Same Story, Different Response

It hap­pens time and again. I begin a paint­ing with one thing in mind, and before I know it, it decides some­thing else. At least I’ve grown wise enough by now to let it have its way.

This paint­ing is a per­fect case in point.

I put a love­ly vase of tulips on my din­ing table because, frankly, I’m tired of win­ter, and I need­ed a splash of col­or to bright­en the back­drop of gray sky. I’m sure many of you can relate.

The tulips were rather demure at first. They stood, straight and neat. They behaved, per­fect­ly polite. They broke no rules.

But hon­est­ly, they were a lit­tle bor­ing. Kind of like art when it’s reined in too much.

The Tulips Are Too Excitable

photo of the beginning sketch for "The Tulips Are Too Excitable Here," by Dawn Boyer

Ini­tial sketch for the Tulips paint­ing

Oh, but then, two days lat­er, they bent this way and that in a chaot­ic dance of glo­ry. Some blooms opened wide; oth­ers refused to coop­er­ate. Their leaves twist­ed and turned and stretched and curled and drooped in a most love­ly, messy fash­ion. They mes­mer­ized me.

This must be an abstract still life!” I exclaimed. Nor­mal­ly, I don’t paint at home–I go to my studio–but this couldn’t wait, because some of the blooms were start­ing to drop, and I knew time was of the essence. I hap­pi­ly set the flow­ers on a paint­ing cloth to pro­tect the table, and I turned on a full-spec­trum day­light lamp to make best use of light and shad­ow and col­or.

I put out paints and brush­es and water and linen pan­el and sketched the tulip shapes hap­pi­ly with vine char­coal, just as a way to get to know them, and wrote on the can­vas the way I usu­al­ly do to set the mood and tone for myself (there are hid­den mes­sages in most of my paint­ings). I knew I’d then oblit­er­ate the sketch with paint and take the flow­ers some­where new. Why, they may not even look like flow­ers. Per­haps I could say it all with col­or! I got so pleased with myself.

It Is Winter Here

The gray and drab version of the Tulips painting

The mut­ed, gray, per­fect­ly fine but drab ini­tial ver­sion of the paint­ing.

And then … it hap­pened. I looked down. I saw a calm, mut­ed paint­ing. Lots of gray in the back­ground. This was me, try­ing to con­trol things. This was gray, try­ing to take over. It was a per­fect­ly nice start to a nice paint­ing. But for me, it was bor­ing, because some­thing else was going on inside that need­ed a voice.

No!” I exclaimed. “This will not do!”  (Good thing no one was around to hear.)

In the Pink

So, out came the bright magen­ta, and I mixed a cool but strong teal as well as some salmon, oh, and some black because I craved out­lines for some rea­son, and then things got mov­ing. Which is how I knew the paint­ing was final­ly speak­ing in the voice it need­ed to.

 Mak­ing art is always a process of adding, elim­i­nat­ing, cov­er­ing, expos­ing, nudg­ing, until the artist finds and feels a bal­ance, a sat­is­fac­tion or pleased aston­ish­ment.

The initial pink version of the Tulips painting

The ini­tial pink ver­sion. It’s get­ting there.

Was it what I ini­tial­ly intend­ed? Nope. Not by a long shot. It sticks out like the prover­bial sore thumb in the con­text of my oth­er work. (You see, gal­leries want a cohe­sive body of work, which means some kind of visu­al thread, aka style, should weave through var­i­ous pieces, whether through sub­ject mat­ter, expres­sion, use of col­or and val­ue, mark mak­ing, you name it.)

But I’ve been doing this long enough to know it’s a step toward some­thing. I’m push­ing and prod­ding and learn­ing and grow­ing and mak­ing my way, and that in itself is a big deal, as uncom­fort­able as it can feel while it’s hap­pen­ing. 

This Painting Had a Mind of Its Own

I’m delight­ed with this paint­ing and the way it had a mind of its own. All that hot, in-your-face pink–I’m crav­ing pink more and more these days–makes me very hap­py and reflects exact­ly how I felt about the tulips in my life at that point. And the cool, dark and medi­um val­ues of the teal are the per­fect off­set. A friend said it has touch­es of Matisse. I love Matisse. I’ll take it as a com­pli­ment. But it’s a Boy­er, not a Matisse, and that’s at the heart of this sto­ry, the entire point of the expe­ri­ence.

Were those col­ors there in real life? No. Does that mat­ter? Oh, hell, no. All that mat­ters is the sto­ry this paint­ing tells to the view­er. In its own voice. In its own way.

In my own voice. In my own way.

I decid­ed to name it after Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Tulips.” The poem is poignant and has dark­ness, which is impor­tant to any nar­ra­tive. That ten­sion, that push and pull–between light and dark, life and death, sor­row and joy–is inte­gral. I paint­ed those tulips because they had start­ed to die, and I wasn’t ready to let them go (I’m just now real­iz­ing this). I made them immor­tal, in a most glo­ri­ous way. What a pro­found and won­der­ful pow­er that is.

Here’s to art and the way it not only cre­ates ever­last­ing sto­ries for us to lean on, but helps us uncov­er who we are, in all our glo­ry.