The alchemists have a saying: ‘Tertium non datur.’ The third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element to another, from waste matter into best gold is a mystery, not a formula. No one can predict what will form out of the tensions of opposites and effect a healing change between them. And so it is with the mind that moves from its prison to a free and vast plain without any movement at all. Something new has entered the process. We can only guess.
– Jeanette Winterson
This painting has been on and off my easel since February. And although I wouldn’t call it gold, I can say that the process of making it had an alchemical quality. Put another way: I have no idea what I’m doing or why, but always have transformation foremost in my mind.
For those of you who aren’t painters, I want to tell you this secret. To be a painter – even an amateur one like me – you also have to be a gambler. Painters have to be willing to lose, repeatedly, until a painting is finished.
Every time I make a painting, I reach a point where I must put everything on the line, bet it all on the next brushmark. And many times, I lose.
Now, I’m not a gambler in any other way. The only slot machines I ever remember playing were the ones I visited at the Las Vegas airport en route to the Grand Canyon. I didn’t win. Lottery tickets tempt me sometimes. But the potential jackpot is less compelling than the greater likelihood of losing. I’ve never considered myself particularly lucky.
Instead, I prefer a sure thing if I can get it. I am a creature of routine and sameness for this reason. I know what I like and try to maximize my chances. Maybe I just like control. Don’t most of us?
But painting is never a sure thing. It’s a practice of uncertainty and risk. Painting is always a gamble.
The first brush strokes come with low stakes. There’s a lot less to lose when so little has been invested. But as a painting progresses, so increase the moments of possible ruin. With each new brush stroke, the razor’s edge becomes thinner.
Yes, mistakes can be corrected and even Bob Ross style happy accidents may add life to a painting. But I can tell you it’s not as easy to fix a painting as you might think, especiallynot if you want to preserve some precious part you’ve attached to. Changing one thing often creates a domino effect of other needed adjustments. This is doable. In fact, better paintings often result. But there is almost always something lost. And it is a gamble. The losses may never be recouped by the final bet.
When you look at a painting, there is typically no hint of the artist’s sweat, or that razor’s edge in view. You decide if you like it or not, and move on. You don’t see the paintings that have been tossed, scraped down, or sanded away, sometimes after countless hours of attention. But the artist remembers. The artist can’t separate the painting from the process of making it.
Maybe there are painters out there who don’t identify with what I’m saying at all. I’d love to know YOUR secret! And I’m aware there are ways of painting that make outcome more predictable. Still, I recently heard that Anne Packard once threw one of her paintings into the ocean. I know the struggle is real, even for great painters!
And I know the paintings I’ve wanted to throw into the ocean are often the ones I become most attached to. I don’t throw away the ones I don’t like. Instead, I let them rest where they taunt me until I have the courage to go back and try again. These are the ones I suspect others won’t value the same way I do; these are the ones that contain a bigger piece of my heart.
I don’t really like gambling. I hate to lose, especially in a contest with myself. I’ve had enough loss in my life already. But I am a painter, which requires me to be a gambler. I keep painting. Because sometimes I win. And only because I am willing to try again.
And sometimes I even understand: What is meant to be kept, can never truly be lost.
And sometimes I even know: we only find out what is truly possible, when we are willing to surrender everything we have attached to.
Are you a gambler? Are you willing to release the things that hold you back for the possibility of something greater?
Here are a few recent paintings that were saved from the trash.
I haven’t shared a painting here in some time, partly because I’m not sure WordPress is the best medium for sharing visual creative work. Let me know if I’m wrong! Nevertheless, I wanted to share this image because it is a re-rendered painting I posted here a little over a year ago, my third ever WP attempt.
A lot happens in a year and as one’s blog offers a potential mirror for personal and creative evolution. It’s fun to look back as we also look forward and keep ourselves rooted to the present moment. This painting is a bit of a triumph for me, which you might more fully appreciate if you read about my challenges with some earlier iterations of it here.
To all who have enjoyed and supported my creative efforts, I thank you. Many blessings in the new year, a chance for growth, and the realization of hopes and creative dreams for all. Let’s continue to shine light in the darkness.
*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.
I’d wager to bet our perceptions differ, even as we may imagine we’re looking at the same thing. This is a truism. But it’s curious, isn’t it? By default, we assume we have a shared reality, when that is only partially true.
I recently posted to Facebook a photograph of a painting I made, my primary intention being to share what seemed like an amusing interchange between me and my husband. He said he liked the painting; I was less impressed and responded with something like, “If you really like it, you better take it to work with you, otherwise I might not be able to resist painting over it.” I’m known for painting over my work, for ruining a decent painting by changing “just one more little thing.”
The encounter was meant to highlight my struggles as a painter, possibly to invoke a chuckle or two. I can be guilty of taking myself too seriously. This exchange, and the telling of it, was meant to be an antidote.
What happened next was puzzling to me, but not really surprising when one considers how varied our individual perceptions of the same object can really be. In short, many people – many more than usual – responded positively to the painting. Some folks suggested the painting might be my best work.
I was stunned. Really?
You might imagine I’d be pleased to have my work well-received, which was true to a degree. It feels good to be liked and I always appreciate when people take the time to acknowledge me in some way.
But more predominantly, I was aware of feeling dysphoric, confused. What am I not seeing here?
Have you ever created something you didn’t personally like very much?
Of course you have!
Have you ever had other people like that thing more than other things? Things you’ve liked better yourself? Worked harder on, been more proud of?
It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?
In some ways it’s a bit like going to a costume party and having people say you’ve never looked better. Really? Do you not like the real me?
But who is the real me? Who is the real you? Would you know your true self if you saw it reflected back to you? If your art reveals something about you, do you know what that is?
In a world where wearing masks is a social custom, is it any wonder we get confused about what is real, true, and good?
Wait, are we talking about a painting or about being authentic? Well, I think they’re connected, at least in this example. Because I know it’s possible to hide the truth of who we are, even when we think we’re being open. Just as it’s possible to truly reveal ourselves without noticing, without seeing ourselves. For better and worse.
None of this may be relevant to the painting. Art is subjective; perceptions vary. But when the groundswell of something you’ve created differs so widely from your own opinion, the problem likely lives in your perception of self.
Perhaps it’s time for you to broaden your self perception, to expand the expressed range of who you’ve allowed yourself to be?
I came to painting unconventionally, with no memories of childhood painting aptitude and little painting experience outside of my elementary school art classes. I’ve always liked to draw, but my ability to render what I saw was never remarkable. Playing sports and being a good student were more my things.
There is some photographic evidence that hints of my early interest in painting, but being an artist was never part of my identity. I’m not sure what it would mean to claim that identity at age 50. Nor do I really feel I must do so, at least not any more than I’ve defined myself in other ways. Am I a painter? Someone who likes to paint? Is there really a difference?
I don’t know. I’m just curious about these sorts of things, most especially how each of us develops and claims aspects of ourselves that have been unknown or previously dormant.
The biggest challenge to progress is our resistance to move beyond the known.
I’ve grown comfortable with blues and greens, a color palette that soothes me. But mixes of red tones have found their way into a couple of recent paintings, perhaps inspired by the spectacular sunsets of late.
Although there are things I like about the paintings, a subtle tension becomes evident when I look at them, an experience that reminds me how difficult it is to gaze upon the unfamiliar.
The painting shown above is one example.
Of course, it could also be that the painting doesn’t work well in some way, the reason I feel a bit off center when I look at it. But I also know that our perception about what “works” is largely determined by what we’ve learned that means.
How do we know what we could like if we never try anything new?
I make this post – open to feedback about the painting, as always – but also as a conversation starter about moving beyond the known.
Where do you find it most challenging to sit with the unknown in your life?
Change can be difficult and is often filled with associated grief, but freedom can also be found in the process of letting go. Major life transitions offer a special opportunity to find freedom in change, but it’s easier said than done depending on the details.
We just sold our house. And truthfully, nothing about the related details over the last months have felt close to positive, except the knowledge that we would eventually conclude the stressful parts and be another step closer to our goals – a simpler life, fewer possessions, reduced financial obligations, to name a few.
Anticipated freedom on my mind, I noticed the plywood board sitting on the side of the road – FREE in bold marker written across the surface. Instead of unwanted junk, I saw a new canvas for the old house paint I’d not yet discarded. This idea was so compelling, I actually turned the car around to retrieve the board after initially passing it by.
I’d already made two other paintings with house paint, which turned out to be highly therapeutic, as well as productive. See an example here. But those paintings were made on canvases already in my possession, the benefit of using them more immediately obvious.
In the middle of a move, the last thing anyone needs is to accrue anything new. Nevertheless, I found myself putting the board in my car, unable to resist the symbolic reference and the therapeutic value of a new creative project to soothe me between the packed boxes.
Although I understood FREE would be erased by whatever painting I made, I imagined I’d know freedom in the layers of the painting. I was right.
Freedom is a mindset, not only a consequence of release from unwanted circumstances. Freedom is found any time we allow ourselves to move beyond preconditioned responses. Freedom comes when we let go of expectations.