Towards Mastery`

A Story about Change

Being an ingeneer and having a tendency towards perfectionism often goes hand in hand.  The good part of this combination is, designs, evolving out of a mind like this, are of high standard.

Being such a designer, I consider all circumstances of function, reliability, manufacturing, durability and ease of use.  The list of criteria could go on and on, inviting the trouble, which is, you could go on forever.  If this is a topic of your interest, I recommend papers under the topic Why Design Matters.

And this is not all.  As product development progresses, I would learn more, and I always found something worth improving.  If left to my own devices, I would love to go on towards the perfect solution.

The problem is, the more I learn, the further this perfect solution moves out and away from me.  Time progresses, and probably, I would never finish.

The arrival of the deadline for delivery of my product approaches, inevitably.  For me, it feels as if my client rips the design away from me, like a baby from its mother.  It is always far too early, it is not ready yet to walk out into the world.


Good designers are often also artists.  I believe, the most unforgiving form of art is sculpturing in wood or stone.  There are several inescapable rules.

Once the chip is off, you can’t chip it back on again.  A wrong stroke can take away a whole junk of material along an unpredictable line, a slice of timber may peel off, or the block can split along the grain.

Secondly, the more you take off, the smaller the piece gets.  This means, at some stage, you have to finish.  Otherwise, no matter, whether you set out to sculpture a horse or a lady’s bust, you always end up with the famous toothpick.

And for timber people, there is an unspoken rule:  Once you start smoothing your workpiece with sand paper, you can’t go back working on the piece with the chisel.  Small grit particles bury themselves into the wood surface and, if you dare to apply the chisel again, they would ruin the chisel-blade.

Here I am, too smart for my own good.  Instead of glass-paper I use metal files, they are excellent, give you a better control and don’t contaminate the timber; and provide a “good” reason for not stopping… and with all good intentions, I can still ruin my work.

Disheartened by the hard taskmaster (the material of timber), I began drawing with black etheric oil pastels.  My pictures ended up being quite sombre.  Prior to these tragedies arriving, occasionally, something decent had occurred on paper, but I could not leave my hands off it.

Overworking it is called, and there is no way back.  In painting it is an obvious secret: “You can never turn red into white by adding more white… and never try to turn green into black, it always will remain grey.”  And another nice one: “The lightest place is the one with the most options.”


Sooner or later, excruciating experience confronted me with the ever more persistent question about when to stop.  This means, REALLY to stop and never touch it again.  Never, ever again.  A commitment to what is.  The burning of the purgatory fire could not be worse.

Meeting a Master

In the eighties, I travelled to New York, several times.  On every occasion, I took opportunities to visit the various art galleries, in particular, the Frick Collection just off the Fifth, opposite Central Park.

During one of my early visits, I was browsing through Gallery when I arrived in a large room where paintings of the old masters were on display.  Without knowing much about them, I felt comfortable there and took a seat on a couch.

I became aware of the painting of an old man directly in front of me.  It fascinated me and drew my attention.  I had been just over forty.  I say that because then, I had no concept of age, it had not concerned me.  I was overcome by a strong sense of knowing this man, personally, quite well.

It appeared to me as if he had been absorbed by something, he noticed me and looked up.  The endpoint of a movement, nothing of a static posture of contemporary paintings.

There was a mysterious light on his forehead.  Initially, I did not notice anything else.  The brightness was in strong contrast with the rest of the painting, which was covered in almost complete darkness.  I was puzzled.  Why would someone paint something and then keep it so dark, it was not recognisable from the 6 -7 meters distance.

Rembrandt – self-portrait at age 63 – dated 1669 London, National Gallery

The brass tablet told it was a Rembrandt, a self-portrait when he had been 63 years of age in the year 1669.  A close inspection revealed that the painting looked very unfinished.

Information on the image below.

It is a high-resolution sectional photo of the above painting.  To enlarge it, go to the Rembrandt Data Base.  On the top right corner of this page is a thumbnail, you need to click on it to see the enlarged image.

In case this link has expired, right-click on the image below, select View Image, and then, hold down the control key and click on the +key, repeatedly, and the image will enlarge.

In addition, I would like to point out, the colour reproduction of the section is stronger in saturation than the original.  I left it this way because it shows the details, or lack of it, more clearly.  The contrast, brightness and saturation of the large photo above is close to the original, even it has a blue hue while the original has a tendency towards sienna.

Rembrandt age 63 in 1669 enlargement
Rembrandt, self-portrait at 63 years of age in 1669 – enlarged section

You see, there is not much detail, only coarse brushstrokes.  If it is not detail, what else evokes the sense of reality?

Does this remind you of a certain style of painting?  Here you find all the characteristics and qualities of a painting of the time of impressionism, which was launched in 1874, two hundred years later.

Bach popped in my mind.  Likewise, he was a genius, several hundred years ahead of his time.


At the time, when the above happened, I had been moved but not strongly enough to learn something from it.  There was so much to do, and life was busy.

Being with Masters

In the early nineties, life had slowed down, offering times for reflection and deepening of an inner connection.  Like often before, one other day I wandered aimlessly through the permanent exhibitions of the local public art gallery.  Most of the paintings and sculptures have become quite familiar with me.

Some artworks I only know superficially, they had not touched me.  However, with a few, I shared an intimate relationship, because they had resonated with something inside me.  This day the question arose in my mind: “Why do some connect with me while others don’t?”

Max Resdefault by Rembrandt

My meeting with Rembrandt in New York came to mind. There had been a strong sense of knowing him.  Then I had noticed this incompletion but had not asked why, now I wondered, why paintings of some of the old masters looked quite unfinished.

In the portrait, for example, the face or parts of it were detailed and the masterly stroke evident, but even the hair or the hat, the clothes or hands were not worked through at all, and the background was only hinted.  However, when stepping a few meters away from the painting, the mastery exuded could not be doubted.

The execution of detail in the collar is plenty of evidence that it is not their lack of skills!

Examining one particular masterpiece for some time, moving several meters away and returning to close-up scrutiny, I realised a sense of completeness, even my mind told me, it was not.  The instigation of such feelings and thoughts evoked experiences of validating them, thus driving the process of discovery towards understanding.

Pardon my Boldness

… when talking about myself in the context of masters. A little voice in my mind grovelled: ‘If I had painted this picture, I would have completed it, with a proper care for detail.’    I would not have stopped at this point of in-completion. The difference is, I am a designer with artistic tendencies with a history of overdone artworks.  This master painter knew when to finish.

Remembered times, when I had reached a point with my artwork or design and had a sense of completeness, I continued for known reasons.  I overworked the product and widened the cleft between this sense of completeness and the real result in front of me.  A mix of confused resignation and anger had determined the finish and not a sense of achievement.

Realising the insight in my own process and being surrounded by the works of masters, showed me, there was a point of mastery.  I imagined myself climbing a mountain.  Once I reach the top and keep on walking, I would descent again.  When working with art, when creating something, there is this point.

I wanted to learn to notice this apex, develop an acute sense for reaching it and being there.  I needed to muster up enough discipline to stop, not by force but founded on knowing that the state in which the artwork is right now, is the best of my abilities.

Knowing that adding more work would lessen the outcome.  Would this insight give me the strength to overcome this futile, destructive drive to continue?

Many times, I returned to the gallery and let myself be engulfed by paintings where mastery showed me this sense of completeness.

Absorbing this feeling from many aspects and staying in it, I familiarised myself with it.  Then I would walk away from the picture to a quiet place in the gallery and practised recalling this feeling.  Back and forth I went, and I wondered if someone noticed my erratic dance?


Years later, when I was teaching industrial design, I took my students to the art gallery.  Let them find their master, and I helped them to discover this sense.  Some of them, who were skilled enough, told me about their process and some repeated my journey.

I felt a tiny giggle inside me.  What took me weeks and months, they learned in a few hours?  This feeling arises right now at this very moment while I am writing this; it’s perfect for perfectionists.

When to stop?

The idea of mastery as I see it, today (2016), can also be applied to life.  The mastery in/of life is not at the end, it’s not in the final climax.  While living life, we can find this point of completion/perfection.  There also is a point from where onwards trying to improve too much on life can have the same effect as overworking a piece of art or engineering or any other project.

One could recognise this pinnacle of life as the experience of great joy, comfort and harmony.  Some people call it bliss; an expression I find far too big, thus, too demanding.  Some call it even eternal bliss.  Nothing on this plane of reality is eternal, or even any other plane.  All is in consistent change.

Eternal is an expression relating to time.  Time is an illusion created by the mind.

In the context of life, what could “overworking” mean?  Perhaps too much soul-searching, trying to achieve more perfection but what would be the yardstick?  What is the experience telling me when I have found myself, my soul?

If I chip away too much, I will end up with less than my potential.  Self-destruction through too much self-development and searching for the self.  The point of completion as a human being is not at the end of life.

Once this point is reached, one could stop.  I have been given life not to endure it but to enjoy it.  Living for achieving my wildest dreams would still be a limitation to this enjoyment, however, it is a strong temptation for not stopping.

The point to all I have learned is: to dare to hold onto joy.  My courage and flexibility lead to joy, and often, it is not, being deliriously ecstatic.  Joy showed me facets of life I could not have imagined.  When I give joy some space in my everyday life, it unfolds.  Every day, I am ready to be surprised, and I leave space for the unexpected.


Amadeus W.

20 April 2006

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