Painting La Rinconada, 2014 (Photo: Todd McIntosh)
People often ask me how I came to make mandalas, what my inspiration is, and what my technical and creative processes are like. I recently received a new commission and so I thought I would blog about it from the design concept on paper to the garden wall. I’ve never really written too much about technical aspects of the mandala art I make, so I guess this is different for me. I am more apt to comment aesthetically about my process or content. Not that I don’t have these andtechnical concerns in my work.
I was first exposed (in a real way) to mandalas around 2006 when I began a series of retreats with Tibetan lama, Tenzin Wangyal in the mountains of Virginia. I began a formal meditation practice where mandalas were sometimes part of that practice. I became as drawn to them as anyone who has experienced them. Using my particular brand of imagery, I began painting them and they evolved aesthetically very apart from my other work. Being enamored with nature and its way of harnessing emotion—both in words and images— these are the elements that became my subjects instead of traditional Tibetan or Hindu symbols.
Mandalas have become very popular in the last twenty years and even more so recently. Often people respond to the color and patterns even though they may not have a connection to the function of mandalas in spiritual traditions. And that's ok too. Mandalas have been around in nature long before anyone thought to paint them anyway. I know many young children who instinctively or instructively, know what mandalas are and point them out in flowers and succulents. They also love to draw and paint them. A mandala is an ancient and archetypal symbol with a rhythm that when viewed, has a meditative balm at its most basic function.
I try to paint them with this spirit, like a meditation. Because they are symmetrical, the patterns become repetitive like a mantra. If you've seen Tibetan monks making sand mandalas, you have also heard them reciting mantras for the duration. This speaks to the sacred aspect of mandalas in different traditions. My mandala paintings are a very different process than my other work which tends to be more spontaneous, but it functions very well for me to have two very distinct practices.
I first meet with the client to see the space where the mural is to be. We discuss different ideas, images, colors they are drawn to. I make suggestions and notes. The murals I have painted here in San Miguel have been for people who were familiar with my style so they have given me a lot of freedom. Here is the blank garden wall through a long window in the house where the mural will be. I had initially suggested a series of three interconnected mandalas, so that when viewed from the house, the window would frame them as a painting. In the end however, we decided on one large central image.
You can find many people today making digital mandalas, bending color and form into kaleiscopic patterns on their computer screens. They have a very distinct look but there is nothing digital about mine. They are all hand-drawn and painted. For this reason the designwork takes almost longer than painting the mural. I think because I tend to want to work out any issues visually on the design rather than the wall. It can feel less spontaneous, but it's what works for me with the murals. Having said that, I often change parts of the design during the process on the wall as well.
One of my particular difficulties is that I normally work in and prefer watercolor. Brushing on layer upon layer of transparent color, at the design stage, I build up the surface. Acrylic, while necessary for an outdoor wall mural, just doesn't have the same color quality. Not worse really, just a different challenge.
This mural design is based on Mexican folk art and so I first gathered some inspiration on images I might incorporate. In this case, papel picado, Oaxacan alejibres, and crepe paper flowers to name a few.
There are several ways to compose a mandala. I make my entire design on a single pie piece. This is one of the ways I teach the construction of them in my classes. This wedge gets repeated all the way around, thus creating the symmetry of the design connections. Usually the wedge contains the basic elements, and there is plenty of opportunities to change or add different elements later. The transfer process can be a bit tedious and often takes a couple of days on the wall.
Here is the pie wedge on heavy vellum paper and the design beginning to take shape with some basic color laid down. I will usually only do a half-circle design, enough to get an idea of how all the elements will match up and a sense of the overall color.
There are many more hours and layers to go. Also, decisions about which aspects of the design to pull out.
NEXT POST: I explore a second design, that is a variation of this one both in color and elements.
"In the products of the unconscious we discover mandala symbols, that is, circular and quaternity figures which express wholeness, and whenever we wish to express wholeness, we employ just such figures. " ~Carl Jung
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A favorite from last year.