Claude Monet had said, “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.” He repeatedly painted the same thing, over and over again. It was as if he was held in a strong grasp, evident in the way he was consumed by every single detail of the subject, and how it changed with every lapsed second of time. “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually,” he said. In 1892, between the months of February and April, and again, in the same months, in 1893, Monet set out to encapsulate a part of the Rouen Cathedral (in France) on canvas. He arranged 10 of them in front of the window that overlooked the structure, moving from one canvas to the next, as the light flitted, during the course of the day. From dawn to dusk, he worked at a feverish pace. During this time, he wrote to his wife, “I work like a mad man, I cannot stop thinking of anything else, but the cathedral.” The imposing, monochromatic Gothic edifice took on different temperaments in the 30 (or more) paintings that Monet created. In his eyes, the intricacy of the structure was rendered in a wide spectrum of colours, from mauves and greens, to pinks and oranges. “Everything changes, even stone,” he wrote. However, light and weather only constituted the surface-level qualities of what Monet was after. In the eventuality of his work, he realised, “I am more and more mad about the need to render what I feel or experience.”
When she painted, Georgia O’Keeffe, a pioneer just like Monet, embodied the same repetitive ferocity. “Essential to O’Keeffe’s artistic process is her exploration of the myriad nuances found in a relatively limited number of subjects, predominantly landscapes, flowers, and bones. “I work on an idea for a long time. It’s like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily,” she explained. The pictorial potential of a subject is examined in a series of canvases – generally three or four, but sometimes as many as a dozen that are painted over the course of months or even years. During this time, O’Keeffe reworked many different elements of the picture… to raise new problems or suggest alternate solutions to ones already studied. Throughout her extraordinary career, there has always been this ebb and flow of imagery, a cyclical working and reworking of ideas,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 1984, reiterated.
Where O’Keeffe was taken in by nature, her husband, the indomitable Alfred Stieglitz, was enamoured by her. Between 1917 and 1937, he made more than 300 photographs of her. “My hands had always been admired since I was a little girl – but I never thought much about it. He wanted head and hands and arms on a pillow – in many different positions. I was asked to move my hands in many different ways – also my head – and I had to turn this way and that. Stieglitz had a very sharp eye for what he wanted to say with the camera. When I look over the photographs he took of me – some of them more than 60 years ago – I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. His idea of a portrait was not just one picture. His dream was to start with a child at birth, and photograph that child in all of its activities, as it grew to be a person, and on throughout its adult life. As a portrait it would be a photographic diary,” O’Keeffe had said (1978). For Stieglitz, portraiture was more than just the face… “To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed to a single still.”
For the acclaimed writer, Haruki Murakami, repetition, was akin to hypnosis. “When I am in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I got to bed at 9 pm. I keep to this routine every day, without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing, it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
As students or long-time practitioners of the medium, repetition is often frowned upon. There’s so much emphasis and pressure on producing new work that the only kind of repetition that is encouraged is one that constitutes practice. But what is practice, after all? It’s repeating the same action till you’ve mastered it (read Malcom Galdwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule). So why do we let our inability to continually come up with fresh ideas, abandon the ones that show promise?
When in doubt, I always go back to Todd Hido: On Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. In it, Hido explains, “I keep this list of rules for art students in my office. The first rule is, “Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.” It’s okay to stay in the same place for a while and to trust the desire to do so. I’d go to the same suburbs and make pictures of houses at night with lights on. I’d see that the picture was really good and then make another one to see what happened. I’d go back again and again. Slowly but surely the work evolved…There’s something essential in doing the same set of actions over and over again. There’s a comfort and consistency in the repetition, but it’s not too comfortable. You’re not bored. There is still something sustaining your interest, pulling you along. You have to trust that you will come up with something different, arrive somewhere new in the process.”