Why painting is so difficult, and why life sometimes is, too

For nine years, I’ve mostly hated painting and drawing. The two things that used to make me the happiest brought me only frustration, disappointment, and anger. I stopped making things regularly when I entered graduate school in 2006, and in 2007, I wrote my “thesis” paper (which I never finished) on how I had come to discover that if I wasn’t making things, I was unhappy and unfulfilled. If I wasn’t painting, writing, drawing, photographing, or crafting, my senses dulled, my vision narrowed, my heart slowly filled with cobwebs and dust. I vowed that upon graduation, I’d return to making things in my free time. But I didn’t. I tried, and it just wasn’t fun anymore.

I could write fifteen pages on the theories I have about why it stopped being fun, but that’s not what I want to share with you today. So let’s fast-forward to July 2015. I took this four day solo trip to a small cabin in Spencer, New York, with the hope that total isolation and lack of internet-related distractions would allow my creativity to spill forth, either into a story or a painting or drawing (or all three!). It did not. All that spilled out of me was pent up frustration, sadness, and confusion. I wrote pages and pages of that crap. And when I wasn’t writing about all that, I was sitting or laying somewhere, doing nothing but staring at the world; at the sky, a tree, shadows on the lawn, the moldy edges of the yurt down the hill. But on my last day, something strange happened. While I was enjoying another one of my “lay around times”, an idea popped into my head. It was more of an image than an idea: a hardcover sketchbook with heavy-weight paper inside, colored pencils, water colors, markers, and graphite. A small, tightly bound sanctuary for my small fountain of creativity that was surely still flowing somewhere inside of me. As soon as I had internet access again, I went on Amazon and ordered all of the things I’d seen in my “vision”. I’ve been drawing and painting regularly ever since.

Mostly, I copy designs and images I think are cool out of books or off of Pinterest. I decided that imitating is better than doing nothing, and I really enjoy it. It’s like dipping my toes in the stream to feel the water before I disrobe and jump in; and who doesn’t love the feeling of cool water rushing over their feet!? Lately, I’ve been painting images of weavings that I think are beautiful, since I don’t yet have a loom. Occasionally, I will try to make something original. This is when I run into trouble. But this is also how I’ll learn, once again, to swim. So that, you know, I can disrobe and jump in without drowning.

Last night was one such night. In my sketchbook, I covered a page with several colors of tempera paint. I let that layer dry and started painting in coral-colored dots, and then something that resembled a sun. I hated how it was looking, so I found some patterns on Pinterest I liked, and tried adding a few, in a lovely ochre-colored chalk pastel, over the tempera. I was beginning to like it–the colors, the contrasting textures, the layers of paint and dusty pigment, the occasional flecks of shimmering gold (yes I use gold paint, who doesn’t!?). But it was missing something, I thought, perhaps a focal point or more contrast. So I decided to paint a flower in the middle, stemming up from the bottom. I found a reference to look at and started painting it in purple. It quickly became obvious that I had made a mistake. Not only was the purple a bad choice, the flower itself was poorly placed, poorly sized, and just plain ugly. I’d lost all the beautiful layers of color underneath; I could not remove this hideous flower, I just had to look at it, acknowledge that I’d made a mistake, and accept the fact that my carefully applied colors and textures underneath were gone forever. Many years ago, this is when I would have hastily torn the page out of my sketchbook and ripped it to shreds. Then I’d have likely avoided my drawing table for weeks following this little tantrum.

But last night, I chose to instead just sit there and look at it. “Oh well,” I thought, “you win some you lose some.” I recognized that while this page was “ruined” I’d learned something about what colors and textures look good together for future paintings. I was a little sad, of course, that this one was lost, but it wasn’t the end of the world. So, I decided to try fixing it. I painted the flower pink and placed little white dots around it. It looked OK, but it wasn’t what I had wanted. I wished I could rewind thirty minutes and choose NOT to paint the flower at all. But I couldn’t.

As I sat there staring at my mistake, I said out loud to J: “Maybe this is why I hated painting for so long. When you make a mistake, it’s so…visible, and sometimes irreversible. You can’t hit a delete key and you can’t just start over. You can try to fix it, but what’s underneath is lost forever.” Every time I’ve sat down at my drawing table for the past nine years, I expected to create a masterpiece, or at least something beautiful. And every time I didn’t, it was “proof” that I was no good, that I had no vision, and no real talent beyond my technical skill. I failed to realize that we learn how to make things beautiful by making mistakes, by losing something beautiful to something “ugly” and learning how to create it again. I failed to realize that we develop our style by experimenting, and that even if we “ruin” a piece of our work, that does not undo what knowledge or skill we’ve accumulated in the process. But what’s most difficult to accept is that “ruining” things is not always an accident. I consciously chose to paint a flower over my pretty background, and that decision cost me the pretty painting I’d made underneath. I had to accept that my decision simply wasn’t the best, and that that was OK, I’d still learned a lot in the hour I’d spent painting it.

This may seem incredibly simple. And maybe for most people, it is. But I like to think about how it applies to living our lives. I like to think about how pretty much all of us want to be happy, successful, and purposeful. I like to think about how most of us are probably at least a little afraid of doing the wrong thing, making a mistake, or losing something (or someone) beautiful or cherished. I like to think about how when things go wrong in life, it’s not always by accident, sometimes it IS because we’ve made a poor choice. As fallible human beings, we consciously choose things that sometimes end up hurting ourselves or others (or both, that’s really a special occasion). And we have to accept that. We have to look at our lives and think: “I did that, I did something that hurt her, or I made a decision that made me really unhappy, or I did something that cost me a promotion at work.” And that doesn’t include all the shit that happens that is beyond our control–accidents, losses, illnesses, deaths. There is so much in life that is difficult to accept, difficult to look at, and sometimes, seemingly impossible to live with after the fact.

But I like to think that all of us are capable of indeed doing so; that we can make peace with our mistakes and wrong-doings and pain and loss and move forward more knowledgable, experienced, and whole. I like to think that we can all learn to stop angrily or sadly tearing our mistakes to shreds (and then pretending they never happened). I like to think we can instead learn to just sit with our mistakes, look at them, find within them the gems (however small) uncovered and revealed to us in the process of living our imperfect and messy and uncertain lives. I like to to think that we can accept the fact that not everyday will be a masterpiece, that we will destroy things, that things will destroy us, but that we can keep going. That, perhaps we can create more beauty because of all the destruction. An empty sketchbook is a perfect sketchbook. It is clean and white and crisp and beautiful. It is devoid of ugliness, of accidents, failure and mistakes. But it is also devoid of risk, of courage, of experience and experimentation, of success, of joy, of learning, and, perhaps most of all, it is devoid of purpose.

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