Perseverance and the Painter’s Soul

"Sacred Falls" oil on canvas 24"x24"

“Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul is the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other.”  Henry David Thoreau

With ease and clarity, I can transport my mind back to a day in the late 1960’s, perhaps 1968.  The wheezing of my childhood asthma became almost unbearable and I threw my heavy frame backpack to the ground in the thin Rocky Mountain National Park air.  I was angry at the blistering pace that my Dad was setting as we ascended up a seemingly endless set of switchbacks and I wondered why in God’s name we were doing this.  I knew that there was no way that we would turn around and go home, for my parents had been planning this maiden backpacking trip for some time.

The moment we arrived at Lake Odessa, all thoughts of the effort that it took to get there vanished.  The remainder of that afternoon was spent exploring with my three sisters, fishing, setting up camp and generally having the time of our lives.  I didn’t know at the time that my parents had given me a great gift, they had introduced me to an activity that would be repeated enthusiastically throughout my life.

My time in the backcountry of Colorado has made an indelible impression upon my soul.  Painting provides me with a channel through which I can express the feelings that have come from those experiences.  Just like backpacking, painting is not easy and there are times when I just want to give up.  But I keep going, knowing that just around the next corner or over the next hill is a reward worth working for.

Three Tips For The Self-Taught Artist

"Patio At The Inn" 30"x40" Acrylic on Canvas

The notion to apply paint to a canvas came late in life for me, long after acquiring a business degree and charting my course towards a life in the retail industry.  In 2006, at the age of 46, I picked up some pencils and sketch pads and discovered that I could lose myself for hours in the process of creating expressive subjects and compositions.  Roughly a year later, I found myself in the aisles of Hobby Lobby gathering together tubes of acrylic paint, canvas boards, brushes and a color wheel.  I really had no idea what I needed and I was too embarrassed to ask for help,  so I ended up bringing home what I now realize may be a lifetime supply of some items.

The feel of the wet acrylic paint moving around on the canvas resonated with me and I quickly found myself back at the store buying large panels of stretched canvas.   One of my first paintings was a 30” x 40” impression of the restaurant patio at the historic inn that my wife and I were operating at the time.  I felt that the canvas was too large to use little brushes to apply the paint and I did not yet like the way that a palette knife felt, so intuitively I took an old credit card and went to work.  Within a few hours I had completed a painting that would become a much admired and talked about conversation piece, hanging on the restaurant wall until we sold the business in 2010.

Five years and perhaps a hundred paintings later, I have yet to produce a piece of art so quickly, intuitively and easily.  I now paint with oils, I know how to use brushes and knives and I don’t even know where that color wheel is, but the process of completing a painting of lasting value is certainly no easier than it was when I painted that patio.

If you are a self taught painter at the beginning of your journey, there are three tips that I have learned that I want to share with you:

  1. There is no such thing as a self-taught artist.  I finally took my first formal painting class just last year, but I have been a student since making that first trip to hobby lobby.  We are all students, no matter how long we’ve been at it and we learn from every image we see and every artist we meet.  The inter-net gives us all the opportunity to learn an share in a way that the old Masters would have never envisioned.  Initially, I was very defensive about being self-taught, stubborn in resisting the idea that someone might influence my growth in a direction that was not authentic for me.  I now know that there is no way you can avoid your own originality if your true purpose is to express yourself.
  2. Paint what you are passionate about.  For the first few years, I tried painting just about everything that I saw.  Often times I tried to paint something that I thought others might enjoy seeing or that someone might want to buy.  It took a few years to realize that it really works the other way around.  If you paint what you know and feel and love, somebody will love what they see and want to buy it.
  3. Just do it.  Paint does not end up on a canvas by thinking, talking or planning.  There is no other way to create than to put the brush in the paint and begin taking chances.  If you fear that you won’t do it right, then you won’t.  Every mistake is a tool, a barometer.  If it is used properly, it will tell you when you are painting with fear rather than with knowing and feeling.

aLL oF LIfE iS An eXpeRimeNt

Try, and try again.

Cracking open a fortune cookie after enjoying a meal at a favorite Chinese restaurant is one of life’s odd rituals.  The routine is familiar to most of us.  Eat until full, put leftovers in box, then break the tiny dessert into two pieces revealing a little slip of paper that has something wise written on it.   When I like my fortune, I slip it into my wallet for safekeeping.  When I don’t particularly understand its relevance, I bid for a trade or light heartedly ask the waiter for another.

A few days ago while pulling a credit card out of my wallet, a fortune fell out that said, “Do not be too timid or squeamish about your actions, all of life is an experiment”.  I know well why I tucked this one away.  You see, I am in the midst of big life changes and have been for some time.  I left behind the safety and security of a successful, yet ultimately un-fulfilling business path years ago and have been searching for creative enlightenment and fulfillment every since.

Along the way, I have tried many new things and I have suffered failures.  At times, these failures have caused so much pain that I have literally coiled up into the fetal position wishing to return somehow to what is sure and safe.  Fortunately, the bridge to the past is no longer standing.  Fortunately, I have no choice but to move forward, taking the lessons that I have learned from my defeats and applying them boldly to my future “experiments”.  Am I talking about art, or business, or relationships?  The wise message in my fortune cookie applies just as it says, to “all of life”.