Pardon the title. I couldn’t help myself.
One of the longest and most difficult lessons I learned as an artist is that the creative process is just that – a process.
It is both a process for the artist and for the piece of art. I believe that there is something profound and necessary that happens to a person while they are involved in making something. It’s like becoming engaged in the making process unhinges a person from the hectic, overloaded place that the world has become. Suddenly emotions move into perspective, new and different levels of our consciousness are open and active, and we become connected to that which is divine in a way that is difficult to achieve otherwise.
I was always okay with some version of that belief – and I think many people are. What I have struggled with is the process that the piece of art must go through. For me, it’s always been painting that most successfully touched upon this nerve. Paintings happen in pieces and layers, and it often takes a much longer period of time than most people think to really complete a painting. In my personal experience, there is an intense span of time in the middle of every one of may paintings that I absolutely hate it. I hate it so much so that I have to struggle to keep moving forward in the process. So much so that I don’t want anyone to see it. So much so that I become sincerely doubtful as to whether or not I can bring it around and make it match the image that I can see in my head, and the thought that I may not is terribly discouraging.
I began learning to paint when I was about 7. I spent my second grade year and the summers at either end living with my grandparents, and my grandfather had recently taken up oil painting. I had already be drawing and coloring at a near-obsessive level for years, and Poppop took it upon himself to introduce me to brushes, canvas, and oil paints. I loved it. And I hated it.
I spent the first couple hours of the 6-8 hour span of time it usually took us to finish a painting together being thrilled with the way the paint worked, holding a palette (a formality I no longer use), and the feel of the brushes. And then suddenly I would hate the painting I was working on so intensely that I wouldn’t want to continue. It didn’t look the way that I wanted to. It didn’t match the image in my head and I couldn’t see any possible path that would bring it closer. I no longer wanted my grandfather to stand there with me, because I didn’t want him to realize how awful my painting was. I would try to hide my feelings from my grandfather (his opinion of me was (is?) so very important to me), but that would only lead to frustration and I would end up spending at least and hour or two in the middle of the process crying.
He never let me stop painting. I would continue on, tears running down my face and totally convinced that it was futile to continue.
About and hour from the end the painting would start to come together. Even at 7, I could see the end was near and it would suddenly take an upswing and start to look the way that I had hoped it would. My tears would stop and I would fall in love with painting once again. The painting to the right is one of the paintings I did with my grandfather. I believe I was about 11 when I did this one, and I still have it.
My grandfather would always say to me, “See, Kari? You can never judge a painting until it’s finished. It will never look the way you want it to until you’re done, and there is never anything ‘wrong’ in art. Everything you paint is worthwhile and beautiful.”
He repeated those words to me over and over again from the ages of 7 to 12. At 12 we stopped painting together, but these days he will occasionally say them again if I share with him the woes I still experience in the middle of a painting. You see, my painting process still goes very much the same way. The only thing that has changed is the period of time I spend crying is down from 3 hours to about 45 minutes.
I’ve learned that painting is a process. I’ve learned to look for that last hour of painting, when I know, from sheer experience, that the pieces will begin to fall into place and it will start to look the way I originally hoped it would. Most time, in the middle stretch, I don’t feel like I believe that last hour will come. I often feel like paintings are so awful and lost that there is no point in going on – but I remember Poppop’s words and I force myself to know that the last hour will come again, just because it always has. And, it always does.