Sunday, July 27, 2014

I have just finished the second in a series of three paintings on the subject of moral development, entitled: Prokoptón (a prokoptón is someone who makes progress). It's about how to become a better person - and how hard it is.

The starmap serving as the background for the painting contains the Saggitarius constellation (the name can be found by the man's left ear). Saggitarius means archer.

You can bend over backwards trying to be good, but still, the outcome of your actions is something that is not in your power, no matter how wonderful a person you are being. That's why I refer to the Stoic symbol of the archer in  this painting. Of course, an archer's ideal is to hit the bull's eye. However, even for an archer of olympic standard there are many things not in his power that can put a spanner in the works. There might be a sudden gust of wind, the arrow might be imbalanced, or the archer might get a sudden stitch in his side or muscle spasm. 

The Stoic archer's goal, then, is not to hit the target; it is to shoot well:  you can't do more than your best.

The owl of wisdom is sitting on the man's shoulder, ready to whisper some good advice into his ear, but its talons are digging into his flesh, drawing blood.

Our psyche is something that most of us find hard to manage. You only have to look at the statistics to know that this is so: large numbers of people are in serious psychological trouble, or will be at some point in their life. Living hurts. What Stoics wish for people, is for them to realize that they can learn not to give in those fears and desires that are harmful to themselves or others.

Pain, fear, and desire are like alarm bells that go off in our brain, alerting us to danger and opportunities. What Stoics want to learn is to keep a little distance, a little wiggle room between thought and action. We want to teach ourselves to recognize false alarms. So hopefully, we won't start running blindly when the next siren goes off. 

That learning process can be pretty painful, which is the reason for the injuries caused by the owl's talons...

Knowing that we only have to be concerned with what is in our power; knowing we can learn to choose not to give in to fears and desires: it's a relief, because what this knowledge brings is our surest chance of happiness: a happiness that does not depend on anything in the outside world. It's hard work, of course. But so worth it for the times when we succeed!

Monday, July 14, 2014


Today, I finished the first of a series of three paintings on the subject of moral development, entitled: Tabula Rasa.


Baby horses can stand right after birth, baby turtles crawl out of the egg right into the sea, but when we humans are born, we start with nothing. It's amazing really, how much of our humanity is missing at the beginning. As babies we not only lack the co-ordination needed to fend for ourselves; we have no knowledge of the world to make sense of it, to make fun of it or to reason with it (or rage against it). Least of all do we know how to reciprocate in a relationship, how to behave in polite company, how to curb our impulses for the good of others: in other words, of morality.

Ancient Stoics had a good term for this: they said that we are born 'a blank sheet' (or Tabula Rasa). We know nothing about how to be a good human being, although we carry the 'seed of goodness' in us, waiting to come to fruition. The sheet still has to be written on.

My model for the Tabula Rasa was my little cousin Jip, four weeks old. A baby so new that everything about him was still unfocused: his eyes, his movements... a human being at the very beginning of life. 

As a background I have chosen a map of (part of) the universe. This is a modern astronomical map, we are modern Stoics after all. The Stoic idea, now corroborated by science, that we are part of the universe, that our atoms are as old as the universe and will continue to exist within the universe after we die, is symbolized by the lines and numbers of the map going right through Jip's body:

He is literally part of the astronomical chart, and it is part of him.

A cross-section of an egg is part of the map; this symbolizes two things. First, exemplifies the seed of goodness, from which, with the right care, the owl of wisdom will grow. Wisdom, being the mother of all cardinal virtues, stands for morality in my painting. Secondly, the egg symbolizes the egg of the phoenix, the Stoic symbol of the universe and renewal of life.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Being a group animal is something we Stoics want to excel at. Put two Stoics together in a pub and after a while the chairs may well be flying, but this is one of the things we all agree about: 

our only happiness lies in our own good behaviour. 

If this sounds weird to you, think about it: there are things that you can change, and things you cannot. Of the things you can change, which choice would make you feel best about yourself: a selfish one, or a morally upstanding one? Hiding in a cupboard and secretly eating a whole bag of sweets, or sharing the bag with your friends?

The selfish choice might seem tempting, but most of us would feel quilty afterwards (not to mention sick). And believe me, guilt is incompatible with happiness. Whereas the moral choice, however tough, will make us feel good about ourselves. Any psychologist will tell you that that's basically a very good thing. 

I call the feeling I have when I get it right and do the moral thing 'Stoic smugness'. I don't get to feel that smugness often enough, but I do know I want more of it.

So what makes a good person? And how do I become one?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be examining these questions for 'The Ethics Project' which I'm doing for my Stoic philosophy course.

So please stay tuned – updates and full explanations following soon!

Below you see a detail of the first painting. I just started with the colour; as you can see it's still very blotchy and uneven, and the eyes are a bit funny (still waiting for their layer of paint, after that the squint will be gone).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Stoic Ethics Project - The first sketches

July 2014: I'm studying Stoic philosophy at the Marcus Aurelius School, and for this term (the Ethics Term) I'm doing an art project: a series of paintings about moral development.

The first painting will be of a baby - the ancient Stoics believed we are born a Tabula Rasa (a blank slate), but with the seed of goodness within us.

So earlier this week I had a photo session with my nephew Jip (pronounced Yip), who is four weeks old. The best painter's model you can imagine! He's a lovely easygoing little fellow, but like all babies he moves constantly to train his motor skills (very clever of him). So for the purpose of this painting I took hundreds of photos to get a good idea of what he looks like, from all sides, and started working from the photo's.

To the right you see a few of the sketches I did today. For three of the drawings I used charcoal; the one on the bottom left is in pencil.

I would like to let the development of the owl, simbol of wisdom, to synchonize with the development of the humans in my paintings: from egg (symbolizing the beginning), to fledgeling, to sitting owl, to flying owl, symbolizing perfect wisdom. 

I like the word play in Dutch: owl fledgeling (uilskuiken) means silly fool... And the ancient Stoics believed that everyone who isn't perfectly wise is a fool - luckily, they also believed that no-one could be perfectly wise, so that's a relief. I quite like the idea of being an 'uilskuiken'.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”  
                                     ― Milan KunderaThe Unbearable Lightness of Being

Some art doesn't need long explanations. The image does the talking - with no more than a title to steer you in the right direction.

Some art is painful to look at. The image at first bypasses your brain, reaches into your ribcage, and yanks at your heart before you've even had time to form an opinion.

Some art teaches you a little bit about what it's like to be human. And in some cases, it's a cruel lesson...

This is the simplicity and directness I find in French Sculptor Marc Petit's poignant work. The work shown below is called The quarantine, but if you're a human being you don't even need that title for the image to unleash a whole stream of associations. And how could those associations not include horror and compassion?

La quarantaine - Marc Petit

Friday, March 29, 2013

Painting what you don't like

I'm painting a series of nine paintings based on positivist quotes, in which the images are in contrast with, and therefore a protest against, the quotations.
Blood-spattered swastika

This week, as a part of this series I started painting Adolf Hitler, and I didn't like it. Normally, when I paint a person's portrait I start feeling closer to my model. As I paint, I reflect on what sort of thoughts and dreams they might have, whether they're happy...

Inevitably, that's what happened between me and mr Hitler. I started wondering about his human side, had he ever been nice to anyone, felt love, tenderness? Had he ever felt fear or remorse about the millions of murders on his conscience?  In short, painting him forced me to try and imagine what it was like to be him, to see him as a human being. Not what you might call a pleasant experience, in fact it made my skin crawl.

We're not supposed to look upon people who do monstrous things as people. It brings it too close to home. We're supposed to safely categorize them as monsters so we can believe they're nothing like us. When you're not a neo-Nazi you're not supposed to look upon Hitler as human, and so I felt guilty and sick. But it also made me wonder. Hitler was not alone, he had so many followers and helpers. Were all those people monsters? That's an awful number of monsters walking the earth.

Of course Hitler was human, with hopes and dreams. That is exacly the point of my painting. It is based on Walt Disney's quote: 'What you can dream, you can do'.  Hitler had a dream he proved he could do. The monstrous thing is: one person's dream can turn out to be other people's nightmare.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The dark side of positive thinking

There are thousands of extremely popular books and websites about positive thinking, promoting the idea that anyone can do anything if only they put their minds to it.

Although the idea is so tempting, reality shows that we can all of us, during our lives, be held back by outside circumstances and influences from within that we have very little or no control over. For example, I can not become a rocket scientist with an IQ of 65, or a pilot if I'm deaf and blind.

Thinking of those who are sick, dying, mentally ill, stricken by poverty, oppression, war, or natural disasters, some positivist quotes are hideously insensitive. For example: 'What you can dream, you can do' - Walt Disney (But Walt, do you seriously think I should tell that to my friend who is dying from cancer?). And how about this one: 'Everything you experience in your life is invited, attracted and created by you' - Robert Anthony. Reading that sentence I immediately think of those who died in WWII concentration camps. How can anyone use their rational minds and seriously believe that?

Positive thinking is dangerously one-sided, as it in no way prepares us for dealing with the very difficult sides of life which we all may have to face at some time or another. Also, it can easily lead to an impatience with others' imperfections and a lack of compassion for those who are suffering.

My thoughts about this subject have inspired me to start a project on the subject, consisting of nine paintings in which the images are in contrast with, and therefore a protest against, the quotations. Basically, they are a cry for more rationality and compassion.