Perceptual Shift: About My Foot Paintings

Since 2009 I have been painting with my feet. Inspired by the work, and techniques of American artists, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, I stand on the ground, drip, and smear the paint with my feet. It is an embodied experience, because it is grounding, centres my body, helps me focus, and I use specific movements that are intentional so that I can achieve a unique effect for each piece.

Okay…I know…you’re probably thinking at most, “You paint with your feet?”, and perhaps, “Have you heard of those things called, “paint brushes”? Yes. And these are actual comments I’ve heard about my work when I first tell someone about my paintings. But, it’s what I like to do, and in this blog, I will share why, and how I started painting with my feet.

American expressionist artist, Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928 — December 27, 2011) used paint smearing and staining techniques to create meditative, lake-like images. I appreciate her technique, and admire her skill and novelty. An educator, she also passed on her technique to students at the New York School. Jackson Pollock (January 28, 1912 — August 11, 1956) was a dripper. He began by painting with tubes directly on the canvas, and later dripped paint from cans directly onto canvas on the floor. He left anything that he was using (cigarettes, strings, pencils) remain on the canvas and become the art. Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 — February 25, 1970) created beautiful colour fields that when you look at the paintings from across the room, it is as-if the painting fills the room, and often people have said it is like a colour field starts to surround your body. In 2011, around the time of Frankenthaler’s passing, the Abstract Expressionist New York show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) exhibited works by all three artists, but my favourite paintings are by Frankenthaler, because she physically worked with the paint to create a new expression of familiar geological forms, such as a lake. All three artists are influential to my foot paintings.

Untitled. 2009. 4x7'. Acrylic on unprimed canvas.

Why I started painting with my feet?

When playing indoor soccer at a practice for my high school team in the spring of 2002, I sustained a direct blow to my left eye from the ball, which caused double vision, or “diplopia”. A video of a ball moving at high speeds actually looks warped like a mango-shape, and the front of the ball hit the centre of my eye, which was wide open with the excitement and adrenaline of playing soccer: wham-o! I was also born with a lazy left eye “amblyopia”, so this accident made my sight worse. After I was hit with the ball, I had an opaque, grey circle in the middle of my left field of vision for five consecutive hours! It went away, and my Optometrist later told me that this was probably (because she didn’t see it) a hematoma inside my eye and unfortunately I was not taken to the emergency department. If you hurt your eye, go to the ED! Since I can’t see well for long periods of time without my glasses, I use digital technology to augment my vision loss, including a larger font size in my email, and write papers at 150% zoom in MS word with a 12pt size. It is also difficult to focus on painting with a brush on canvas up close, so I started to paint with my feet to see if it would be fun, and it was.

The process and technique of painting with my feet

When painting with my feet, I use specific movements that are intentional so I can achieve a unique affect for each piece. The first four pieces were filmed as a way to document the process, and also to use as a proof that I painted with my feet. I think it would be interesting to exhibit the paintings with the videos, so viewers can also see the process. Process design is important to me; the stages of development, testing, and research in any artistic or literary project specifically, help shape the final product. In most of the paintings it is difficult to determine if it was painted by my feet or by a brush, so I feel that my creativity has triumphed over my (dis)ability!

Creating a foot painting takes about a half hour to an hour to complete. When setting up, I use a plastic drop sheet, and have a large bowl of water and old towels ready for when I’m done, and need to wash the paint off my feet. I use acrylic paint because it is water-soluble, but the colours also maintain their vibrancy when dry. Before painting, I put on some “Art Guard” which protects my skin from the paint pigments, which can be toxic. But each piece only takes about 30 minutes to an hour to complete, so this is my trade-off. Everyone has very old pairs of shoes laying around, which are irreparable, but comfortable and used in the garden, or to take out the trash. So, in my next few pieces, I’m thinking of using an old pair of shoes to protect my feet. Highlight if you agree this is a good idea!

All paintings are “by the foot”. The smallest is 2.75' x 4'. The biggest piece is 7' tall by 4' wide. All works are abstract, but are loosely based on an initial idea, for example, a shape that I’ve been thinking about, a theme, or a symbol. It is an intense process when painting: it involves focusing on balancing, and working with the paint and canvas as one, in a relatively short period of time. The paint usually dries in 30 minutes, so the 4x7' piece only took an hour to paint. I use my heels to spread the paint and creating a blending effect. I use the instep of my foot to move paint from one area of the canvas to another like a palette knife, and to create blending effects that reference Gerhard Richter’s (born 9 February 1932) paint smears. I use the outside of my feet to create lines, and other shapes. The ball of my foot is used for making curves, and to balance my body so I don’t fall over. I use my toes to leave small spots of colour, and to draw small lines.

When first starting a foot painting, I feel a rush of energy– it is exciting to see the paint take on a life of its own on the canvas, and likewise, to see raw canvas become transformed into a new expression. Halfway through, it is also satisfying to see an idea take shape — it is as if the canvas is accepting the idea — taking hold of it, so I can let it go. As an artist, I love relinquishing my attachment to new, or lingering ideas in experiential forms, such as painting, or digital art. I love to work with bold, vibrant colors, and use white and black highlights and shading to build an interesting and imperfect composition. It’s great not to have to worry about painting every area of the canvas, or to paint right to the edge. Our hands are used so much as tools of communication — typing, writing, drawing, cleaning, moving, building, touching — so when I can disconnect from this somewhat constraining force, I let go of the urge towards perfection.

When a painting is complete, I usually think of what it would look like when hanging, and then decide which side to add a wire to. Perhaps because it is abstract work and I’m not focused on making any specific image, I often change my mind about the hanging orientation, and see a completely different image in the work once it is stretched. This doesn’t seem like an issue, but since paying attention to this “happening” it has made me think about what happens when I move from looking at a painting on the floor then on the wall. I’ve recently begun to stretch the paintings on my own, but have had a framer stretch the work for me in the past. Since stretching the work on my own, I’ve felt more connected to both the process and the story that the hanging image tells. I think it is necessary to stretch the paintings, as a way to complete them, versus loosely hanging the fabric on the wall, or sewing the corners and making a mat, but these are other possibilities. Still, physically pulling — with my hands — the canvas behind the frame, finalizes the work.

Vancouver. 2013. 2x3'. Acrylic on unprimed canvas.
The Trout. 2013. 3x3'. Acrylic on unprimed canvas.

While painting, I often forget about the feeling of the paint on my feet, and sense my body as part of the canvas. But it is easy to recall where I started, and ended while looking at the hanging work. With the recent paintings that I created (images above), I did not document the process, but instead focused on my body movements. In the first painting, I used sweeping motions with my legs. I squished the colours together, and blended them with water. In the second piece, I tried using rotating movements with my legs, hips and feet and the strokes on this painting looks different than the other one; it looks like the colours are floating. Instead of video documentation, these works have “body documentation” recorded on the canvas; by doing this, I have sort of given part of my body to the canvas. The canvas tells the viewer where I am in the work.

As mentioned earlier, I often think of hanging the pieces one way before stretching them, but change the orientation after they have been stretched. I believe that this “perceptual shift” between composing the picture on the floor, then hanging it on the wall has some theoretical value for thinking about embodiment, body awareness, and physical connection to physical objects that we see. The theoretical constructs of viewing a different image on the floor versus an image on the wall, and having a physical connection, or not, or a loss of connection to both states is an issue worth considering from a philosophical lens.

Understanding the floor- to- wall experience in body-mapping

In my previous work (and ongoing research interest) in body-mapping, a participant creates a map on the floor, then hangs the map on the wall to discuss it with the facilitator and/or group. From experience of painting with my feet — creating artwork that is similar, but not the same as childhood finger painting — the perceptual shift between the image on the floor and the same image on the wall I believe triggers or causes a subconscious dissociative state, or more connected state for the artist creating the work. But I don’t know other artists at the moment who paint with their feet (ha!). Frankenthaler and Pollock likely talked about this experience in interviews, or in their own journal writing. From my experience of painting oversize images with my feet, I experienced this perceptual shift between the floor and the wall — as a binary shift — in that, the artist creating the work experiences a) creating the work on the floor, then b) visualizes the work on the wall; the shift occurs in between the two states. Perhaps this shift is a third state, or is already grounded with a theoretical framework?

A question that remains for me as a body-mapping researcher and facilitator, is how can I facilitate body-mapping as a form of therapeutic arts for all participants, regardless of their health condition? Many researchers that have used body-mapping, have focused on a specific health issue. How can the arts be used to connect people, no matter what their health concern is? An obvious area is in digital technology, which can be made accessible, and can be easily shared, in various forms.

Of course not all participants will realize when the shift between two states and a shift between the two states occurs when creating a body-map, unless a facilitator points it out to them; however, I think that this perceptual shift is inherent with the method of full body body-mapping. Not all people who do body-mapping focus on mapping their full-bodies. When the body is engaged with the work on the floor — as in foot painting — and the same picture plane against the wall is connected with the artwork in the process, the body is physically connected with the artwork on the wall, as when the artwork is on the floor, either in memory, sensation, or both. How long does that connection last? Was it there all along? Did it change along the way? Who experiences this? Why do viewers of Rothko’s work experience the vibration of colour? Is it similar to Benjamin’s idea of the aura that has a presence in art?

Peripersonal Space concept (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2008)

Some people are able to stay connected to their experiences and artistic creations even when they are physically disconnected to them. Blakeslee and Blakeslee (2008, p. 6) describe a theory of “peripersonal space” as a third space that people are aware of, and that they use to extend their bodily experiences. For example, a dancer that stands upright is aware of their peripersonal space between their arms when extended, and their torso when they reach into the air, but they are also aware of this space when they’re not moving because they know they can, or cannotmove their arms into that space. I have experienced this third space sense with my foot paintings, and can recall where I stood at what point of creating the work when looking at the paintings. The sensation is heightened when I stand closer to the painting to look at the details. Dance Choreographer, Twyla Tharp sketches her ideas, and can then look at the sketches in the studio and replicate the movements that were originally abstract concepts in her mind.

Thoughts about the relationship of Adult Attachment Theory to communication of body experience on a body map, based on Maunder and Hunter’s book, “Love, Fear, and Health” (2015)*

Thank you to Dr. Allison Crawford (CAMH) for initially suggesting to write about body-mapping and attachment theory back in 2013; this is only a beginning, and I hope we can do a study about this sometime.

Connection, or disconnection — expressed, or unexpressed — to objects and surroundings is linked to patterns of adult attachment styles. The theory of attachment is a research area that I am interested to learn more about. Dr. Robert Maunder and Dr. John Hunter at Mount Sinai Hospital have a series on YouTube called the “Men In Plaid Productions”. This introductory video to adult attachment by Maunder and Hunter has really informed my thinking about “Why body mapping is beneficial for all people, and what gets in the way of their expression of bodily experiences in, and on a body map?” With a well-developed study, perhaps adult attachment theory can respond to these questions.

They describe four types of attachment styles. In body-mapping, I will infer how participants might express themselves based on their adult attachment styles: while mapping, participants with secure attachment might experience a disconnect between their body and the artwork, but will self-recognize this disconnect in-situ, and will re-connect quickly to the present, or in a very short period of time. Participants with an avoidant attachment style will avoid expressing certain aspects of their health on the body map. Participants with a preoccupied attachment style will be overly concerned with the details that they have expressed, and with those they have not; they might not complete their map, and they might become preoccupied with the fact that they haven’t completed much. Likewise, they might express so much and might be preoccupied with this, seeing it as a flaw. Participants who are fearful might not express anything at all, or might express so much that it is indiscernible, or might express very superficial objects such as clothing, versus deep, medium level things such as muscle, bone, organs, nerves, etc. Furthermore, the lines and shapes might not connect, reflecting in-cohesion in their everyday, and their portraits might look away from the facilitator/researcher.

With all of these patterns, my thoughts on how attachment might reveal itself might be completely off, and body-mapping might be a way for a participant to begin to shift their usual patterns of behavioural expression in everyday life.

The integration of the “perceptual shift” in abstract painting, in adult attachment patterns and body-mapping

In-comparison to creating a body-map on a small picture plane, the process of creating a body-map using the full body outline can elicit, or make visible the participants attachment style, and especially if the participant is involved at each stage of outlining, creating, and hanging (most important, in my opinion) their body maps on the wall. The limitations to the connection between adult attachment expressed in a body-map, include the overlap of attachment styles, but I think this is where the method of body-mapping can contribute to attachment research, because the overlapping styles are (often) made visible in the body maps, as they are visual representations of human forms, unlike abstract painting. This perceptual shift, and/or adult attachment style might be discovered by a simple exercise using full ‘body size’ paper, then having participants create a body outline, then hanging the paper against the wall. This practice has been utilized with people living with anorexia nervosa (See PBS’s “Dying to be thin” film). I think this is why Rothko, Frankenthaler, Richter, and Pollock’s oversized paintings cause viewers to have visceral, embodied responses. The moment that a physical expression is moved from one plane to another is a visceral connection to Benjamin’s aura; it is the perceptual shift that occurs in seeing a bodily expression in a new form. And, in reverse, small scale works like highly detailed, hand-held wood carvings by Medieval European woodcraft apprentices also resonate with this idea of how scale in art affects embodiment.

Sharing and concealing on a body map

A dynamic process is involved in both sharing and withholding, or concealing. In sharing, participants might feel as if they have to share, or that the participants might have too much to share due to repressed emotions and sensations. But, when starting a foot painting, I usually have a very general idea of what I want to express, because I know it won’t look like a realist painting. Perhaps by having a blank page, instead of creating an outline, the body-mapper might be able to decide how controlled they wish to be when expressing how they feel? When thinking about marking pain on an outline of one’s body before seeing a physiotherapist for the first time, for example, the outline says “tell me exactly where it hurts”. However, referred pain, mood, weather, emotions, etc., affect pain, so what is really the value of marking pain in one moment, on a somewhat idealistic outline of a body, with well-defined shoulders, hips, knees etc.?

Future reflections

When thinking about the perceptual shift that occurs with a representation of a body, such as a body map, between the floor and the wall, I believe a similar perceptual shift occurs when looking at one’s body and seeing the reflection of their body in the mirror on the wall. Many people do not look at mirrors, have their picture taken, or weigh themselves, for example. So do these decisions mean that they are acting avoidant, fearful, preoccupied, or secure with the fact that these objects do not require attention in order to thrive in life?

How can digital technology make visible the perceptual shift between two states, such as a floor and a wall? Subtle movements and ethical considerations

To body-mapping researchers, the subtleties of the picture plane, the wall, the body outline, or no body outline are just that. After completing a lengthy literature review about the history of body-mapping for my Master of Arts thesis, I view these subtleties, like the perceptual shift, as in-fact, essential to body-mapping facilitation. By request of my committee, and with no regrets, they suggested adding to the discussion, “The form of the body map”, that focused on the use of a body outline, or not, and what implications that would have on methodologies to analyze body-mapping. The elements — mostly objects, or images created by an object/ the participant — involved in the process of body-mapping, have the potential to get in the way, and reveal a participant’s attachment style, depending on the participant’s attachment style and levels of connection or disconnection with the body mapping process.

Therefore, it is essential to understand the deeper issues of the materials required for body-mapping, such as the initial outline, since there is evidence that these subtleties make visible the perceptual shift, and at times without the participants or the facilitators knowing that this is occurring at all. This “not knowing” could possibly affect their health during a body-mapping session, and recognizing the perceptual shift, could shift their self-perception. This issue raises ethical concerns that I feel researchers using body-mapping have the obligation to attend to before taking on a body-mapping research project, especially with a diverse group of participants. It is not easy for one to share a visual representation of their body’s health, sensations, emotions, and past/present embodied experiences.

Conclusion of this article

I started writing this reflection on the connection between my foot paintings and body-mapping research and practice in 2013, on the evening after I painted “The Trout” at Trout Lake, Vancouver, on the beach with a friend. I wrote it on my blog, and kept it there for a bit, editing every once and a while. It’s still not done, and I am open to your thoughts and feedback. Hopefully this inspires you.

See some of the paintings here:

I didn’t intend to share the writing initially because I thought I might publish on the idea, and I still might. But I also felt a little ashamed that I have a vision impairment and that is why I painted with my feet. I don’t feel ashamed about this anymore— perhaps it is because I am older, but it’s probably because I have gained more confidence through creating more work. I have painted 9 paintings and one was a commissioned piece. “The Trout” was my first co-painted foot painting. The idea came about while painting this piece, because I was thinking about my dissertation research topic on body-mapping (at the time — it has now changed) while painting, and how body-mapping sessions occur on the floor, and the foot paintings that I was creating at the time to decorate my apartment, were created on the floor too, except for this one which was being painted on the sand. When I moved home to Toronto, I donated three paintings to a woman who was moving out of a shelter in Vancouver, so she could have nice (in my opinion) artwork for her new place, but kept images of the work on my site.

After painting, my friend and I ran down to the shore to wash off our feet — he was starting to complain that the paint was drying on his feet and it was ‘weird’ — but it was way more convenient to clean our feet in the lake water than a bucket of water! As an artist, I am not fixed to one specific medium, or location for creating my work. I design on my laptop, which can be taken almost anywhere. I paint in my studio, or kitchen, or outside. But as a researcher, I write at my desk, a cafe, or a library. Why is research confined to three primary locations? In research, think about how you can get out into the world in order to respond to it.

But anyways, if I wasn’t hit by a soccer ball in the eye in senior high school, I might not have started painting seven years later with my feet. This blog post might not have happened; I might not have come up with the phrase perceptual shift and might not have connected my foot paintings to experiences of creating and facilitating body-mapping sessions. This isn’t really a conclusion…who said we have to do that?!

Don’t be ashamed by your work. “Just do it” (Nike).

“Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is fleeting. All is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come, I know not.” — excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” (1932).