What surprises me most about painting

Winter 06

This painting. So pleased with how it turned out! And it taught me tons (Read: it was maddeningly difficult at times).

I have a vision of the kind of person who paints colorful landscapes. It goes something like: when the paints come out, so do an array of exciting possibilities. She sets forth to fill the canvas with color and movement, and a kind of flow state begins. The work is meditative and fulfilling. It continues, the artist’s heart swelling and filling as forms begin to take shape. Cue the strings.

Then there’s me.

I will often sit in front of the canvas staring at mutant half formed shapes splattered and carved across in meaningless blobs, wondering if I should just give up. Sometimes I want to grab the canvas and shake it. (Related question: do you think that would make the image reset, like an Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe I should try).

It’s not that I don’t also experience the euphoric moments. Those are what keep me hooked. But, and I hate to burst this bubble, like anything in life painting is a series of ups and downs. 

I had this aha moment a few years ago during a staycation. I’d wondered why it was so difficult for me to adhere to a two hour a week painting schedule. Two piddling hours! I’d set it up as a recurring calendar invite for Wednesdays, and while I was disciplined about parking my butt in front of the easel to paint, I dreaded it and counted the minutes. It was a good night when I lost myself in painting for even an hour.

Of course, this was in addition to working a full time nonprofit job. So those Wednesday night sessions took place after “other”, seemingly unrelated work.

But during the first morning of that staycation, I set myself up at the easel, still in my pajamas in the Alaskan winter darkness. I figured I’d only be there a couple of hours, max. But then two hours ticked by, three, and ultimately I painted for five hours in a row. My brain felt unburdened, and somehow more generous toward everything I encountered on the canvas. 

That day I learned that I use the same skills for painting that I use in any other line of work. Strategy, vision, tactical adjustments, patience, and persistence. The reason it was so difficult for me to motivate to paint for even two hours on Wednesday nights is that my reserve of energy had already been spent elsewhere.

Painting isn’t solely a regenerative, meditative practice for me. It’s work. That doesn’t make it bad; if anything, it makes the practice even more worthwhile and meaningful. Painting requires the very best of me, even through the worst parts of it. It requires me to adapt and grow; to consistently get better. When I paint, I am working at the edge of my skill, and every work pushes into new territory.

Sometimes the orchestra plays in that corner of my brain, where things light up. And in that moment all the work, like anything in life, is suddenly worth it.

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