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The Dark Night Of The Soul- The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD

The Dark Night Of The Soul- The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD


One of the biggest issues I see abstract artists struggle with in my online courses and live workshops is grappling with the middle of the painting.

This is often expressed as “how do I finish my painting?”

And finishing your abstract art is a whole topic unto itself. I like what Anselm Kiefer has to say about this…


A painting is like a river…it’s never finished.

Anselm Kiefer


Many abstract artists love the beginnings of their paintings…they love activating the canvas with intuitive, stream of consciousness mark making…they love the raw, guttural, alive feeling that comes from creating painting ‘starts’.

But then…they step back and the energy shifts and they ask themselves “now what? what do I do now?”

 They’re in the middle of the painting…


It makes me think of Dante’s opening salvo in The Divine Comedy:


In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood…and the true way was wholly lost.

Dante Alighieri



This is akin to the proverbial dark night of the soul.

The moment when we feel lost, unsure, and not knowing what to do.

And this is when the inner critic shows up in full regalia with self doubt, second guessing, overthinking…and perhaps a desire to cover up or throw out all the work we’ve done.

The dark night of the soul is a crucial moment…it’s the paradoxical moment that’s rife with imagined disaster yet pregnant with possibility….the possibility of finally trusting yourself.


This moment of not knowing must be faced within yourself. No one can decide this for you. You’re the author, the composer, the artist, the creator.

The Self Sabotage Of The Internal Predator


Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With The Wolves articulated the language of the inner critic by calling it the internal predator. This is the part of our inner narrative that undermines our confidence and wreaks havoc with our lives and our art. 

I’ve seen an infinite number of permutations of the internal predator in the inner landscape of most of the artists I’ve worked with, including myself.

I’ve seen abstract artists do any number of things that avoids the thing they most need to do…which is to trust themselves.


I’ve seen them cover up all the marks they made…perhaps because their own rawness and power threatened or scared them.

I’ve seen artists noodle the work to death as they second guess their every move and mark.

I’ve seen artists engage their thinking mind and try to lay a sort of cartesian grid of composition/design on top of an otherwise intuitive painting…and it ends up feeling contrived and strategic.

I’ve seen artists move into the painting tentatively, hesitantly, ambivalently. And it shows.

The reality is that some of our paintings don’t work no matter what we do. Life is like that. We’re not going to like all of our paintings.


Indeed, some of our abstract art we may deem as ‘ugly’…perhaps because they are…but perhaps some of them aren’t really ugly…in fact they’re so astonishing that we can’t yet value them so we reject them immediately.

Perhaps our ‘ugly’ works are the nascent forms of an emerging body of work.


So what do we do with the middle of the painting?

How do we bring it in for a landing?

How do we decide when to stop?

I believe that there are many stopping points in a painting and in the end it’s up to you to decide where that point is for you.


It’s your painting…you decide when to stop among the many possible stopping points.


The Adjacent Possible


Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, M.D. and theoretical physicist Bruce Sawhill, Ph.D described this as “the adjacent possible which is the idea that there are many possible pathways in the unfolding of evolution. I wrote about the adjacent possible in a previous post and you can read it by clicking here: https://www.artistsjourney.com/experimental-painting-the-adjacent-possible

There are many possibilities…perhaps infinite possibilities.

Which stopping point will you choose?

The secret to creating alive, personal and wondrous paintings that astonish you is very simple….and yet elusive.


The secret…is trusting yourself.



Trusting yourself as you go into the middle of the painting.

Trusting yourself as you move into this place where you don’t know what’s going to happen or whether or not you’ll like what you create.

Trusting your gesture, your marks, your moves.

Trusting that even if you don’t like what you create you can always go back into it…or put it aside…

Trusting that some paintings come easily and immediately and are durchkomponiert (German for “through composed”…meaning that they’re complete at every stage of development) while others have to be wrestled to the ground like Beowulf in his life or death fight with the monster Grendel.

Trusting that some paintings you can redeem…and others, not.

Allowing yourself to not know what’s going to happen.

California artist Michael Cutlip said that when he goes into his studio to paint if he already knows what’s going to happen…it’s all over.

And so I say to myself and to my students: “Let yourself not know“.

And let yourself accept the fact that you may indeed create an ugly painting.

You may create a painting you simply don’t like…or worse, a painting that you hate…a painting that embarrasses you.

I think one of the big fears in the middle of the painting; however, is that you’ll ruin the painting you have come to accept.

You’re in the middle of the painting and the territory feels treacherous.

So how do you face this fear of ruining your painting?

How does this look technically or operationally? How do you deal with the middle of the painting? How do you finish your abstract art?



One way this looks is to step back and see your painting ‘start’ and feel what’s there and listen to what your body wants to do next.

Perhaps you consider the composition and imagine various moves you want to make to strengthen the painting.

You may be looking at predominance (a little of this, a lot of that), edges, intervals, value patterns, visual contrast). There are many considerations….

But here’s the secret: decide on something and go back into the painting with the same energy you had when you were creating the painting start!  



Make a decisive move and get out!

Make your marks and leave it alone!

In other words, don’t lick the paint!


You don’t want your painting to be gummed to death. Bite into It ,Baby!

We want our paintings to be alive, we want to breathe life into them.

Ultimately, it’s your painting.

Will you paint for yourself?

What do you say to yourself when you’re in the middle of the painting?

I tell myself to go in there decisively and then get out!

I tell myself…take it or leave it…this is what I’m doing.

I tell myself…it’s all experimentation.


What do you tell yourself to help you to trust yourself as you create?


Reply to this post and tell me about your experience as an abstract artist. I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experience about starting and finishing abstract art.

With gratitude,



P.S. Want to go deeper with me in your art? Learn about my signature course, The Artist’s Journey by clicking HERE.

Go deeper with in your art with bestselling, award winning books in The Art Of The Possible book series

Get the series HERE.



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