Some upsets are sharp, immediate, traumatic; others have an ongoing quality, like a tooth which throbs to warn you that you really need to go to the dentist. I had this kind of throbbing pain around painting watercolors. When I started painting, I learned that I knew nothing. A Zen master would have applauded this state of ignorance, but I went from frustration to frustration.
At first I blamed my traumas with painting on my lack of experience with the tools involved. As I am left-handed, my built-in response is that trouble begins when I pick an implement to make marks, and working with a brush made me uneasy.
There were also the difficulties with the medium I innocently chose. I’ve heard watercolor described as an unforgiving medium, and my experience was that it didn’t forgive a single mistake. Too much water made blotches; not enough made scratches, and the dryness or humidity of the weather had to be taken into account.
Trying to remember not to paint over areas which were supposed to stay white caused further traumas.
If a painting didn’t work out the first time I abandoned it. I was not only ignorant but impatient, and more than once I wondered why I kept on doing this.
Somehow I established a fumbling grip on my brush and some rudimentary techniques. I painted images which looked like what I was seeing, but I wasn’t happy with them. Then my teacher introduced arcane words like “gesture,” “value,” and, worst of all, “composition.” I discovered that I was supposed to plan paintings. Even if the barn I was painting was red or if it was actually in the middle of a field, if these elements didn’t work out compositionally I was supposed to carelessly toss reality aside.
That felt threatening. The more I thought about this the more it brought to the surface the suspicion I’d successfully buried from the beginning of my watercoloring career-that the exact reproduction of an image is no more art than the reporting of a true-life event is fiction. The differerence was a matter of creativity.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. Being creative meant leaving the safety of a red barn in the middle of a green field, and exploring unknown regions-not in the outside world, which could be risky enough-but inner worlds. It meant exploring how I felt about combinations of colors and shapes and translating my private world of senses onto paper.
And if I wanted to continue painting it seemed that I had no choice but to take this dangerous road. So I did.
As in art so in life. I’ve learned to be more patient with myself; I’ve learned to see things, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional, differently. When I get frustrated, whether I am painting or living, I remind myself to put more of me into my work. When the blankness of the road ahead looks intimidating I dig deeper, I use my imagination, I take a risk or two. I remind myself that creating is a dangerous business, and get on with it.