Watercolor Expressions: “Spread the light; be the lighthouse”

The title is borrowed from a recent Yogi teabag, but is a practice I’ve been trying to embody. Only partially successful a lot of the time and well aware of my imperfections, I still aspire towards this goal. In the light of my best self I hope to find humble solace, to generate true love for others, and to move myself (and hopefully others I encounter) out of darkness.

Early lighthouse paintings

To the Lighthouse, 2017

As a lover of nautical themes and lighthouse symbolism, I’ve long wanted to make a decent lighthouse painting. My first attempts, about 2 years ago, were so technically poor I’ve stayed away from painting them since. The first of the series (pictured right) was done as a small sketch to prepare for the intended bigger version. It was ok, but I had difficulty seeing beyond the imperfections.

Beacon, 2017

My second effort (pictured left) was no more successful – maybe even less so – but came with a personally meaningful insight, the reason I treasure it. Made shortly after a disheartening world event, I, like many others, was searching for peace and hope. The working title for this second painting – To the Lighthouse – is also the title of my favorite Virginia Woolf novel, which added intellectual appeal. But as I worked on the painting for embarrassingly many hours considering the outcome, trying and failing to figure it out, my perspective shifted from seeking the light to being it. It almost seems silly now. After all, the idea is popular enough to be printed on a Yogi teabag tag! But at the time, it was an ‘aha!’ moment for me: You don’t need to find the light, you need to be the light! This insight unfortunately didn’t translate into making a luminous painting, but it did change me and necessitated a title change for the painting. To the Lighthouse became Beacon.

Another try

At times I feel future paintings are simmering in the background, not ready to be conceived, but still in active preparation. I’m not sure this makes sense to someone who isn’t me, but captures my experience of making the lighthouse painting shown below.

Nearly two years after the first lighthouse painting, I started by sketching lighthouses, this time using a photo model, to better understand perspective and form. That helped a lot! The first two paintings were generated from my imagined picture of a lighthouse scene, a vision equal parts primitive and inaccurate. I can see that clearly now.

The photo I used as a model for the new painting waited as an open tab on my internet browser for over a year, a long simmer! Finally, over the past weekend, I made the painting (pictured below). It’s still not perfect, but I’m happy with my progress.

Beacon, 9×12 watercolor (2019)

After I’ve finished a painting, I not uncommonly see new things and have impulses to change it. Away from it for a day, seeing it in my mind’s eye, I decided the sky should be a darker. When I shared that idea with my husband, he protested. The sky, almost indistinguishable from the lighthouse, is what he likes best about the painting. As a lover of metaphor, there are worse things – as we spread light, we may become one with the sky. I’ve quite a ways to go, but happy to be getting closer. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

A shifting definition of good work

Cape Cod Cool, 10×10 acrylic (October, 2018)

Learning to paint with acrylics

My acrylic painting journey began at one of those wine and paint nights, something my husband thought would be fun for us to do as a couple. He was right! After a manageable set of instructions, each of us was encouraged to make a version of the model painting using the blobs of black and primary colors provided. There was no talk of color mixing, no real technique offered besides a caution about order: start from the top with blue fading into red/yellow sunset, next add the blue ocean, end with the black rocks and sailboat silhouette between them. Everyone happily managed their own interpretations, smiles and laughter abundant throughout. Maybe that was the wine! I remember being struck by the individual differences in outcome despite the uniform instructions and materials.

PaintNite 2014 (first acrylic painting)

This PaintNite scene (pictured), though not one I wanted to hang at home, found a place in a windowless office I used for part of my work week. It brightened the space and inspired peaceful thoughts, or so I was told by one of my adolescent patients who otherwise did not radiate calm. Despite this decided value, I knew the painting wasn’t particularly ‘good,’ something I mistakenly thought was a byproduct of the medium, not just my lack of skill. Still, I picked up some canvases and acrylic paints on sale at a local craft store. I imagined I’d host a PaintNite with friends or make paintings with my young nephews, ideas that would sit untouched in the corner of my basement, alongside those canvases and acrylic paints.

Years later…

Several years passed, dotted with intermittent watercolor painting, my preferred medium only by habit and lack of experience with any other. Then, my husband, catalyst and longtime supporter of my artistic efforts, gifted me a portable plein air easel. He apparently imagined me on the French countryside, complete with beret and smock, his imagined representation of an artist. And what a lovely way to be envisioned! But he didn’t know that type of easel, which doesn’t adjust to fully horizontal, isn’t ideal for watercolor painting. Although I skipped the beret and smock, I decided to honor the gift by bringing canvas and paints up from the basement, to give acrylics another try on my new easel.

You might wonder whether I thought to research acrylic painting techniques before I began, something that seems obviously wise now. Naively, I thought I knew all there was to know about applying acrylic paint, having had the introductory lesson at PaintNite. I know, I know – hindsight is humbling! In my defense, my art education stopped in middle school. I thought ‘good’ painting was done with either watercolor or oils, a medium off-limits to an amateur, the brush cleaning alone beyond my capacity. It hadn’t occurred to me that acrylic painting, like so many deceptively simple things, can also be complex and render beautiful scenes.

Without expectations, or skill, I set up the easel and started putting paint on canvas, intending to make a rock breakwater, something I’d struggled to master with watercolor paints. No surprise, the rocks were not a success in this painting either. But to my delight, I discovered that with acrylic painting even a dark mistake could be painted over with a lighter color, not really an option with watercolor.

New Medium, July 2018
(2nd acrylic painting)

The final result (pictured) looked closer to what I considered a ‘good’ painting might look like. It wasn’t great, I knew, but it was better than I’d expected it could be and motivated me to keep playing with this new medium.

So much more to learn…

Since then I’ve made several acrylic paintings of varying quality and have recently decided to learn more about technique and application. There is a lot to learn! It’s tempting to see all the paintings I’ve made to this point as not ‘good’ through the lens of increased knowledge and experience. For example, initially more focused on color and composition, I didn’t realize visible brush strokes might add to, or detract from, a painting. Poor paint coverage is also a thing, which doesn’t affect the gestalt but really makes for a poor quality painting on the close up. This final painting (pictured at the top), my third of the medium, exemplifies both kinds of mistakes.

My definition of a ‘good’ painting has shifted, and will, I suspect, continue to evolve. Still, there is something about this painting, even with the noted imperfections, that keeps me from painting over it. Even that PaintNite painting was beloved by at least one person and was therefore valuable, if primitive in other ways. These paintings remind me that while we can evolve in technique and knowledge, we can also appreciate and honor where we’ve been. We can define ‘good’ broadly.

In other news, although I’ve thus far managed to talk my husband out of the need for an artist’s costume, he occasionally still wonders aloud, “Wouldn’t you like a beret?” Maybe someday I’ll decide that would be a ‘good’ look for me.

Re-creation recreation

Over the recent New Year’s holiday time off, I happily anticipated two days with minimal obligations, consecutive hours available for painting. Rarely do I paint with a goal in mind, but this time I wanted to finish a painting I had started months ago, untouched so long for fear of ruining the nascent scene I wanted to preserve. It’s not unusual for me to feel this way. It’s easier to start, free of expectations, than to finish over the mounting attachment to outcome. Even so, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with painting as a process and my experience with this particular painting provides an interesting mirror, a reflection of both progress and ongoing challenge.

In partial completion

I’d thought about finishing the painting a lot over the last months, imagined how best to continue my original vision for it. I thought I had an idea, that I was ready. But it turns out I’m not so great at executing a planned vision. And I can be pretty impulsive when the paintbrush is in my hand. That could be reframed as willingness to experiment, I suppose. Or maybe I’m just not very skilled. Untrained, I don’t have an internalized a set of rules from which I might improvise with control. Still, I like best when the paint is wet and I am able discover form in its movement. I also understand the associated limitations and risks.N

Best laid plans

On the last day of 2018, I began the painting again, or rather, I tried to continue the painting with an openness to experiment. The experience could be called a success, but only with a willingness to define it as such. Although I made several interesting and different paintings along the way, I couldn’t quite get the ground to work with the already completed sky. There is grief in misplaced brushstrokes and poorly chosen colors, the lost kernels of good ideas, but also hope in the possibility of something better. Finally, I cut the strings of my attachment to the existing sky and, somewhat desperately, drew a loaded paintbrush across the upper half of the canvas. I thought letting go of the sky might preserve the new ground. I was wrong.

I figured the sky disaster was the end, the last nail in a painting not meant to be. And as I prepared to wash my brushes, I offered a prayer of thanks to the thickly layered wet mess, and considered the most fitting way to dispose of it. But I hesitated, still attached I guess, and wondered what would happen if I put the painting under the running water.

After the faucet cleansing

Magically, the original sky reappeared, mostly unscathed, as the newer ground washed away beneath the water streaming from the bathroom sink, a mandala of colored sand partially erased with the wind. If even for a brief moment, I understood the purpose of that Tibetan Buddhist tradition – nothing is permanent. And the obvious corollary reminder to live fully in the present. That the sky endures in this particular painting may also be metaphorically interesting to consider.

After many hours of work, the painting looked much the same as before, half complete, a sky waiting for the right ground. If anything, it was a little worse for the wear, with ugly remnants waiting to be painted over.

Lessons learned

The final painting wasn’t what I had originally envisioned, nor was I the same painter. But truthfully, I enjoyed the process even before the absence of a visible endpoint, an artistic journey that I’m certain has applications for other aspects of my life.

Each brushstroke informs the next, some apparently more so. Any creation that facilitates growth is a personal – maybe even priceless – work of art. We need only to keep going, with a loose attachment to outcome, and learn when best to pause before continuing anew.

Today, nearly a week later, I tried again. The result is pictured above.

Why Share Creative Work?

It’s a funny time to ask, having already created a blog to share my evolving artistic endeavors. Yet the question has nagged at me anew since my very recent foray into blogging. Although it’s possibly a tangential inquiry, I also wonder how sharing is connected to the creative process. All might agree that art is a form of expression. Does that mean, almost by definition, that creative output should be shared? Is this perhaps a variant of the age-old query: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

If we don’t share the things we create do they really exist? To what degree does the act of sharing, and the response generated, change the work? If we do something and no one is there to like it on our chosen social media outlet, did it really happen?

The last question is a joke, really, but I do think one’s relationship with social media and the intentions behind sharing through the varied online options are worth examining. What if no one likes a post? Does that mean it wasn’t worth making? Should one aim for popularity or post the pieces that are most personally meaningful?

Why create?

Maybe we first need to understand what drives us to create something in the first place. Why make another painting? Why share a photo? Why write a blog post or poem or story? Are the motivations highly variable? Or is there a universal drive at work?

To articulate my personal answers about the reasons for creativity is more difficult than I had expected. And maybe that’s the obvious reason we make art – to express things that are challenging to characterize or explain in linear form. Asking why we create things may ultimately be akin to asking why we exist or why we breathe. I understand some folks make things for utility or monetary gain. But isn’t there something more?

For me, creative expression feels like my soul’s urging, something to fill the corners of my being, a way to expand an otherwise partially inflated balloon. As such, my sense of wellbeing is directly proportional to how much creative energy I generate and adequately express. Sometimes I make excuses – I’m so busy; My technique is too primitive; My thoughts are disorganized; I’m not good enough. And every time I say no to myself in these ways, I feel my energy wither. The possibilities for myself shrink, the balloon deflates, and I become fatigued from holding myself against the beautiful current that might guide me to a better place.

Creative by nature?

We are all creators, aren’t we? Sifters and shifters of energy in different forms? Not everyone paints or writes, but we all make something new by virtue of our presence and choices about how we express. And don’t we all look for ways to be ourselves most fully? Don’t we all feel best when we allow ourselves to be swept up by a wave of creative energy, in whatever form that takes?

So why not share? Whether imperfect or still in development, why not let others see what we’re like in full expression? Because when we do – when we offer ourselves in fullness, even in the early stages of our chosen craft – maybe that is when making art becomes an act of love.