How--And Why--to Destroy a Painting

I got humbled this week. Like, bring-me-to-my-knees-after-a-lot-of-frustration-and-swearing humbled. As if that's not bad enough, I have to confess it's not the first time, and I know for sure it won't be the last. When it comes to being an artist, some mistakes have to keep being made. That might be true of the human condition in general, as well as life and its lessons, come to think of it. But I want to focus on the artistic process here.

Let the Painting Talk

The mistake I refer to is knowing when the hell to get out of the way and let the painting say what it needs to, and how downright scary that can be. Pollock might have said he had no fear (I doubt it, though, given the life he led), but I can admit that quite honestly, when it comes to my art, fear enters as an unwelcome visitor all too often. And it always comes just when I think I'm about to hit my stride. Dammit. You'd think I'd know by now how to prevent, or at least circumvent, that phenomenon. But noooooo. I waltzed into the studio, so happy with the previous painting I created, knowing, just KNOWING, I'd made a huge breakthrough, so eager to start a new one and discover something equally as thrilling, that I couldn't wait to put loaded palette knife to canvas.

Easier Said Than Done

It was lovely in the beginning, the way it always is. I moved my arm back and forth, watched how lights and darks interplayed, got that feeling of diving into the painting, paid attention to the emotions I was feeling and tried to convey them through color and temperature. I was thinking of a June day last year when I went to see the famous lupines in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (the Franconia Notch area, to be more specific). I didn't want to depict the lupines realistically; rather, I wanted to convey the stirrings of life I felt as I made my way forward in my brand-new identity of Widow Now Dating. (I was on an early date with the man I eventually fell in love with.) I was in an in-between place, a place of stirring hope but also of trepidation (and sometimes sheer terror), a place I call The Mean Time. What was I walking into? Would this new relationship bring happiness or more grief? If it was happiness, would it be too fleeting, or would I be able to rely on it for a while? So many questions. So much uncertainty. And yet ... a blind faith that my feet (and heart) insisted on following as they took necessary and shaky steps forward.

Which Story Wants to Be Told?

In my painting, I wanted to convey that tension between the hope and the trepidation. Hundreds of lupines dotted the landscape, some straight as soldiers, some going rogue, curving, Quasimoto-like, either bent by their weight or heeding an insistent drive to reach the sun, with no way to tell which was which. I was struck by that because I was a walking metaphor for those forces myself. The lupines managed somehow to be glorious in their subtlety, understated yet powerful against the backdrop of the majestic Whites. They did what they've done for who knows how many hundreds of years: spring forth and multiply, then die quietly, all within a span of two months. It had been a year and two months since my husband passed. I was still thinking a lot about death then, and still feeling so much loss, but I was also beginning to understand and appreciate the spirit's strong insistence on life and rebirth, no matter how fleeting in the grand scope of things. I didn't think about these things so much as feel them when I painted. I wanted instead to listen to the quiet stirring inside, pay attention to what it was trying to say.

What Happened

photo of the failed lupines painting

The tricky part about painting lupines and mountains and spring, though, is that it's so easy to succumb to sweetness and light and forget the tension that makes things meaningful. And wouldn't you know it? That's exactly what began to happen. I was crestfallen. In my imagination, I was going to create a stirring, evocative scene that would speak on so many levels about the meaning of life. (Ha! That's where hubris will get you.) Instead, I looked at a slightly saccharine, derivative, pastoral scene that ... God forbid ...  bordered on trite. It happened because I got scared. I hit the place in the painting process that my good friend and mentor Stan Moeller calls The Middle Uglies, and I lost confidence. I got too attached to conveying the real scene instead of my feelings about it, which meant that my voice got lost, too. I thought, "Well, maybe I'll put some light into it because the sky is too gray and needs to be worked on. Maybe if I loosen up and move my knife the way the grass moves, that will help."

photo of the second failed phase of the lupines painting

 It didn't. I created a painting that had too many things going on, and the eye wouldn't know where to rest. I forgot about what the painting wanted to say; instead, the scared part of me took control and made it try to say too much. That's where Pollock's quote comes in. Vulnerability, too.

What I Learned

I know from experience that if I continued to fight the painting and force it to be something it didn't want to be, I'd create a mediocre piece I'd never be happy with. I could have stayed safe and done what I know how to do already. But something inside me is surging with new growth yet again with my art, and it means taking a risk the same way I took one on that June day by going on a date. It doesn't matter if it's art or life in general: taking the risk is essential if one wants to live fully, gloriously, to one's potential. So, I did what Pollock said he did: I made changes and destroyed the painting (or, rather, covered a big part of it up so it could have room to grow into its own). 

What Now?

As for the vulnerability part, I agree with Brené Brown on the subject. I know from experience that true strength lies in allowing oneself to be vulnerable. So many people think artists are mysterious creatures who have a divine and direct connection to the Creative God and that paintings somehow burst forth from them in a lightning rod of inspiration. If only! The truth is, it takes a lot of study, hard work, and consistent practice. We artists swear a lot when it's not going well. This usually means we're growing and need to catch up with ourselves, but we don't see it quite yet. We also burn failed paintings, or smash them. Or we hide them, face down in a pile or face away against a wall. No shortcuts exist. We show up; we paint; we take the risk. Sometimes, we end up with a mess; sometimes, we surprise ourselves. This time, I ended up with a mess. This time, I'm showing it to you, which, frankly, scares me a bit. Why? Because you might think less of me and my work. I'm allowing you to see the truth behind the scenes. The mess is necessary. The artist's life is not glamorous. But here's another truth: the messiness does not mean one is less of a painter. It's exactly the opposite. Making the mess and learning from it means we're on our way to the good stuff. If I hadn't had the experience I did, I would not have written in such depth about it. I wouldn't discover the real story the painting wanted to tell. So, thanks, Jackson Pollock. I'll show up again in the studio tomorrow and see what happens. I'll listen and get out of the way. Because if there's one thing I know, the painting really does have a life of its own. Stay tuned.