Looking white in the face
I went to boarding school between the age of eleven and thirteen. Although essentially a comprehensive school with a tagged-on boarding house in the car park, it held onto many of the old grammar school traditions, including a culture in which prefects would mete out time-consuming punishments for minor misdemeanours. For example: for drawing comics when I should have been doing homework, I was instructed to describe in not less than 1,000 words: “WHITE“, thus preventing me from finishing either my comic or my homework. It is with some surprise that I find myself, half a lifetime later, sitting down to write the 2013 version. The title may be a little different, but it is essentially the same subject. “WHITE“, or to be more specific, the fear of it.
Do you ever feel afraid of the white page, the blank canvas or the empty Photoshop™ document? A lot of people do. There’s even a word for it: vacansopapurosophobia. It’s a common complaint among creatives, similar to writers’ block. It is the inability to get the ball rolling, a crippling lack of confidence at the outset of a project or a sense that anything you try, will fail. Where do I start? How do I start? Should I bother starting at all?
All of us struggle with a sense of worth. Is it the fear of failure that makes us feel uneasy or, as Franklin D Roosevelt said, fear itself? Perhaps those who manifest these feelings into a pathological fear of the colour white may be extreme cases, but ultimately their fear is no more irrational than the fear of failure.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” proposed that human desire can be divided into a hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that once we have achieved the baser needs and desires of life, we strive to achieve a state of self-actualisation; the psychical manifestation of all our potential. Effectively the metamorphosis from what is possible, to what is.
Maslow placed “self-actualisation” at the pinnacle of his pyramid. His critics point out that the penniless painter, slapping paint onto canvas, may be pre-occupied with self-actualisation above all else. The tortured artist may forgo food and drink to buy the paint he needs or more blank canvases.
“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s coping strategy appears to have been immediate eradication of the offending blank canvas. Anyone who has watched children play will recognise this technique. The first thing a child does when settling down to play is to empty their toy box all over the floor.
The child revels in choice. They instinctively recognise the importance of inspirational resources. A pile of toys is like a pile of ideas. Unrelated and disparate thoughts, building blocks to be assembled into a meaningful pattern. They do not start with nothing, they organise the chaos.
“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me. Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.” At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one. Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”
Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”
Although many artists and writers combat this fear of the blank page by spoiling or filling the page as quickly as possible, there are a considerable number of artists who practice the exact opposite; instead of adding to the canvas, they subtract.
Hergés, the celebrated creator of Tintin, was plagued by recurring nightmares, filled with whiteness. He consulted a Swiss psychoanalyst, who advised him to give up working on Tintin. Instead, he finished Tintin in Tibet, started the year before. Hergés, actually transformed the white from his nightmares into snow, literally revealing the potential of the fear itself. Converting it into minimalist scenes, of tremendous power, with economy and clarity. We are transported to another world, a world of Hergés’ creation; something that may never have existed if the author had not struggled, and ultimately triumphed, over his fear. Hergés made a choice to continue and in so doing exorcised his phobia forever.
The blank canvas or document is a portal into another world. Potential manifest. The artist, as the creator of this world, must make choices. Every brush stroke, key press or movement makes the world more solid, for better or worse. A single brush stroke in the wrong place can subvert or transform that world. Every choice is a doorway to another reality but beware, for every door that opens an infinite number of alternate doors close.
It is said that Michelangelo stared at a single 18-foot block of marble for four months. When asked what he was doing he calmly answered ‘sto lavorando,‘ (I’m working). Three years later that block of marble was the statue of David. Michelangelo held a belief that a sculpture already exists inside every block of marble. He believed that it was the sculptor’s job to chip away the superfluous, in order to free the idea inside.
Did Michelangelo ever feel afraid during those long months spent gazing at that virgin block of marble? I’m sure he did.
‘A sculptor is chiseling a statue out of a raw stone when he is asked “What are you making? Is it Ganesh? Is it Lakshmi? Is it a man? Is it an elephant?” He replied ”I do not know; there is already a statue inside and I am only removing the extraneous material. It will come out on its own!”’
You could describe the coping strategies of Michelangelo and Hergés as ‘subtractive’. Their creative process sets about revealing the idea by subtracting the extraneous white space.
Alternatively, Van Gogh adopts an ‘additive” approach by slapping on the paint, as carelessly as possible in order to avoid confronting the blank canvas at all.
Whether we choose to embrace or eradicate the white page, we must avoid becoming consumed by it. The blank page is a Mirror of Erised, reflecting idealised versions of our ideas back at ourselves, ultimately transfixing us into inactivity.
Ideas can be blinding and dazzling but they can also consume us. We should view them with caution; as a child peers at an eclipse through a pin-hole in a piece of card.