Reflections: What Drives Me To Paint?

This week I’m answering a question I was asked recently: What drives me to paint? The short and simple answer is that it makes me happy. Though a satisfying answer, I think, I found myself delving into the why of it all in discussion, realizing I had more to say on the topic. In this blog post, I reflect on what it is about the practice of painting that keeps me returning to the easel.

A recent post on social media by On Being—a podcast which I wrote about here—asked the following question, “What activity gives you the sense of ‘standing in a stream of timelessness’”? I read through many comments, keen to find out what people are enjoying. It wasn’t a surprise to find that many answers involved making or enjoying art. It’s often the case that I experience this feeling of timelessness while painting and I feel very grateful to have found such a practice. I also loved that many people felt a sense of timelessness through activities in nature, from swimming to stargazing. This rang true for me as well. Spending time in nature, especially on beaches and in forests, renews my energy and inspires my painting.

Summer 2017, looking at rocks and shells on a beach in Maine, U.S.A.

A feeling of timelessness is how I understand the state of being in flow. In flow, we are wholly focused on the activity at hand. For me, the state of flow means hours pass without my noticing or, rather, time ceases to matter. My thoughts quiet down. My attention is not split, and I am “in the moment”; something that for some comes easily and for others, like myself when I’m not painting, is more difficult. This does not mean that painting is not a challenge—it often is, but one that engages me rather than frustrates me (too much).

To say painting is my happy place is simply the case. But it is amazing how this translates into changes in my body/ mind. While painting I am not actively thinking but rather doing, in a stream of consciousness. I am mixing colours, adding a little yellow to lighten a green; I am putting paint onto canvas; I am making intuitive decisions: more blue here, a little less green there. When I am in flow, actions are fluid. If it’s going smoothly, I have the sense that I “just know” what is needed where. If something doesn’t feel right, I course correct; I try something out and go from there. I make decisions but they are not too calculated. My brain is focused on building forms through value and colour. I am relaxed.

Today’s palette has lots of greens!

For me, this is different than my regular way of being. I am an overthinker and am working on not giving in to toxic perfectionism. Overthinking can lead to indecisiveness, which can lead to unhealthy stress. A classic overachiever, it was great and rewarding until it wasn’t. When I was younger, painting was a way to relax; in adulthood, I’ve leaned on painting as a mode of expression and therapy. Art as therapy has taught me about myself.

When I am not painting, and thus sometimes in the future (worrying) or thinking about the past (ruminating), it is difficult to imagine another way of being. In that place, it can feel like I am “on top of things” and indeed planning (worrying less so) has its advantages. When I am painting, however, a space opens up. When my thoughts settle and I stop mentally running around, I tap into an energy that is at once calming and exciting. I am peacefully engaged. I trust my intuition. In this way, painting teaches me how I can be outside of the studio.

Reducing stressful/over-thinking surely has a positive effect on our physical being. I’ve noticed that painting relaxes my breathing and my muscles in general. While standing for a long time at the easel might not be great, I know from the smile on my face that painting is “good for me”.

Working on my latest painting inspired by the French gardens I wrote about recently.

From set-up to clean-up, painters have their rituals, and it feels great to get back into the studio whether I’ve been away a day or sometimes much longer. I love the bright colours I squeeze onto my palette and the satisfaction of starting the day off with clean brushes, ready for use. Painting is visual and tactile, something I can dive back into at the start of each day. Painting gives me a sense of both freedom and safety.

What drives me to paint is the desire to connect with this peaceful-creative part of myself. I can’t always access it though I know it is there, underneath the surface. In the studio, I think of my grandfather and other family members who loved to paint. I think of my friends and artist colleagues at work in their studios and feel a sense of community. I feel like myself when I am painting, and I like who I am when I am painting. At the easel, I am decisive, intuitive, bold, and trusting. I get to be a kid again and play but also create something meaningful to me, and which I hope speaks to others. This is what I get out of the practice of painting before any consideration of subject matter or material.

Drawing as a kid with best friend Claire MacDonald of Kind Seas.

Stay tuned for part II, what drives me to paint…landscapes.

Thanks for reading!  And thank you for the question Ruben!     

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