Pictures in My Mind

The other day I was spinning my wheels while trying to settle into doing some artwork. As one does when futilely wheel-spinning, I posted my malaise on Facebook, saying I was having trouble finding the right music to nail myself down at the art table and get to work.

Friends offered suggestions: Brian Eno, Vangelis, Alan Parsons, Wagner, movie soundtracks, Ramones, Fat Boy Slim, Beastie Boys, and Enya. Oh, and Molly Hatchet, followed by DeBussy. One person inquired, indirectly, about what I was working on in order to provide better suggestions.

What a variety of answers! But it got me thinking about the assumptions I make regarding how I use music while working and, on the evidence of the answers, how others seem to use it differently, or envision me using it other than as I do. That’s what this entry is about.

When I’m making pictures at the art table, I need pictures in my head. What may seem odd to say is that they are not the same pictures.

I’m not talking about the disconnect between what you envision in your head and what your hands are able to create. I’m talking about drawing (for example) a medieval armored warhorse in motion while listening to the soundtrack of Escape from New York. It’s drawing hobbits while listening to the WoW soundtracks. It’s making steampunkish stuff while listening to Gjallarhorn.

When I listen to music like this, my brain makes up stories and pictures inspired by the music. Many times my writing gets its seed from a piece of music, especially when driving long distances. It’s the same principle: a lot of driving is automatic and unconscious (and I have a spotless driving record, thxbai), much like the art can be.

I go through spates of listening to recorded books too. When I sit down to read in a more focused manner, it’s usually non-fiction but when I’m doing artwork, fiction is better.  If my attention wanders and I miss a paragraph or two, I can probably figure out what’s going on.

Mainly, I’m paying attention to the story while my hands keep doing what they’re doing … pretty much on their own. I trust them to take care of business while I’m “away.”

And I am very much “away.”

I think the popular conceptions about right and left brain thinking have been grossly oversimplified, and I’m not going to dump my modest understanding of the hard science realities into the mix here. I will just say that it is as if I am two people when I’m working in the zone.

The one doing the art is happy as a child in mud, slinging paint or obsessively following pencil lines with ink, or slashing gestural kinesthetics of swoop and rhythm in a pencil sketch that will turn into something when I eventually find the picture in the paper.

The other person is bored out of her skull.

That is the person who needs a story to keep her occupied. She’s required to stop in only occasionally, to critique and analyze, and then the playful child shoos her out the door again.

I usually prefer the vague stories cooked up by my imagination to the linear and fully-realized words of a recorded book, most of the time. Other times, I need something concrete and specific — books or Bach — lest the bored half of me throw an attention-demanding tantrum like a 2 year old in need of a nap.

(All these emotional babies in my analogies! Sheesh.)

Quite a few of the suggestions were for peaceful, contemplative, New Age-type music. I think that fits the image of the aesthetic artist, religiously devoted to her muse, drifting among rarified aeries and barely touching the sullying earth.

That’s not me.

In years gone by, I did often listen to Vangelis, Enya, Chick Corea and light jazz. Such music is rather good at ushering the bored Other beyond the portal to somewhere she can “check out.” But even that music builds stories and imagery well enough — Chariots of Fire, anyone? But on the whole, no.

work in progress

Soundtracks work pretty well, because the background music is designed to be evocative, to grab your imagination while remaining firmly in the background — exactly what I require. In truth, I’m rarely re-imagining the movies they came from, but rather the nonverbal emotions raised.

Because I do a lot of fantasy art, the costume epics of heroes get a sizeable slot in my iTunes lineup. Conan, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Alien, and as I said above, even offbeat things like Escape from New York are likely to inspire.

So do the soundtracks from World of Warcraft. I identify closely with the locations those strains are associated with in-game, but mostly they evoke an overall sense of heroic power and tragedy (which typically go hand in hand outside of games as well as within), providing a strong hook for storymaking.

The music doesn’t even have to be associated with any movie, ever. Two Steps from Hell has released only one album to the public because their focus is on wooing Hollywood, not commercial listeners like you and me. But if you’re looking for heroically evocative music, look no further.

I am a very visceral artist — if I can feel a pose in my muscles, in my spine, I can draw it. I probably can’t do it… I’m an overweight, middle-aged, out of shape woman who was never a jock in even the most active, athletic years of her life. But something about such music slips into my hindbrain, making me feel the motion or the deadly stillness, the regal pride or the quiet confidence that I usually choose to depict in these kinds of artworks.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recall an old story about Michael Whelan (who can do those athletic things) lunging around his yard swinging a broomstick to get a feel for the action pose of an Elric painting.

I am mainly talking about figures in art here. I’d say “human” but science fiction and fantasy aren’t so limited; this applies as much to creatures as to humanoids too.

Musicals and soundtracks from Broadway plays serve me well, a kind of halfway-between of recorded book and pure music. In this case, I am imagining the story being played out, assuming I ever saw it. Len Carriou, not Johnny Depp, lifts his razor high when I listen to Sweeney Todd (which is a shortcut to mental hell unmatched by anything but Nox Arcana). The fluid grace of the performers from Cats, whether aloof or goofy or tragic, makes my mind dance with images. I’ve never seen Rent or Chess, though, so I can only imagine.

You’d think I would go for podcasts and lectures. Mostly, I don’t. I’ve tried but I think it falls into the same abyss that makes fiction better to work to than non-fiction. Maybe I feel like the other person is in the room and I ought to pay attention to them.

When I really get into a weird mood, I play a half-dozen Jonathan Coulton songs over and over. My brain happily conjures up the WoW machinima I associate them with. (Faves are Creepy Doll, Re: Your Brains, and the Portal-crossover take on Still Alive.)

I do that a lot: repeat the same limited pieces of music in a short loop, over and over and over…and over…and over again. I have made dorm neighbors, roommates, and musically-inclined friends want to tear their hair out.

I think it puts me in a kind of timeless fugue state. The half of me that gets restless cannot be bored if no time is passing, right? The song still hasn’t ended — never mind that it’s the seventh time it has played.

Music can also nail me into place in time. This is commonly reported by music lovers around the world: a theme gets associated with particular events or a period of one’s life. In my case, I have sometimes been able to use this, deliberately, to make a timeless recursiveness in an eternity spent at the art table, making pictures.

Loreena McKennitt is good for this, as is Steeleye Span. Jethro Tull’s more woodsy folk-rock is ideal, though Ian Anderson’s highly literate lyricism deserves more attention than I spare while doing art, and I usually prefer Tull’s music for long drives. Nevertheless, I have listened to these performers so often, the songs on that short repeating cycle while working on various projects over the years, that they can make yesterday into today, into a perpetual now.

I can’t explain this, but it works. It’s usually a sign of withdrawal from other matters, I find, and in that sense it resembles that airy-fairy concept of the artist sailing away in Never Never Land. It’s how I wind up forgetting to eat or to let the dogs out. Except it doesn’t seem to matter what the music is, as long as it brings me pictures and stories and images to keep my brain occupied while my hands and eyes make art. Clockwork Orange or Clockwork Quartet will do equally well.

5 Replies to “Pictures in My Mind”

  1. Liz, have you ever given Blackmore’s Night a listen? Richie Blackmore, formerly the lead for the heavy metal group Deep Purple, and his wife have created a sound that I find perfect for playing WoW or writing fantasy.

    Some of their songs have metal elements, but in a renaissance or almost baroque manner (if that makes sense). There are also Celtic and Nordic elements. And the lyrics are also capable of stirring one’s imagination in the direction it seems you want to go.

  2. introduced me to Blackmore’s Night and yes, it’s in my Celtica/Nordica mix with McKennitt and Gjallarhorn! You’re absolutely right.

  3. Glad you found some new music from this post, Frankie. I could have linked more of it, but I mainly did so for the more unusual ones. For other performers, Google or Pandora or the library can certainly help.

  4. This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

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