The sun is finally out this morning. Right now it is shining down on the creek out my window, turning the white rushing water into a warm yellow color. The frost is melting off the branches. Sunshine in the Pacific North West is rare this time of year. Overcast skies and rain pattering on the roof is the norm. I love January, not only because it is my birth month, but because it is the first month of the year and I am usually bursting at the seams with inspiration. It happens like clock work for me. I spring out of bed every morning and can’t wait to get to the easel.
As I have mentioned previously, I have many projects going at once right now. I am trying to wrap up a commission and get the ball rolling with the Davenport painting, as well as getting ready to teach a class and a workshop.
I like moving forward; However, sometimes I can work day in and day out on a painting, yet somehow I don’t seem to get anywhere. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that all it takes to make a great painting is showing up and picking up the brush. I believe there is an amazing amount of other factors that are necessary building blocks to bringing a piece to completion; whatever completion means to you.
The f word
Most people view failure as bad because it is painful, disappointing, and often feels like a lot of time has been wasted only to fail. I read somewhere recently that all failure really is, is feedback. It is the result of an attempt that didn’t work. The good thing about that is, you can learn from it. You can look back at what you did right and what you did wrong, and assess what you can change.
There is no learning without failure. If you went through life making win after win, never failing at anything, then what do you learn? Where do you improve? For me, every new piece is a new challenge; a new territory I have never been in before, and so there is a learning curve with every new painting I make. What I have noticed is that when I get the feeling I am not getting anywhere even though I am working really hard every day, it is usually because I have a lot of learning to do in order to create that particular piece.
Spending two whole days learning how to use a program that helps me construct perspective grids, or starting a drawing over that seems too forced or is wrong in too many areas, or choosing a different proportion rectangle to better fit the composition… all of these things can be extremely frustrating because they seem to take all of my time. But, in reality, they are necessary steps in creating that particular painting.
“In any given moment, we have two options; to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
The other f word
As a first year student in the Atelier, I experienced a freezing feeling before I started the sphere project. The only other time I felt that freezing feeling was when I was about to jump off of a cliff into the Saco river at Salmon Falls in Maine, as a teenager. I recognized that feeling as fear.
I started the sphere by choosing a bowl from the kitchen, tracing it on a piece of quality charcoal paper, and then drawing a rectangle around it making the picture plane. After working on it every day for a week, my teacher came by and held an expression that seemed like she was trying to hold back a laugh. It was huge! She told me it might take all year to render a sphere of that size and recommended I start over with a smaller circle and a smaller rectangle. Not wanting to spend all of my first year on the sphere project, I decided to take her advice. I was suddenly frozen with anxiety over losing a whole week on something that ended up in the trash can. So, I started over. This time, two weeks went by and I noticed the charcoal started falling off the paper at a rapid rate. Juliette came by again and I asked her about it. She looked at it curiously and peeled the tape off to look underneath it. The problem was, I only had one thin piece of charcoal paper against a hard wooden drawing board. (future me slapping palm to forehead). The paper was burnished, meaning the tooth of the paper that holds the charcoal was completely ironed flat and shiny, which is why it is important to have a few sheets of paper or newsprint under your drawing for padding.
So, I started another sphere. This time, I was determined not to make any silly set up mistakes. By the time I was finished, I was so looking forward to moving on to the next assignment. When Juliette looked at my completed sphere, she was quiet for a good 10 seconds, until she told me she would like me to do the same thing, but with eggs instead of a sphere.
So I sucked it up drew the damn eggs. This is when the magic happened though. Something clicked, and suddenly I was able to see and understand half tone better than I ever had in my life. Having to start over every time meant that I had three times the experience I would have had doing just one. I spent a total of two months on the sphere project, and learned more in that time about chiaroscuro: the treatment of light and shade, than I ever thought possible. It is knowledge that I now use on a daily basis, so it was very good time spent.
Since then I have felt that same “freezing” feeling many times. Every time I enter new territory where I am about to learn something new, I feel it. When I find myself in a rut of procrastination, it is usually because of it. So, it takes courage and swallowing your pride a little bit. Yes, you spent a month working on something that needs to go back to the drawing board. That is okay. Or maybe you really want to paint that large figurative painting that you have always dreamed of but the water is 30 feet down, your feet feel glued to the rock your standing on, and your thighs feel like they are made of stone.
I have been there. I am there right now, in all honesty. But it is kind of an exciting place to be, because it means anything can happen.