Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Starting Small

Some of the work I am most proud of are only 6" x 8" in size.

Around 1998 or 1999, I decided to get back into painting after nearly a decade of being away from it. This transition wasn't easy. Just stepping into the bedroom I called a studio and looking at the easel was fearful. In a book by Barbara Sher she suggested that the brain was only bringing up the fear as a survival response. The only way to get past the instinct was to trick the brain into believing that you are safe doing whatever it is you fear. In my case — making art. Her advice was to take small steps. Do one thing until you felt uncomfortable, then stop and walk away. Do not push yourself beyond the point of immediate distress or more damage will be done than good. Continue doing just enough until you start to feel uncomfortable and then leave it alone.

Even though I had been drawing for as long as I can remember — and even though I graduated from a quality academic art school — the decade away from art put the fear in me.
The ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) would rush in, even if I was only thinking of making art.

So I took her advice. Small steps. The first day, I clipped charcoal paper on a drawing board and set it on my easel. That was it. The ANTs came rushing in. The next time, I picked up a piece of charcoal and made just one random stroke on the paper. Again, the ANTs came rushing in. But I had made one stroke, so certainly I could make another. The time after that I went in to make one more stroke and ended up making five before the ANTs came. But it had worked, I had tricked the brain. Later that day, I found a photo, went back to the paper and began drawing a portrait. I haven't looked back since. though the fear sometimes still arises.

The lesson I learned from that book I still use. When a subject matter seems too complex, or a large painting seems too daunting, or I am unsure of what I want to paint that day, I start small. I pick up a 6" x 8" canvas, put it on my easel and paint. Some of these are done en plein air, some are done in my studio. They are honest (sometimes brutally so), they are my thoughts & feelings, my color experiments and my compositional wonders and blunders. I sometimes think they are more truly me than the larger plein air or studio pieces I create. Therefore they are often harder to let go of. I use them as studies and references for other works, so prefer to hold onto them for that, as well.

But all in all, I do realize that they are just another form of tricking the brain, feeling safe and taking the small steps necessary for me to make art.