Seeing the tubes and bottles of paint brought a smile to my face.
I was packing a bag to take to a friend’s house for the day, and among the things I was bringing were the paints, a jar filled with brushes of all sizes, and a couple of fresh white canvases. Sarah, an artist far more accomplished than I, had invited me to paint with her in her studio for the day. I had been anticipating the date for weeks.
A few years back, Sarah and I had taken watercolor lessons together from an artist in our church. Every week we learned techniques and developed preferences for moving pigment around canvas with water and brushes. When our teacher Peggy had told me I had talent, I believed her. “You need to paint every day, ” she told me, when I asked her how I could get better. I was determined to do it.
But from the beginning, it was a habit that never developed. I was working every day, writing every day, reading every day, and a host of other every day activities. Painting didn’t fit somehow. And when I painted, even if I did it every week, I didn’t really improve.
When Sarah invited me to paint with her, I jumped at the chance, but by that time, it had been months since I had put brush to canvas. I had long since abandoned the tedium of water color for acrylics. And the unfinished canvases that were scattered through my own studio were evidence that I struggled even to complete a work.
“Artist” is not a word I used to describe myself anymore.
A jar of fresh cut irises became our still life. Sarah painted with oils. I pulled out the acrylics. As I prepared to take the first stroke, I felt the effect of all those months since I had done this. I wasn’t sure how much to sketch on the canvas ahead of time. I struggled to choose the right brush. Even mixing the paints felt foreign: which green should I use, how could I achieve just the right shade of purple?
As we began to paint, Sarah’s strokes were broad, layering pigment on pigment. My strokes were small and calculated, watery smears of pigment on the slick background. I captured most of the jar and the long stemmed flowers on a small canvas. Sarah chose to reflect just a small portion of each on her much larger canvas. Sarah’s composition was striking, mine was safe. I looked from Sarah’s canvas to mine. Back to Sarah’s, then to the jar of flowers.
I don’t know how to do this anymore, I thought.
Early discouragement has always been part of my painting process. I have to coddle myself in those moments, convince myself that going slow is fine; I can come back to it later. But in the last couple of years, I haven’t returned to the paintings I struggled with.
Sitting there facing a canvas that looked anything like the jar of irises I was seeing, I had a choice to make: I could live with regret that I will never be the painter I had hoped to be, or I could enjoy being the occasional painter I am. I will always mourn the death of the nascent artist in me, but the alternative, never painting again, felt like the bigger loss.
I loosened my grip on the brush, took a deep breath, and finished the painting. Sarah continued working and reworking the edge of the jar, the shape of the petals, the fade of the stems into the background. I continued to glance at her canvas regretfully.
But when I added the final highlights to the jar and dabbed on the smallest bits of white and yellow to the inside of the irises, I felt a profound sense of relief.
The painting was finished.
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