Sometimes I paint because I want to make something. Other times I’m just hungry for color, as if it were a sweet taste I wanted on my tongue, or a cool drink to refresh a thirsty throat. When it’s the color that draws me, I’ll sit down with my full palette, dip my brush into water, and then just start doodling away.
About a month ago I was sitting at my desk, having one of these color cravings, when I got tired of the colors that were on my palette and decided I wanted fresh ones. But I didn’t want to just throw out the colors that were there; it’s a waste of paint, and it does the water system no good. So I thought I’d do a “palette cleanser,” some easy little scribbles to just use up the dregs of the paints that were already on the palette. I dipped and swirled, and smooth strokes emerged from my brush tip.
Pretty soon I was having so much fun with my swirlies that I started incorporating bright fresh colors into them, instead of just the dull, watered-down puddles on the palette. The swirls became stronger and bolder, till they jumped off the page.
I didn’t want to waste big sheets of paper on these palette cleansers, so I used little pieces instead, each one about the size of a 3″ x 5″ card. I did all the swirls individually, but when I was finished, I wanted to line them up. It was like a puzzle without the jigsaws: how could I put the ends together so the swirls would be as continuous as possible? Strangely enough, it wasn’t hard. Sometimes my internal logic proves itself extremely consistent, as when I forget I do something and end up doing it again in exactly the same way. This was another of those times. How else to explain why so many of my swirls run off the page in similar colors?
It was fun matching the swirl ends to each other, but harder to find a harmonious arrangement of all the pieces. At first I put them in a grid, but that didn’t look right. The pieces of paper weren’t all the same size. They looked sloppy, forced together into a regularity they didn’t possess. So I stopped trying for a perfect squared-off block of papers, and loosened things up a little.
Eventually I had the pieces all arranged to my liking, on my coffee table, so I stepped up onto a stool and took a picture. This arrangement stayed on the table for about a week, where it made me happy every time I passed by. I decided to call it “Knitting,” because of the way I’d linked the pieces together when assembling it. But I didn’t like the bits of paper cluttering up my furniture. Finally I fetched some painter’s tape and set about recreating the arrangement on my living room wall.
Once I got the pieces on the wall, however, the arrangement ceased to please me. I’d placed them on an accent wall which probably used to be fireplace, because of the way it pokes out from the main wall. Its width imposed a different restriction than the coffee table had, and so did the vertical (as opposed to horizontal) surface. So I moved everything around yet again, lifting up and resticking the tape many times, until I was satisfied.
Now “Knitting” adorns our living room and glows in the afternoon sun every day. Sometimes I stand in the kitchen and gaze at it from across the room, tracing the continuous swirls of color with an upraised finger: left to right, top to bottom, and then backwards until I’ve made my way back to the top.
In the process of making these swirlies, I wondered if I was actually doing something artistic or whether I was just having fun. I thought, “What’s to stop me from just making these things forever, and declaring that they’re some kind of statement?” But I’ve decided it was art after all. You know why? At some point, after making about fifteen of these cards (I didn’t use all of them in the final arrangements), I knew I was done. I had no idea at that point that I was going to string them all together, I had no idea what I was making. But whatever it is inside me that knows where to position a line on a page or soften a note in a sonata — that uncompromising intuitive understanding of things that makes me what I am as an artist — said it was time to stop: anything else would just be self-indulgence. When I hear that inner voice, I do what it says. Every good thing I’ve ever made has come from its guidance, and every creative misstep came from ignoring it, or from moments when it was silent. I hear it when I write, but it’s strongest when it comes to things that are visual. I don’t know what to call it, exactly, but I trust it, because it has shown me all my life that it knows. And if it says “Knitting” is art, then no matter what anyone else says, that’s good enough for me.