I have been painting a lot, now that I’ve got my desk in order. After a year of traveling round with only a limited choice of supplies, it feels so luxurious to once again have many papers and books and other items at my disposal (though I can’t figure out where I’ve stashed my tubes of paint).
I’ve been working with Charles Le Clair’s The Art of Watercolor, which I’ve mentioned before, and have made two gratifying discoveries. First, even though I spent a lot more time drawing than painting during our travels, I am still a better painter than I was. My eye is better, my judgment is better, and I have more patience. Second — and this is related — I focus better now. I guess travel sharpened my priorities and reduced distractions (you’d think it would be the opposite), plus I’m quite sure our month in Kyoto trained me to the pleasure of really taking time to do what I’m doing.
Last week I took almost a whole day for painting. I did some exercises out of the Le Clair book, and then I took a nap, which I almost never do. As I was drifting off I thought, “It feels so restful to do only one thing at a time. It’s like an oasis.” When my alarm woke me half an hour later, that thought was still with me, and I decided to make it into a motto to hang above my desk. I made a quick first draft, testing out a size and style of handwriting, and taped it to the wall to see how I liked it. Then I drew the final version in pencil, and over the next 2-3 hours, filled in the outlines with layers of paint. After I pinned the finished words to my wall, I was somewhat surprised to find the words made me feel powerful. I still feel that, every time I look at my desk area. I turned a messy, unproductive corner into a creative haven that I am actually using. Powerful.
With “Oasis” watching over me, on Saturday I decided to tackle a more challenging subject: a white dahlia from my mom’s garden.
I wasn’t sure I could manage it, but I am becoming a much more fearless sketcher. It’s harder than you might think to draw a round object, but to my astonishment, my preliminary drawing actually looked like the flower.
After that it was just a matter of filling in the colors and shadows — not that that was easy. I’m much better than I was, but I still had trouble deciding what colors to use, how strong to make them (and how to control the water for mixing and diluting), and how to employ them for subtle or bold effects. And, in this, it’s not just a question of execution, of not being a very experienced watercolorist; also, my eye is not quite up to the task yet. When it comes to a mass of white petals, I am still not totally sure yet what I’m seeing, so of course I have difficulty rendering it.
But I plugged away at it for a few hours. Painting, even on a small paper like this one (it’s maybe 10″ square), is pretty physical. I need breaks, but I don’t like to take them, because each time I step away from the painting, I lose something. Momentum, or focus maybe. But if I don’t take breaks, I burn out completely at the end of a session. I don’t have the stamina to concentrate on something so hard for so long.
A self-photo during one of my breaks. I’m wearing a dress Kuukua brought from Ghana.
After one longer break (10-15 minutes?), I returned to my desk only to find that I’d lost sight of what I was doing. I started at the marks on the paper and I had completely forgotten they had any relationship to the giant dahlia on my desk. It took me several moments to recollect myself.
By early evening I could feel myself burning out, in spite of the breaks, so I brought things to a quick close and presented the painting to my mother.
I can see that it could be better, but I’m still pleased with it. I often feel that way about my work these days. I think it is completely possible to see something critically and yet also feel proud and tender about all the life and experience that went into making this thing. It is a simultaneous celebration that I have become good enough to make this, and a breathless excitement that if I can make this, someday I will make something even more amazing.