training myself to listen at the easel instead of represent is an entirely new way of painting. it’s like i am in painting pre-school; it’s exhausting and humbling and frustrating and, also, awesome.
paint every day they say. even when you have the flu, and feel like shit, and have a thousand other things going on. but, no. no. no, don’t do that. it’s not that. it’s not punitive and demanding, like a drill sergeant. you will ruin stuff if you come in like that. it’s not dragging yourself in, batting away the other things pulling at your attention, mixing paint with resentment and fear and exhaustion: no.
its crawling in sometimes, yes. it’s dried tears on your face, needing a nap, feeling wrung out and used up and flawed and humble and fragile and sad. sometimes it is. but instead of pushing, instead of ignoring all the difficult feelings and wishing they would go away, bring them. come in with your arms full of messy, human stuff, and offer yourself anyway. this is what it means to come as you are. don’t ignore it, don’t stuff it behind the couch on your way in and pretend it’s not there. hold it like a huge pile that you can barely see around and sit down with it in your lap.
‘here i am.’ you could say. ‘im empty and exhausted and fragile, but i’m here.’ (pause. take a breath) ‘does anybody need anything?’ you ask, feeling silly. knowing that you have so little to give, and you are asking for so much. just offer, and mean it. be willing to sit in your rocking chair and keep them company.
and then see what happens.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. (Ira Glass)
the gap doesn't go away. it gets smaller over time; you get more comfortable living with it. maybe not comfortable, but you understand that it’s not going anywhere. if it did, you’d be bored.
i have unfinished paintings and loose sketches all around me. they teach me and coax me forward: towards the paintings i can see but can’t make yet. i am starting another layer on a big canvas i started years ago. i put down the first three layers and then i stopped. i never minded it hanging around because i never messed it up — i let it live in the studio, unfinished, waiting. reminding me what i had done that worked. and now there are several smaller ones all at that stage, and i can see the path forward on the bigger one. i can get so impatient, but not with that one; that one is all about patience. here’s hoping i can keep it that way.
at some point i changed how i approach the studio.
i used to go in all stressed out and dreading the feeling of not knowing what i was doing. it could be kind of awful. sometimes that still happens. i look around and judge the work: too this, too that, not enough here, not right there. or: ooh, that’s beautiful and interesting and i love that.
but then i stop myself and i remember: it’s not about what they look like.
instead of offering my approval or disapproval, i go in and i listen. it helps to think of them as if they are my friends. how can i help? and what do you need? i ask.
the breakthrough isn’t so much the asking, it’s the direction of the asking. i can get really fetched up about how making paintings is helpful. how is this the best use of my time when the world is such a mess? how is this serving? isn't there something more useful i could be doing? but that is a dead end. it’s not my place. of course art is useful and important; i know that. other people’s art keeps me going every day. how my art is helpful is not my question to answer. once i understand that some paintings want to come, my question is simply to the paintings themselves: how can i help you? and that’s it. really. that’s when they come, and not a minute before.
Most of the time I am at peace with the process. Some paintings I love and some not so much. Either way it’s ok. They are not necessarily here to be themselves, disconnected from all the others. They are here to teach and to lead the way to the ones that can stand alone. There are so many elements: stay loose, stay consistent, be open, listen, paint the way you know how to paint, let yourself paint differently, blah blah blah. The repetition keeps some parts consistent so the other parts have room to change.
Sometimes it’s the same thing - the same painting - over and over because I’m so busy I can’t give it the attention it needs to grow. Sometimes all I can do is use the same palette from yesterday, play around with it, remember there is this big thing that is trying to come, and take that knowledge into my life and make room for it. They’re like placeholders. Sometimes all I can do is toss out placeholders: ‘Hey! Hey! This again. Me again. Still waiting.'
So I make a placeholder and get back to the work in front of me.
I said this was easy but it is not.
I said that when I was on painting 10 out of 100.
Once a boat captain said to me: after 10 dives you think you know everything. Then you realize that maybe you don't and you start to be a lot more careful. Then around 100 dives you think, well, ok, I am actually getting pretty good at this. And then - after many many dives - you start to realize you barely know anything at all.
It's all the same: diving, life, painting. I anticipate ease to trick myself so some work can begin, but this week was busy. On Sunday I was three behind and felt the lack-of-painting anxiety and I remembered what I wrote: sometimes the painting makes the anxiety go away and I went with that. I didn't feel it. I just remembered writing it and vaguely remembered it being true for me at some point and I didn't have much time and I had to paint three and so I started. And an old one that looked terrible caught my attention and I added a layer and started a different one in a different way and remembered that I have lots of ideas and the paint moved and pieces grew and I was right: it does make the anxiety go away. Sometimes. But it is definitely not easy.
Well, I’m doing it. 100 days of abstract paintings. I have two beloved challenge mates who cheer me on and so far so good. I am not in love with any of these in particular but every morning I connect with them and make something and hold the thread. I have been doing this in lieu of meditation and, instead, letting this be my meditation. One day I painted right out of bed, in my undies, before brushing my teeth, but most days I'm dressed and drinking something and thankful my kid loves to sleep.
This is easy, you guys. I mean, I had boards cut and ideas everywhere and I’ve been doing this for ages, so it was easy cause of that. And the 100 day thing; I get it. I didn't get it when I started, I don't think, it just seemed right, but now I do. It's pushing me through and letting it be fun and small and it's getting the paint moving every day. No more scraping off dried paint on Monday morning, it's always wet paint ready to go. Let it be easy I told myself. And it is.
Don’t let your mind trick you into thinking it’s all awful and no fun and nothing is coming together and you need a new career. Sometimes you just need a bigger paint brush. Calm down. #notetoself
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to be different than I am insane. Or at least I have been. Look at this! Look at this pile of shitty first drafts! Look how long this painting has been asking to be made! I could feel it and kind of see it and I could register when clues were being given for its arrival, but I couldn’t find it. It has been its own practice.
Raising a kid has shown me how we are born frustrated and impatient to be able to do things. Walking. Talking. Peeling carrots. Riding scooters. Drawing. Painting. Maybe everybody isn't like this, but my kid is. So fast to give up and get frustrated and not participate when she is unable to do things perfectly. You know, now that I think more, not everything. She is diligent about some things, but mostly the things that come easy to her. And, now that I think about it even more, she really did wait until she was ready to ride that scooter and now she’s off like a shot. So maybe we all have both in us.
It is a practice to cultivate patience with ourselves. To be ok when it takes longer than we want. Even way longer. To live life and do other things and go back to it when you feel it asking for attention, even when it’s frustrating and inexplicably weird and you have no idea why you are doing it except a long time ago you had this little inkling of an idea for a painting and you won’t give up on it. And you don't know if anyone else in the world will ever care about it and it doesn't actually matter because it just needs to come. It is a step somewhere you need to go, so you step. Every time you keep mustering up the hope that this is the one! This is the one that will soar! And looking back you realize, wow. You are that same girl who stood on the steps of the pool for way longer than everyone else. Looking. Hesitating. Not going. Knowing you would but not quite yet.
Why didn't I just go big sooner? Just dive in and trust the piece to mush and flow together. That the first draft need not be perfect. That with big pieces they kind of self-correct because you can build and change and wipe off and all those movements become part of the whole but at least it’s moving and flowing and building and, honestly, I tried that, too. I did. I have to trust that even though I saw it and felt it wanting to come and I gave all that time and love and hope to it, it didn't come because it wasn't ready. Or I wasn't ready. I paid my dues. I accepted that it wasn't ready and I kept saying ‘Im here! I'm here’ anyway and not being mad when it didn't work and suddenly, quietly, unspectacularly, it did.
Pause. Oil on Board. 12x 12.
There are so many ways to make art.
Sometimes it is about how beautiful the world is, or something in it. Other times it starts with a feeling and builds from there. It can be light and fun or it can be about being in and experiencing the very hardest things. Sometimes it's like a difficult conversation that is hard and scary to begin, but then it happens and it changes you, and if you stay open and willing, it heals you.
I love the process, I love writing about it and reading about it and talking about it, and most of the time I love doing it. It’s life, distilled. The mechanics of your life may or may not involve mixing yellow ochre with magenta, but the bones are the same. We look for the things that move us. We try to move closer to those things and to make room for them. This can be incredibly difficult, but easier when we remember that we are all in this together.
Growth. 44x44. oil on canvas.
Things are different now. The same, but different. I still love the things I love. I still love to paint those things. And back when I was painting those things and talking about them there were other things I was painting that I wasn't talking about. And now I am talking about all of them. The before things and the other things and the new things because now, somehow, it's all the same thing.
Sometimes it's fun, the not knowing. But it is not fun when I am lying in bed at 4:30 in the morning with a knot in my belly. Sometimes I lie there and breathe/meditate/sleep away the knot. And sometimes I get out of bed and go to work, and the work makes the knot go away. Then my whole day is different. Things flow better. Maybe someday that knot will go away for good. Some days it’s not there. But Paul Newman threw up before he went on stage for his entire life. So maybe not.