It was through the study of outline in painting that it became clearer what might be the nature of the spiritual dangers to be faced, if one was to see as the painter sees.
Up to now it was the outline that had seemed the easiest thing to manage. Apparently this is a common belief, for I read: “Most of the earliest forms of drawing known to us in history … are largely in the nature of outline drawings. This is a remarkable fact, considering the somewhat remote relation lines have to the complete phenomena of vision.” (Harold Speed: The Practice and Science of Drawing, p. 50).
The last remark in this passage was surprising, for I had always assumed in some vague way that outlines were “real”. I read on: “A line seems a poor thing from the visual point of view: as the boundaries (of masses) are not always clearly defined, but are continually merging into the surrounding mass and losing themselves, to be caught up again later on and defined once more.”
After reading this I tried looking at the objects around me and found that it was true. When really looked at in relation to each other their outlines were not clear and compact, as I had always supposed them to be, they continually became lost in shadow.
The effort needed in order to see the edges of objects as they really look stirred a dim fear, a fear of what might happen if one let go one’s mental hold on the outline which kept everything separate and in its place.
When trying to think about what might be the reason for this need to make objects keep themselves to themselves within a rigid boundary I remembered reading: “The outline is … the first and plainest statement of a tangible reality.” (Gordon: A Step Ladder to Painting, p. 19).
Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects.
I could only suppose that, in one part of the mind, there really could be a fear of losing all sense of separating boundaries; particularly the boundaries between the tangible realities of the external world and the imaginative realities of the inner world of feeling and idea; in fact a fear of being mad.
If painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space then it must also be to do with problems of being a separate body in a world of other bodies which occupy different bits of space: in fact it must be deeply concerned with ideas of distance and separation and having and losing.
* Text: On Not Being Able to Paint (Marion Milner, 1950)
* Images & Captions: Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)