Patience in Painting

When we think about painting, we might, at first, think about things like subject matter and all the tools needed to undertake a project: surfaces, paints, brushes, mediums, water, etc. All of this is the ‘stuff’ or materials of painting, but lately there has been one word that seems completely bound to painting and which has come to mind often when I think of, or am in the midst of, painting: patience.

I consider painting, like writing, to be a kind of thinking, or a general working out process. Like any process, there can be moments of intensely focused action and quieter moments of pause or reflection. In this post, I want to draw attention to the important role that patience plays in my painting practice (and I think that of most artists). When I refer to patience in my painting practice, I am thinking mainly of the moments in between ‘active’ painting—that is, brush in hand, at the canvas, working away. While this sounds like a distinction (active versus passive), these phases are complementary and both integral to the overall painting process and the finished product.

I’ve noticed that I usually work for about 1-to-1.5-hour sessions at a time. During this time, I regularly take a step back from the canvas to have a quick look and see how things are shaping up. But after a session, I take a longer and more intentional look at my work. I turn my easel towards a chair that is about 5 meters away from my painting area and take a seat. This is indeed a break from the literal hands-on active part of painting, but while my hands are resting, my mind is still (though differently) analysing what I’ve done and considering where I can go.  

I sit in my chair and look at my painting. In contrast to my quick steps back during my ‘action’ session—something I was encouraged to do in studio art class—I let my eyes linger and travel over the canvas. Here, I get a general answer to my question of: How’s it going? I check in with myself from the comfort of my lounge chair and look at the work as a whole.

If I’m satisfied with the work in general, I zoom in on areas that I see need attention. I might find that a certain angle isn’t working or that I am not getting the depth effect I’d like in a certain area. I notice the interaction of colours and forms and ask myself how I can make adjustments where needed. I see things that I want to fix and a little list forms in my mind. I am careful, however, to only focus on a few priority to-do’s: I might go back to my easel with three areas I want to tackle. When I’ve addressed these areas, minor issues may resolve themselves or new areas to work on may emerge—I’ll take stock of these during my next sit-down.

This moment of reflection is also a time to take stock of what is going well, and I allow myself some time to feel good about those areas too. I ask myself what I like about these areas and how these successful bits can inform how I tackle other areas of my work. During this time of ‘passive’ painting I take stock and ask generally: Am I going in the right direction? It’s a time to refuel and refocus for the next session of the day.

Settled in my chair, I sip a coffee from my favourite mug. This is my little ritual. The coffee gives me the energy for my next ‘action’ session, and it encourages me to really sit down and take a good five to ten minutes to look at my work. When I’m anxious to rush back to the easel, my coffee stops me and reminds me to just look (and sip). Looking, considering, and reflecting takes time and patience. This is when I slow down and slowing down and looking is, anyway, how a painting begins: I stop and notice what is around me, what I find attention-grabbing and inspiring. Looking is the main activity in the process of painting. It is a continual stop and start of action-reflection, reflection-action.

Looking is the main activity in the process of painting. It is a continual stop and start of action-reflection, reflection-action.

Patience comes into play in painting not only in these “coffee break moments” but also in relation to my expectations. The practice of painting requires a continual assessment and reassessment of one’s work. Sometimes I encounter an issue and have to make the call to push through or try a new direction. I draw on skills of improvisation and need to find the courage to make changes. Taking these steps in the painting process can be frustrating and scary and patience seems always to be part of the equation. 

Taking breaks between sessions or workdays allows our ideas about our paintings to settle. An area we can’t quite figure out today might look totally different tomorrow in a new light. Practically speaking, stepping away and coming back to the painting gives the paint a chance to settle. Acrylic paints dry very quickly so it’s not necessary (or necessarily a good idea) to walk away while working on a section. However, I like to build up layers and so putting down the brush after I’ve completed a layer to return to the work later on allows me to build on top what I’ve done to the desired effect.

Like so many aspects of painting, the fact that I need to flex my patience muscle helps not only to improve my work but extends beyond the studio to other areas of my life. Sitting in my “looking chair” encourages me to I take a step back. I take a breath and take stock of where I find myself presently. I remember that taking distance is not in opposition to finding a solution to the difficult areas in painting and in life, but is often the best thing I can do when I’m struggling and wondering where to go next.

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2 thoughts on “Patience in Painting

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