*Note: I shared this particular painting with this poem because it was a painting that evolved easily, which isn’t exactly typical of my experience. As a painter (and writer), I am guilty of teeth gnashing effort and that is usually evident in the work, at least to me. To have a goal that is about not trying seems both counterintuitive and impossible, but I know this is a goal worth allowing, if not pursuing.
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.
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.
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.
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.