Over the summer, I started painting regularly for the first time in my adult life. Like everyone, I was looking for some relief. And even though writing is usually my go-to for creative practice, I didn’t want to write. I wanted something that I could do which I wouldn’t end up using as a measurement of myself. Writing is a big part of my job — there is a way to separate, or at least fan out, academic writing and other kinds of writing (and, yeah, I did write a poem or two) — but in the end I looked to painting as something which would help me free myself from the idea that anything I made had to be any good. With writing, I was inevitably hitting against the fear that whatever I made would ultimately reflect me, be the mirror of me. And I was, to be honest, worn out from that way of thinking.
With painting, I never know where to begin. And here’s the difference between writing and painting for me specifically: ideas for things to write occur to me all the time, even if I don’t actualize all of them; I almost never know what to paint. I don’t have the instinct. When I first started painting, I found famous originals to try to replicate, looking through online museum holdings, an MFA art book I have to hand, and taking screenshots of the artists I follow on instagram:
One of the things I like most about painting is that I really have no idea what is going to happen once I put brush to paper. (With writing I generally have an idea — and I usually have a very specific plan — but maybe I need to challenge myself more by writing in different genres.) And with the painting, it very often didn’t (and still doesn’t) work out. Like, at all. Many of them were bad, and many continue to be bad. But because I was going into it without the pressure for the painting to be anything, I was a bit more free to take in whatever I was able to about the experience.
Most of the summer (with a few exceptions) I was painting on 4×5¾ Fabriano postcards — once I was done, I would put them in a mailbox and send them off to friends and family. Basically, my idea was: I can paint, and not get too attached to the outcome. And I can let the people I love and miss know that I am thinking of them during this time of deep isolation. I learned things from replicating the paintings of others, and eventually started making my own — again, very haphazardly and experimentally. I painted abstractly, and — naturally, given our confinement — I painted some domestic scenes (mostly spouse and dog). I participated in several amazing and life affirming life drawing sessions run by the UK based anti diet riot club. And I started sending friends more elaborate paintings based on their interests. After a time, I eventually started using gouache as well as watercolour.
Somewhat recently, I started another replication — this time of a Renoir painting (c. 1869) in the MFA:
While I did do some planning (i.e light sketching — more than I usually do!), I will not fit the entire painting onto the paper. I will only manage a portion of the original because of this. (In this respect, I am — accidentally, trust me — replicating the exclusion style which Manet used on purpose.) I started the painting weeks ago, and for a while didn’t think I was going to continue. And yet every now and then I kept picking it up. And lingering on the details. As of writing, this is as far as I’ve got:
I have to say that, putting together this blog post, I cannot believe how much painting I have actually done over the last few months. I’ve been painting here and there, now and then, in dribs and drabs. A small thing which I took up as a way to find a sense of personal relief and to be expressive without also being self-constraining has resulted in a number of these artefacts. It’s hard for me not to see a message in all of this, as well as in the unfinished painting. I thought I had already learned the lesson (from writing my book) that large tasks are accomplished by small and sustained daily efforts. But, again, I didn’t enter into the whole painting thing expecting anything in particular, or trying to achieve anything in particular. In fact, it was precisely the notion of “achievement” that I was trying to avoid — because I think humans should do pleasing and meaningful things for no reason other than the fact that they are pleasing and meaningful. I may or may not finish that painting and that’s fine — because finishing is not the purpose of the painting. Painting the painting is.
Painting has also been a tool of counternarrative for me: it has shown me that I’m capable of something that I had — I now realize — tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do. The should part comes from the fact that so much of contemporary life is geared towards work and productivity — but it is possible to work and to cultivate the parts of life that are in service of nothing other than vibrance and vitality of living. The could part connects to larger patterns of self-narrativizing, wherein we set our own limits by imagining our capabilities in narrowly defined ways. Honestly, it does make me wonder what else I could do, if I found a way into the thing that was meditative, meaningful, pleasing — and not geared towards an external goal. And to be honest, having this thought does fill me with hope. As for the unfinished painting, well, it stands for the time within which it was produced: a time of deep pain, uncertainty, and clearing away, which nonetheless created the conditions for looking inward, for cultivating practice and patience, and for being tender enough to appreciate the things which are surprising and incomplete.
– Paul Cézanne, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (c. 1890-1894), Boston MFA
– Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Teapot and Fruit (1896), Metropolitan Museum New York
– Edna Boies Hopkins, Love Apples (c. 1910-1913), Boston MFA
– Frank Walter, Black Trunk, Pink and Blue Sky
– Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink Tulip (1926), Baltimore Museum of Art
– Emil Nolde, Irises, Boston MFA