Energy, Space, and Magic

An exploration of the experience of art.

By Zed A. Shaw

Energy, Space, and Magic

I'm mixing the oils on a chunk of wood trying to see what's missing in what I'm seeing. On the stand are some flowers in a vase of yellow greens, purple blues, and dull pinks but to me they're just shapes. Abstract and pointless clumps of color arranged in such a way that my eyes tell my brain "photons", and my brain then comprehends "flower", "vase", "ground". My goal is to win a struggle against the helpful nature of my brain and flip a switch that turns off its incessant desire to keep me safe in the world by identifying every ray of light that enters my eyes.

In this instant in time, my brain is wrong. That is not a flower. That is an arrangement of shapes in various shades of blue, red, purple, and violet that when I place them adjacent on a surface another human will say, "flower!" I have to focus to disable the part of my brain that is trying to nonchalantly glance at the photons entering my optic nerve and slap the word "flower" on it then move on. I need to disable the wonderful beautiful magic of the human brain for just a little while so I can experience the world in its raw concept. This is like attempting to do the splits for two hours. My brain doesn't want to stretch like this, not for this long. My brain wants to take shortcuts, to just tag this stream of photons and move on, but I know if I can stretch it for long enough it'll relax and release all its tension. Turning off the words for a while so I can see reality without the magic.

Painting what I see is about killing the magic. I'm turning off the trickster in my mind that tells me the world is full of color even though my eyes actually can't see color over 80% of my vision. I'm disabling the part of my brain that summarizes everything with the glee of a toddler just learning to speak. "Boat!" "Car!" "Flower!" This change in how my brain works is temporary, and sometimes it's painful, but it gives my mind a break for a while. A relief from the constant stream of words I deal with all day. The words of code that must be oh just so or I'm a total failure.

Painting what I see is the inverse of magic. It's about seeing and experiencing the reality of light and color. It's not entirely intuitive, as I have to think and concentrate and study my subject intently, while at the same time following my intuition and trusting my training. Thankfully I paint in oils so I can just scrape that shit off if it doesn't work and try again tomorrow.

You can always scrape that shit off and try again tomorrow. The end result mostly doesn't matter. What matters for me is the experience of turning off the trickster's magic for a little while and experiencing the world differently.


Paintings have a certain kind of energy to them. Some paintings are calm and serene, with a smoothness and tranquility you could skip a stone across. Other paintings are a battle scene of blood and bullets smashing you in the face and kicking you to the ground. This is sometimes the purpose of an artist, but usually it depends on the viewer's reaction to the painting--as is most things in paintings. Some people will see a painting of some shoes and think, "It's shoes. Whatever." Others will see the same painting and feel the sadness dripping from the brush strokes depicting the poverty of the artist.

I find that when a painting is less defined it has more energy. The techniques needed to leave space in a painting--to keep it loose as some people say--also add energy and movement. Paintings full of energy have inaccuracies in their attempt to depict this charge. The artist lays down energetic strokes of paint, color flowing into other shapes irrationally, that gives a painting a sense of motion. A feeling that it's alive and not pinned down like a dead butterfly.

Creating energy in a painting also requires letting go. It relies on intuition and speed that circumvents the painters rational thought while not being thoughtless. There's a training and contemplation in all painting, and there's always contemplation, but relying on intuition to paint is much more like meditating than insanity. Many people who see a painting full of crazy brush strokes and color feel that the artist must be mad. They have to be crazy and there's a piece of their Freudian psychology embedded in the paint like a fly.

The reality is most painting is relaxing and meditative. Just watch Bob Ross and see how long before you pass out. He's energetic. He's painting a big canvas in 30 minutes with fast active techniques and putting on a show, but it's still calming. Meditative. Bob's paintings reflect this tranquility in their final form, but their creation is energetic and passionate. The same is mostly true of all paintings because painting is difficult, and you have to turn off your broken brain for a short time.

Turning off that magic trickster requires a meditative mindset. Meditative is a wide word. It could mean a contemplative Zen session, or the mind of a boxer in the ring. Either way, the end result's energy may not reflect the painter's actual mental state, even if many people desperately wish to believe that the artist put a piece of their pain into the brush.


A research paper attempts to leave no concept unclear--seeking to define everything mentioned with the greatest accuracy so as to not confuse the reader. This is beneficial because the purpose of a research paper is to transmit exact reproducible and verifiable concepts to other humans. By clearly defining every concept with exacting detail the research paper leaves no room for the reader's feelings and thoughts. It squeezes out the space between words to reduce the possibility that there is an error in the prose. An error in the prose is the death of a research paper after all.

A poem attempts to leave no concept defined. A poem is the undefined. The poem uses a sequence of words that try desperately to transmit a feeling, but this is impossible so the poem gives up. It accepts that there's error in this proposal and instead it opens itself up to the reader by creating a space for their feelings to exist. The reader of poetry is allowed to walk between words. Words that can be a hedge maze, or a house of mirrors. Words that can be a pleasant stroll, or a terrifying and hilarious reflection of the reader's self.

Paintings have their "research papers" and "poems" as well. Some paintings are clearly defined and exact leaving no room for misunderstanding. They're photographs, accurate studies, and careful depictions of every photon seen. Other paintings are poetic, with large gaps of space for the viewer to see their self between the shapes and feel what the painter felt along with their own personage.

People love both kinds of art in equal measure, depending on the era, and whether there's room in a painting depends on who's viewing it. The viewer decides if there's room for them in a work of art. Some people see an abstract painting with not a single thing defined and think, "Fuck that painting. There's no room for me in that pile of random dog shit." Others see a perfectly rendered painting of a bowl of fruit and think, "How bourgeoisie. I see no room for any feeling or emotion in this tightly rendered photography."

Both haters would be wrong and right at the same time. Most people have not done the training to see the world as it is the way I have. I can look at a painting and turn off my self for a bit to study it mechanically because I've trained to be a painter. Other people don't have this skill and are ruled by their emotions and thoughts, so the light bouncing off cadmiums embedded in walnut oils is interpreted through a fog of emotions and feelings they can't control. I have no choice but to leave a space for humans in my art because they will bull their way into my finely crafted colorful tea shop whether I like it or not.

I believe a skillful artist understands how to control the space they're creating. Are they leaving space for others to exist in their world, or squeezing all space out to make sure that what others see is not misunderstood? There's validity in both approaches and styles. What I find interesting is many artists can't seem to do both in much the same way that art haters can't seem to find things to like in at least some of the art they hate. You'd think an artist who can perfectly render a basket of fruit could also just slosh some pigments around a canvas and make that abstract impressionist money, but they can't. Or won't. Probably can't.

There's no reason for this. They just seem to think painting is about them rather than about the viewer. There's a small amount of narcissism in this as well. The painting with zero space is all about the painting and the artist. It's saying exactly what should be seen, and there's no space for you. People who love paintings with lots of space are demanding that they be let in. The art is not about the artist, it's about them and how they feel about the art, so they enjoy the art that gives them permission to wander.


There is no magic in painting. People are deeply offended by this statement in the same way they are offended by, "God is dead." Many art fans believe that art is imbued with a piece of spiritual magic the same way they believe an Amethyst rock will open their third Chakra or that people born in December are vastly different from people born in August.

This religious view of art blinds people to the beauty in the reality of what's actually in front of them. It hides the truth and conceals the real story being told, and there's no way a painter can stop it. People will see magic in anything they don't understand, so many painters simply go with it. They pretend that there's so much art and magic in what they do. That it's much more complex and that none of you mere mortals will ever possibly learn this vast tome of magic they've learned.

The truth is, painting is not that complex. It's difficult mostly because people's brains don't actually work well for the task, so it requires training to repurpose their mental machinery into seeing in a new way. The only real therapy that comes from doing this is an ability to really actually see reality for a brief glimpse through a key hole not blocked by your confounded perceptions. Otherwise, it's a thing most anyone can learn if they put in effort, and all these claims of magic and the judgments attached to this false religion simply act as a barrier to entry.

The act of painting what I see is not magic, but I can become a magician with my art. I can utilize the space I leave in my art, and exploit the visual deficiencies of the human brain, to delight them with a whole new world. I can trick their brain into seeing what I saw, or seeing what I want them to see, with a pigmented sleight of hand and misdirection of light bouncing off color sheets of dried nuts.

This is the real magic of painting. It's in the game of exploiting space, energy, and light to play tricks on someone's eyes so they briefly experience a whole new world for a short period of time.

More from Zed A. Shaw

The Beggar Barons

The rise of the trillionaire beggars.

OpinionPublished 2022-02-05

Sometimes, It's Fun to Die

The survival crafting video game is my pandemic theme song.

OpinionPublished 2021-04-08

The Most Zed Story About a Knife

A microcosm story that more completely explains who I am than anything else you'll read.

OpinionPublished 2020-10-08

Authoritarianism of Code

An essay on the pervasive internalized authoritarianism found in the programming profession.

OpinionPublished 2020-10-07