Originally published on ART + Marketing on August 18, 2017.
“I hate it when you do that. I absolutely can’t stand it when you do that,” he’d said to me that depressing, wet Tuesday when we stood together in the paints section at A.C. Moore, right on the intersection of oils and acrylics.
I’d just finished asking a sales associate whether I could use watercolor in the same piece as the acrylics paints I was holding in my hand. I’d worried about wasting paper, worried about it messing with the pigmentation of the colors, and in the name of all that was holy, I wanted to do it right.
“There’s no right way to do it other than doing it for its own sake,” he’d continued, “If you want to use watercolor with acrylic, just do it. Try it out, see what happens.”
This is coming from a man who once said to me, “If I want to light half my canvas on fire and I think it’d bring me joy to see it go up in flames, I’m going to light it on fire.”
He’d told me over and over to stop overthinking the results, that the point of my creativity wasn’t the goal of a finished piece, but the sacred immersion of the artist into the artistic process itself.
He so desired to see me lose myself and become free.
I still can’t turn off the part of my brain that’s royally ticked off by the fact that I can’t paint a perfectly opaque, sierra-colored rectangle.
For the last two weeks, he’d been working on a giant installation of the solar system as we know it. “The viewer is meant be surrounded by it,” he’d explained the other night when we met at a pie shop, “I want it to fill them with awe.”
We were talking about our respective projects. I told him that what I liked most about the piece he was working on was that it wasn’t really about the universe. “It’s really a piece about humanness that uses the infinite nature of the universe to juxtapose it,” I mused, “By filling us with awe at its vastness, we become more aware of our own nature… physically finite, spiritually infinite.”
“Exactly,” he’d said, “I’m really enjoying this project, exploring the intersection between these ideas. It’s interesting to me how you can be humbled by how small you feel in comparison, but at the same time realize that your soul is infinite or, as you often say, ‘unable to be contained.’” The waitress brought his cappuccino over and placed it at his elbow. He thanked her and then flipped the conversation over to me, asking me about my painting. That was when I told him about my battle for a perfectly opaque rectangle.
“It needs to be all the exact same color in order to emphasize the sharpness. I want this piece to be angular, kind of like cubism, but 2-D if you get what I mean. I’m struggling to make the edges sharp and crisp. Some of them fade, some of them bleed into the shapes around them. And after they dry, they are also uneven.”
The sound of his laughter filled the room. “I know, Darling. I know.” He stirred in his seat and stretched out a cramp in his neck and continued: “But you should learn to release your idea of the outcome. Give yourself to the process, see what happens. Find the beauty in the end product, even if it looks a little different from what you’d visualized.”
Yesterday, I spoke with Antoine. Antoine is a very nice man who works the security desk in my apartment building. He is also an artist who specializes in ink drawing. “It’s interesting that I love ink drawing because it’s so…” his voice trailed off.
“Unforgiving,” I instantly said.
“Right,” he picked up, “if I make a mistake, I have to work it into the drawing. I can’t erase it.” He opened up his sketch book and showed me the pieces he’d been working on. The pages were filled with still-life — animals, landscapes, portraiture. As I eyed the lines he’d made on portrait of him and his girlfriend, he said, “So what are you working on? Now I’m curious.”
The sound of a door opening and slamming reached us. “I’m painting something. It sucks.”
He laughed, “It probably doesn’t. We’re our harshest critics because we don’t see our work through the eyes of others.”
“We usually think our work is bad because before starting, we have this vision,” I said, “We have an image in our minds of WHAT we want to paint and how we want our final piece to look. Once it’s done, we hold it up to that image and we see all the ways it doesn’t look the way we’d wanted it to. Other people can’t see that. They just take the outcome as it is.”
He told me about how so many times, when he points out the flaws in his own sketches, the viewer is surprised and never noticed them.
“I’m learning that the quality of my piece isn’t based on whether it reached a certain goal,” I said, “My piece is good if I gave myself to the process and if that process brought me joy.”
Someone once said to me, “Your life is your masterpiece. Feel free to edit it ruthlessly.” They’d told me this when I was debating dropping the dead weight of a friendship that’d turned toxic. It had started to drain me instead of bringing me fulfillment.
Our lives are our own personal masterpieces. We often talk of visualization as a tool for reaching our goals. Articles strewn throughout the Internet say, “Visualize what you want. Picture in your mind’s eye the life you want to live.” This isn’t inherently unhealthy. I regularly visualize my goals in order to avoid getting sidetracked and thus far, it’s been a good way to keep myself grounded.
But, as with paintings or novels, we will often end up at a destination that looks far from what we’d imagined or planned. Characters will start to say, “No, this is what I will choose for my own story.” Paint will dry differently from what you’d hoped. Our lives will move in a different direction than we’d expected.
Our vision of focusing on a career in finance in Manhattan until the age of thirty might look like three kids and a black lab two hours outside of LA before you’ve hit twenty-six.
Release yourself from the outcome. Let it have its space. Give it room to breathe. Lean into the here and now. Find joy in the journey.