Butterflies . . . Awww, cute!
We’ve all heard of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ since it is commonly used to illustrate Chaos Theory, Recurrence, and the interactive nature of Global Weather Systems. (Remember, the rains have started up here in the Pacific Northwest…) The concept, of course, is that the fluttering wings of a single butterfly in South America are capable of setting forces in motion which can amplify into a hurricane in the Atlantic. But there another thing our pretty little butterfly can show us artists as well. Something less dramatic, yet important to hold in our mind as we paint. And it has nothing to do with pupae or a chrysalis.
Have you ever noticed the way a butterfly flies? Of course you have because as a child it is a wonder to behold. But as you watched, did you also wonder how it managed to alight upon a specific bush in your backyard? A butterfly launches itself out into the emptiness of open space as if it has intention, but is easily knocked off course by the merest puff of wind. Even in a dead calm there is no such thing as a butterfly traveling in a straight line. There has to be continuous course correcting going on before the butterfly can arrive at its destination. As aviators, butterflies are severely handicapped. They were not lucky enough to evolve an efficient way to get from point A to point B. They have been burdened with extra work just to cross a lawn to reach a particular flower. But consider this fact: Monarch Butterflies do the impossible. Every winter they migrate from the upper reaches of our northern hemisphere to a specific area in Central Mexico. They do it by flying thousands of miles through powerful winds. In truth, they are carried by those powerful winds once they encounter them. Somehow, the Monarchs fly up to the Jet Stream and let it take them to where they want to go.
As an aside, the Monarchs are now in migration. From north to south to where it is warm and sunny. (Ha!) They begin in October and most will arrive in Mexico by February. The ultimate Snow Birds.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I tend to paint the same way a butterfly flies and many other artists do the same. Often, ‘civilians’ and novice painters believe there is some secret predictable formula that will consistently give birth to a work of art. There is not. I walk around, and if I see something I want to paint I stop and set up. But from that point on, the game is on. From the initial touch of paint to canvas, forces beyond my control are in play. The sun is in constant movement. Clouds are blowing in or out. Bugs show up. The tide goes in or out. People come along and attempt to engage me in conversation. (Or worse, request a quick lesson on how to paint rocks and water. Ha!) Everything is in transition! Or, I may start off feeling hungry, tired, and uncomfortable. Which makes me cranky. Whatever. All of this adds up and dictate how the painting will flow. In retrospect, any artwork can be construed as a logical and methodical progression, but in the immediacy of plein air work there is nothing else except the constant zigging and zagging of the paint. If I mis-fire on a shape or color, or if I throw down an errant stroke, or if I succumb to a moment of laziness, I must compensate for my failure before I can move on. And each correction itself can become a force to consider. Gosh, can I cover up my mistake? Can I recover at all? Should I wipe the canvas off and begin again? Or give up and move on? But, if I keep on correcting things as I go (the zigging and zagging…) I can usually get to some sort of destination, which hopefully means the same as a good painting.
But I also wonder if the butterfly – as it is being constantly buffeted about – if it is capable of deciding whether or not some other bush would be better choice than the one it first set out to reach. Can the butterfly appreciate the happy accidents and serendipitous circumstances of life the way we artists can? Probably not. Our butterfly is preoccupied with finding nectar, and if an easier source can be had by altering course, then why not?
I think this is a good lesson for us painters to consider since what we do is always a strange collision of intent and happenstance. Artists often set out with the intent of painting one thing only to discover that something else is more interesting. Artists can (hopefully) learn to distinguish when it is advisable to fight the unexpected and when it is best to give in to it. And finally, Artists can learn how to keep their artistic goals in mind while remaining open to whatever else they encounter along the way. In other words, artists can learn to ride the wind.
But having waxed on and on about butterflies and painting, I still don’t know how those Monarchs do it.
And yes, it’s still raining . . .