2. Expression : It’s A Circus!

Circus Ponies (detail) 18 x 24 oil on canvas by Lesley Humphrey

Opposing Forces:

Einstein taught us that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.  Jung informed us that for every light in our life, there is a shadow.  Taoist philosophy eloquently explains the principles of yin and yang.  The list is endless; feminine/masculine; dark/light; right/wrong; ego/true self, right/left brain.   Opposites are inescapable in all aspects of life, including the painting process.  (Read Stephen Pressfield’s superb little book “The War Of Art” for a fantastic explanation and strategy.)

As painters/would-be artists, we need our left brains and egos to plan, learn technique, orchestrate, manage the process while protecting us, and helping us withstand the world.   We need our right brain and our spirit to inform us of aspects beyond the visual field with dreams, symbol and metaphor, and to love life.  We need our right brain and spirit to infuse us with excitement and energy, and inspire us to express something beyond the usual.  We need both to orchestrate or compose and complete paintings that at least aspire toward ‘Art’.  This doesn’t have to be heady or deep stuff…..The following metaphor helps my students to understand this concept better:

The Ringmaster: Better do as you’re told!

Introducing my left brain as:  The Ringmaster

She likes to think she’s the master.  She thinks all the world revolves around her. She’s clever, she’s in charge, she’s upright.  Hard-lined. Neat and tidy, prim and proper.  Everything is black and white to her.  She likes everything detailed and going according to plan, her plan, and she cracks the whip when it doesn’t. She’s organized the circus (painting process).  She knows the circus will require bravery in some parts, beautiful, beguiling, and entertaining in others.  She plans and organizes everything to enthrall and excite you, all the while bossing everyone around, telling them not to throw popcorn or pet lions (good advice).  If she had it her way, everyone would stay in the lines (circus ring) and in their places.  We can consider these negative aspects of our left brain/ego,  (can you imagine Vladimir Putin’s ringmaster?) but think again.  A healthy, well-contained, well-functioning ego (who knows its place) is vital if we are to learn, organize and manage the process, from start to sale!

Meet My Clown: She refuses to stay in the lines!

Meet my right brain : The Clown

A non-conformist.  Her outfit is outrageous; her gestures and expressions distorted.  She refuses to stay within the realms of appropriate, organized behavior.  She won’t stay within the lines.  Too loud, too colorful, too many patterns, feet and nose too big. Extreme behaviors; walking on the edge of a tightrope without a net!  Lots of outlandish color and pattern with no concern for normal ideas of beauty!  She’s always going out of the box responding to the call of her spirit and nothing more.  Everyone loves the clowns.

The circus as a metaphor:

As a child I always loved the circus. My first was in Blackpool Tower in Lancashire, when they had horses, lions, tigers and the great clown Charlie Cairoli. These days I travel far and wide to see Cirque du Soleil, wether in Las Vegas or in a circus tent.  Surely most of us love the circus.

It can be fun and demystifying to think of the painting process as a circus, and paintings can be viewed and evaluated as such:

It’s good to be out of the ring sometimes. ‘Out Of The Spotlight’ by Lesley Humphrey

Consider paintings where ‘the ringmaster has overly-dominated the process’.  In such paintings, the lines/edges are often hard and defined, the image crisp and easily recognizable, values equal, colors equal, no texture or extremes of any kind present.  Nothing extraordinary, either in technique or in content.  We view such works and can be beguiled by their exquisite technique, yet if there is no “out of the box”, creative thinking, something is somehow missing.  We don’t feel anything; we have no emotion about it.  We are neither excited nor entertained.  Depending upon how dominant they are, our internal ringmasters may greatly approve of these paintings. (Or they might be bored.)

Again, and this is only my opinion, but I tend to think of ringmaster paintings as works to be evaluated from the ‘neck up’.  In other words, they are mostly created from the head/mind of the painter, so they only affect yours.  Often highly impressed and in enamored by glorious, often exquisite technique, we evaluate such paintings, often with awe.  I have collected paintings of this nature.

Conversely, I can think of paintings where the artist has spent all his/her time clowning around.  You get the impression that the painter has flung paint here and there, lines, shapes and colors in no recognizable order.  On viewing these paintings, we can enjoy them, and can often be entertained by the surface or sheer ‘joie de vivre’ present in the work.  Sometimes, however, encountering such a painting can be like watching someone have a tantrum on canvas, and we yearn for some type of organization, fugue or theme that we can connect to.  I have paintings like this in my collection too.   (…Done by children in our family).

It might be helpful to take view a different art form and see how this applies.  Let’s consider the following example of ‘clown and ringmaster’ dominance in the art of dance, then see if you can think of other examples in other art forms:

Ringmaster dancing:
The elegant ringmaster-type and his beautiful partner are dancing.  His hair is slicked-down to pristine perfection, not one out of place.  She the picture of loveliness, make-up and facial expression applied to perfection.  In perfect unison, and with perfect poise,  they dance the perfect rumba, without putting a step out of place.  We can appreciate the precision and training, and it’s wonderfulto watch… for a while, but who amongst us could watch a whole, 2-hour, concert-length rumba? (Without strong coffee, anyway.)

The clown, dancing:
Little Mary Sue, dressed as Isadora Duncan, flings herself from one piece of furniture to another, blissfully unaware of ornaments being wantonly dispersed with every twirl.  Fun to a point, but could you tolerate much of this?  Would you pay to see this?

El Duende! (detail) 48 x 36 oil on canvas by Lesley Humphrey

A little bit of both – flamenco:

Beautiful flamenco begins with well-trained steps and rhythms.  Then dancers, cantor musicians, and audience become swept away with new forms of dance, the energy of life, ‘el duende’ * …each person/artist inspired by the other; Each interpreting the dance uniquely, yet aware of and conforming to the parameters required.

  • “Duende” is a term often used in Spain to describe flamenco singers or dancers who have/transmit that untranslatable quality. It would be a mixture of strength, rapture, rawness…It can be used in any other context by extension, to describe someone or something that has much depth and impact.”  (From proz.com)

We can sense when we are viewing original work, a work perhaps felt throughout the whole body, inspired by a powerful intention, a prompt from the heart or spirit.  One can also sense when the intent of the artist is to connect to the viewer in a meaningful way, perhaps responding to something that he/she has encountered and has a real passion to express.

We respond differently when artists have used a blend of technique and creativity in their work; We are not only beguiled by technique, but we also feel drawn to them, are moved by them, often beyond words.  I believe that when the artist develops tools and techniques to express his every vision, both inner and outer, and works through the heart as well as the head, we can feel these paintings from the neck down also.  We might call these whole paintings and, because we are all unique, they are different for all of us.

A word about critics:

This is just my opinion (here I go again…) but this is why the ‘expert’ or ‘critic’ should be evaluated i.e., consider how much ‘ringmaster’ is talking, before we decide how much we are prepared to listen to/take advice from said expert/critic. Surely, when evaluating the more subjective elements of ‘Art’, the quality and content of the critic’s character enables him to see the equivalent quality/content of the Art?  Perhaps we should ask ourselves, before we hold our works up for evaluation, how many of our critics have never even challenged themselves to set foot ‘over the threshold’ of creativity?  Perhaps we should be somewhat alert and a little suspicious of advisers who suggest we “Do as they say, not as they do”.

Why not consider holding yourself /your art up to people sincerely worthy of a critique?  People you can believe in;  People I call ‘believing mirrors’.

We are all unique, and perhaps we should forgive ourselves and realize that we simply are in alignment with some artists of the present or past, and not others.  Depending upon the culture we grew up in, our background, our influences, personal development, and exposure to arts and culture, these affinities may change over time.  They did with me.**

** Here are some of my most important artistic influences, and the order in which they appeared in my life.  Reubens, Rembrandt, Munnings, Repin & Serov, Van Gogh, Richard Schmid, Fechin, Kandinsky, Kline, Kiefer, Alex Powers, Margaret McDonald and the Glasgow Four, Deibenkorn… and my eye is always open.

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Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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