Painting in the Here and Now

In early 2014, I took a weekend painting course with the goal of overcoming a painting block. I really missed painting, something I used to do quite a lot, but which I had stopped doing over the course of a deteriorating marriage and in the aftermath of a bad divorce.

Letting Go of Expectations and Just Responding to the Now
One of my Painting Experience paintings where color was layered and scraped with abandon.

I recalled how it felt to “become the painting” as I worked, unaware of time passing, feeling as though I were the paint and the color and the light. Remembering the peace like a river flowing through me, I wanted to have that communion again. I wanted to see closely, to feel the color and just “let go” into the experience of connecting to something outside of me–but completely inside me.

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

When I lamented my not being able to paint, my therapist told me about The Painting Experience, a moveable set with “instructors” who facilitated a way of painting that was not what is taught in art schools–it was reputed to be a vivid experience, part psychotherapy, and uniquely personal.

This idea of painting in a big group was not appealing to me–I like to paint, to create, alone, not with a bunch of other people. I wasn’t interested in airing my “issues” to strangers, and I’ve never liked being told HOW to express myself.  But I did want to paint again and I was having no luck at home, sitting in front of blank canvases. So I went for a weekend workshop that was set up in Rockville, MD.

Letting Go of Expectations and Just Responding to the Now
Sunset one night on my way home, reminding me that I respond viscerally to color.

So much of what we were told that first day about what we would be doing was totally repellent to me. And I didn’t like the looks of the approximately 30 other people there to take this course–too many Birkenstock-wearing women. But I vowed to give it a try, to be open to painting like this, and to try to banish the constant, self-critical voice in my head, so loud that it seemed to drown out the facilitator, Stewart Cubley.

We were instructed to use tempera paint during the 3 days of the workshop–at home, I used oils. But, of course, I wasn’t using oils at home because I wasn’t painting. And we were going to have to paint with the only available 5 different sized and shaped, much-use, clunky brushes that precluded the sort of detail work I liked to do. We were not supposed to plan what our painting would be, but instead, we were to stand in front of sheets of paper taped to a large screen (behind and beside which were other painters) and let the colors “call” to us and respond in the “now.”

“Flow is being completely involved in… [painting] for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

We were told to work in silence (fine with me!) and not respond in any way to anyone else painting around you.  When we reached what we thought was “all we wanted to do,” we needed to signal a facilitator who would come an lead us to talk about how we felt about the things we’d made, and the feelings we experienced.

Letting Go of Expectations and Just Responding to the Now
This 2014 painting was of what was going on inside me, my brain, and my heart during the Painting Experience–kinetetic and joyful.
Letting Go of Expectations and Just Responding to the Now
One of my much earlier paintings, before the Painting Experience, but one into which I “disappeared” happily during its creation.

Strangely, despite nearly constant battles with that critical voice within (I really find it hard to let go of wanting to plan and execute according to plan, and I always want to make something “pretty”), several experiences–and the paintings I made–were powerfully moving to me.

When I could NOT think, but just open to instinct, the energy I felt was uplifting, exciting, like I was having a conversation with a stranger on an airplane, 35,000 ft. above the ocean. Time became irrelevant. I felt understood, present, alive with possibility. As I painted, I was responding with color to color, to gestures, to a sense of what should happen next. I was happy, sometimes splattering paint, sometimes scratching it on with a palette knife, layering it, wiping it on with my hands, wiping it off, delighting in seeing what things looked like. Joy. That’s what I felt. Laughter as color and texture.
“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”— Pablo Picasso

Several years have gone by and I’ve not really jumped back into painting as I hoped I might. But I don’t feel blocked any more. I could paint if I felt my medium needed to be on canvas. I’m happy that what I recall from The Painting Experience is the energy and the joy of being completely inside my art, of being intimately One with my creation. And what a delightful, surprising discovery of the energy and joy of being who I really am when I let go of what I’m supposed to be.

“If you treat your inner life seriously and with respect, you begin to see that there is intelligence in the seemingly random suggestions it presents, and that it is in your own best interest to follow your intuition.”— Stewart Cubley, The Painting Experience

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