day and after teaching and or training, I would eat a quick bite in the studio and paint until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning.  Day in day out. I was compelled to paint 4 to 6 hours each day or more.  That was my life for approximately  25 years.

The essence of Shadow is allusive and complex.  There had always been an unsuspecting edge of the Shadow influencing me.  I had an extreme drive but also a level of disconnection.  I had a great passion with everything artistic yet I had not really begun to know my Self.  I was producing a lot of pieces,  nevertheless I was resisting growth.  All this was drifting about deep down in the waters of my psyches’ pool.

So, for all those years I was in a kind of fast-paced, breakneck, turbo, speedy, rapid fire, wildly prolific art maker.

In 2003, I had a ceremonial burning of a lot of old work.  I knew a radical shift was necessary when I began to feel and see a Shadowy aspect within my need to keep all those paintings and drawings.

Storage had become more and more of an issue over the years.  Because of internal conflicts, I was overly attached to my work. I had kept everything. My paintings and drawings had created a weight around me.  It felt like this was the only evidence of my devotion and dedication to creativity.  I became aware that I had to let go of the glut of  physical representations of my effort and labor.

That attachment was heavy.   As if each piece was a mass added to my own planet of art.  Each time I wanted to explore the outer space of the creative unknown I had to generate greater and greater escape velocities to get beyond the gravities of all that accumulated old artwork.  It was extremely liberating to unburden myself from those relics.

My remanent manias went up in flames with that old work.

I had more freedom to witness my internal and external processes.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of shadow involved in the creative process.  Describing  some of my experiences while making these two paintings is a window into these shadowy areas of creativity.

This is an elusive undertaking.  Shadow is evasive to elucidation.  As I speak about my process with these two paintings use your intuition and inner sight. I invite you to receive the imagery, rather than look at the work.

Reunion and Return. (oil on hard-board, 77″ x 48″,  July through October 2005.)


From the very start I knew something different was happening.  I approached the preparation of the panels with more attention.  I felt I needed to address every aspect of these particular works with a new level of awareness and consideration.  No particular thought or idea led me to this decision. These feelings and intuitions were evidence of the greater influencing of the Shadow.

I hand rubbed three coats of gesso into the masonite and sanded each application.  This very physical connection to the panels set in motion a resonance within my body.  A new kind of link between me and the emerging art was being imprinted through the tensions and pressures of hand to board.  This action was similar to finishing a sculpture. The act of polishing is a long meditation of rubbing ones life force into the stone as closure.

My process with these panels was the reverse. I was transmitting my vitality into the inception of the work.  I was initiating an intention of deceleration.

Historically I have worked very quickly.  It took me 24 hours to paint this 8 x 8 foot Iris.


Yet, with the assistance of self reflection and insight, I had become painfully aware of the traps, pitfalls, and even humor of exceeding the speed limits of my artistic lucidity.

I quickly found myself sitting in front of these two pieces;… a lot; So much more than I usually would.

This is where the Shadow had my attention.  The Shadow was disengaging me from old methods of celerity.  Shadow was compelling and exacting me into; waiting and watching.  Abiding a new patience.

My ability to enfold my immediate space had changed.  My studio was in the basement of our two flat.  Being below ground was activating rich soils I had neglected for much too long.  The Earth herself, was speaking to me, with her clear and powerful Shadow Voice.

I was experiencing the direct teachings of the imagery.  As the figures of the paintings were taking shape, sending their roots into their surroundings, I too was sending out my own tendrils into my inner regions of concealment.

A surprising process emerged.  I would paint the figures and then nearly cover them over with paint.  In and out of chaos. In and out of order.  These were slow motion explosions and implosions. I found myself repeatedly looking at a freshly painted “in” figure, or a newly painted “out” figure.  More precisely a nearly eradicated figure.  I was inside an undertaking that I did not comprehend.  This is difficult to explain.  Linear language often falters in these areas of describing the creative process. This is where the relationship with shadow paradoxically is clearer; yet still mystifying.

I was not simply painting over the imagery.  I was not correcting mistakes.  There was nothing “wrong” with these figures.   After hours of work painting the figure in, I would feel that impulse to pour, splash, throw, dribble, paint over the entire painting, until I could barely see the figure, and then start the entire process over again and again and again, with a lot of sitting in between.

This was not an easy process.  It required a lot of time to paint the figures.  I was constantly on the edge of loosing both paintings.

Yet, it was exciting at that edge.

I was not exactly reproducing the figures each time.  I was not “redoing” what I had already painted. But they were not totally different. If that’s confusing, you should have been in the studio with me.

I was not in an artistic battle or solving an aesthetic problem.  In my opinion neither of those approaches are very deep with respect to authentic creativity.

I was learning how to stop Trying.

This was a very humbling experience for me.  I did not know much about the conversation that was taking place.  My artistic fluency was of little use here.  I was being taken deeper into the listening part of this dialogue.  A deeper type of creative discussion was taking place.  I was at an aesthetic threshold.

Core deep interior feelings and intuitions were the Teachers here, like being a guest at the table of the Shadow.  I would sit in my studio for hours in front of these panels.

At times bored,

at times painting,

at times struggling,

at times annoyed,

much of the time simply sitting,

learning to pay attention.

I kept showing up.

I kept listening.

I was suspended like my characters.  Yet, I felt that I was somewhere.

I was fascinated and frustrated.  I had no scheduled shows or desire to show. I had extracted myself from the gallery system. I had incinerated my unnecessary artistic debris.  This work and I were under no obligation.  Other than to each other.

I was unhurried; afloat in my studio.

This went on for four months.

Part of an artists greatest challenge is control.  Confusion between technique and expression is the issue.  I believe a sophisticated level of technical proficiency is necessary to move toward genuine artistic expression.

Yet, simply knowing the rules is not enough, you must experience the physicality of the techniques.  You must feel the emotions inside of the repetitions.  The body must be involved. The memory and true expression of painting is found in the body not the intellect.

I had released my control soon after starting.  I could have, and would have at an earlier phase of my life, simply muscled ahead.  Yet, it was from those years of fast paced late nights and solitude that my appreciation and intuitions of the Shadow originated.  This gave me the assurance to trust a larger process.  The Shadow was provoking me to sharpen my sight.  Impelling me to define who I truly was.

The challenge in speaking of Shadow is definition.  I do not think we can precisely define Shadow . Equally as undefinable as imagination, creativity, or consciousness.  There is a quality of Shadow to certain feelings and thoughts.  Ideas and choices have Shadow qualities.

I described my process of making these paintings which reflected qualities of some of my experiences with Shadow.

In a way Shadow is like a form of Nature.  For example the Ocean, a great Cavern or the Grand Canyon.  Each incredibly majestic and powerful beyond imagination.  The moment you assume an attitude of domination or control, Nature will sweep you away with the slightest of effort. Without reverence, Shadow and Creativity will also sweep you away.

The essence of my experiences into my Well of Shadows was Trust.  All endeavors require trust.  The larger the task the more trust needed.  To travel down into our personal Wells, takes tremendous trust.

The farther down we journey the darker it gets.

It is in these spaces that we sharpen our sight.

Where we literally form and define ourselves.

With practice we can slow our inner speedy

chatterings, judgements, and rationalizations.

Inside our individual Wells of wellness,

exists infinite variations of Shadow and Light.

Where we can observe our feelings and thoughts in all their interesting, amazing, curious, frustrating, whacky, and mysterious levels.

Ease into your journey.

Be gentle with yourself.

Yet, be ready and alert.

The still water at the bottom of your well

is ever ready to reflect all of you back to yourself.

You must be willing to go to the edges,

and beyond.

Willing to dive into the unknown.

Willing to risk and to work.

Deep within our Wells is our heart space.

The great inner aquifer of the unknown.

Where we are quiet and stormy,

at ease and anxious,

sure and confused,

where we are witness to our Shadow and Light.

Within our wells, we sometimes find ourselves in mid air,

somewhere between the quenching waters far below

and the light of day high above.

Liberation is in both directions,

a paradox of freedom.

Be buoyant in your conundrums.

Trust the mysterious dance between Shadow and Light.

The wellspring of the heart space is the origin of relationship.

Hone your vision with the mystery of Shadow.

This is part of the destination-less journey of  personal evolution.

Our truest freedom emanates from trusting

our infinite ability to

Return to ourselves

and enjoy Reunion with others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *