April was an interesting month. I started it off by starting a new job, without quitting my old one. New Job is a much longer drive away than Old Job, so I’ve been listening to some great books on CD, and I’ve also been thinking. Blogging in my head, as it were. Unfortunately, I also tend to be tired when I get home, and open Firefox or the WordPress app, and continue to blog in my head, without writing a word.
My new job is very different from my old one. The work is detail-oriented; analytical; I’m told I do this kind of work very well, even though I don’t usually think of the way my mind works in those terms. But, being new, I’m making a lot of mistakes, and it’s hard to know which mistakes are big and which are small. I also feel like the stakes are higher. All of this is to say I’ve been kind of nervous about the possibility of putting a foot wrong.
I’ve already been feeling a bit the same way about my art, and the two have kind of fed off of each other. I’m working on a private project right now that’s very different from the stuff I post about here. It’s a perfect storm: unfamiliar subject matter, a large canvas, some paint colors I haven’t used before (or not much), a new approach to composition, a lot of glazing, and even a non-negotiable Dramatic Tree. It would make it that much easier if it was just for my own enjoyment, but it’s not—it’s going to be a gift!
I spent some time at the end of March and a fair part of the month of April thinking about all that could go wrong.
Too much purple! Too much yellow! I meant for that to be gold, but there’s no way around it: it’s YELLOW.
Too much orange! Too much blue! A lot of the issues I’m having right now are color-related. Burnt sienna isn’t an earthy brown, it’s a rich and potent red-orange. Easy to love; easy to overdo.
The clouds could be too cottony! Not cottony enough! Clouds are serious business.
My tranquil, balanced composition could be TOO tranquil and balanced, and put everyone who sees the painting to sleep!
The Dramatic Tree could be too dramatic! (There’s not a chance it could turn out not to be dramatic enough. C’mon—it’s a Dramatic Tree.)
And that canvas. It’s big! In absolute terms, it takes up a fairly small percentage of the space in the studio, but no matter where I put it, it’s blocking something important. If not the door, then the window. If not the couch, then the drawers where I keep the paint. And no matter where I put it, I can see it every time I walk past the studio door, looming like a steep scree slope. A long and difficult slog, however scenic.
I intended to let these feelings pass and get used to the presence of this thing before I started. But then, at the same time as my brain spun off dozens of reasons and excuses, I started to think, I’m getting rusty. What if I lose my touch?
So many stages go into a painting, however, that that was irrelevant. I finally had to remind myself that the first step would be to block in the basic shapes, a layer that wouldn’t be visible at all by the time the painting was finished, and so simple it could be accomplished in one evening with a brush of a size that’s more commonly used for painting houses.
When I was finished that first layer, I didn’t want to stop. Other sessions since then have been the same way, which has meant that I’ve been doing more painting after dark than I’d like, leading to some color distortions that have fortunately reminded me that many mistakes in acrylics can be fixed.
The takeaway: not only is making art therapeutic, making art has therapeutic value even when the art itself is perceived as a source of stress.
The key for me has been to get so immersed in the act of painting that I can’t think about how it’s going to turn out. Some of the methods for achieving this might sound a bit silly—mood music, scented candles, a particular pair of paint-stained jeans, the slippers I only wear in the studio—but they serve a purpose beyond creating a mood. It’s not even about blocking out distractions from the rest of the house, although that helps. I can’t worry about releasing a piece into the wide world if I’ve almost forgotten that there is a world outside the studio.
They’re ways of occupying the parts of my brain that would otherwise be reminding me of the possibility of making grievous mistakes, and trying to fix them but having the end result be a rushed and obvious patch job. But, before these parts of my brain can stop me, I find that the sounds and smells have given way to the feel of the paint sliding from brush to canvas, and I’m on a roll. And before I know it, it’s dark, and artificial light is doing funny things to the colors, and it’s time to stop.