Sometime last year I painted this picture of an August sunrise in mid-Michigan.
It was almost right. I loved the sky, the mist, the clouds.
But I hated, hated, hated how the big trees turned out. It was not what I had in mind.
That’s the trouble with learning an art. So often we can picture or imagine what the finished product — be it painting or novel or what have you — ought to be, but we lack the skills to bring our vision to fruition.
Well, I’ve been painting a lot lately, and reading books about painting. And something clicked in my brain about those trees. So I got the painting back on the easel and worked on it for about twenty minutes or so. And this is what I came away with.
I fixed the trees! I made them darker, since they are in silhouette, made the edges more defined, and added sky holes where you can see what is behind it peaking through spots with fewer leaves. Now they look so much more like what I had in mind.
While I was at it, I darkened the top of the clouds a bit and added some foreground detail.
I used to be disappointed in this painting. Now I love it. And it’s satisfying to see my technique improve as I practice.
What have you been practicing lately?
I probably should have been doing all the laundry this weekend. Instead, I painted.
I painted this…
Because that’s what I really wanted to do.
I also decided that one wall of my office could double as a drying rack / storage area for paintings until they found new homes.
I’m even hanging some blank canvases in spots until I fill them up.
And that gold-framed mirror over on the left wall? That’s there for when I want to start trying my hand at painting faces. I guess I’ll start with mine.
Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building?
The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?
At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?
Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?
I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.
The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?
The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.
I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.
I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.
But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?
Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line?
As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?
As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.
And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.
Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?
My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?
Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?
This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.
There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.
Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.
I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.
They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.
One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.
Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.
My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.
Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.
You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.
And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.
Maybe insanity is a strong word.
But I’ve thrown my entire house into chaos at the same time I am doing my first edit on my debut novel (you know, the one that will take the most concentrated thought).
If you follow me on Instagram you probably know that I am finally working on the #roomswitcheroo, wherein we move the master bedroom downstairs into the current office, my son’s bedroom into our current master bedroom, and my current office into my son’s room.
It’s madness here.
There’s a little bit of my son’s room in my room (and also in the hallway).
There’s a little bit of my husband’s closet in my office.
There’s a little bit of my new office in our living room.
There’s a lot of my office in my son’s closet.
Oh, and I have to paint two rooms (and the woodwork in those two rooms). And a closet.
Oh, and the big furniture can’t be moved up and down the stairs inside because of a tight right turn that probably seemed like a good idea in the 1930s when furniture was smaller.
So we have to move those out onto the roof of the smoke room and up and down a ladder.
And big furniture is really heavy.
And we got a foot of snow over the weekend.
And did I mention the manuscript edits?
Yes. Insanity is the correct word. Low-grade, garden variety Erin insanity.
Hello, stranger! It’s 2018 and I have a moment to breathe. In fact, it’s my 38th birthday, which means I have the day to myself. Because of winter break, I never went to school on my birthday, so when I joined the working world, I decided I would never work on my birthday either. I take the day off and putz around. It’s marvelous, especially after the craziness of Christmas, my wedding anniversary, New Year’s Eve, and taking down the Christmas decorations. Added to it all this year were two and a half trips to Grand Rapids, with much of the way during one of those trips being in near-constant white-out conditions; one trip to Bay City; two funerals, which were emotionally draining; and a low-level sickness of some sort almost the entire time.
BUT, it’s my birthday today so I’ll do what I want to.
And I wanted to paint.
Back in October, before the kitchen renovation project got underway, I started a new painting.
I got this far.
And then I screwed up. I had to paint over my mistake and wait a couple weeks for the paint to dry so I could continue. Then the holidays happened.
Today I dove back in head first. I added the waterfall I had previously botched.
And when that seemed to go well, I added everything else.
I’m really happy with the results. The subject is Manido Falls, which you may remember from this post about the tail end of my epic Upper Peninsula road trip this past June.
It’s not an exact representation but an interpretation. I’m trying to break myself of attempting to recreate photos and instead consider a painting on its own terms. In this case that meant added red tones to the rocks that weren’t that strong in the original photo in order to complement the greens of the trees.
Once this is dry I will list it in my Etsy store, Erin’s Artful Life.
What a week. Enough flu for everyone.
Thankfully there have been flowers as well, both inside…
The earliest blooms are out in the back yard gardens. The Lenten Rose (hellebores)…
…and the Siberian Squill (scilla)…
…and these tiny little guys, who have made themselves quite at home in one of my beds…
They’re a weed called Veronica Speedwell I’ve decided to let stay because I need groundcover in that spot anyway and have had limited success with the plants I actually planted in this very sunny, dry area. We’ll see what they do the rest of the year. If they behave nicely, I may keep them. They can be invasive, though, so I may regret it later.
At any rate, I’m still in no shape to deal with getting the garden cleaned up for spring. It’s on its own for a few more days at least as I recover fully from the flu. It’s a shame to have wasted some perfect gardening days sitting in a stupor inside, but there it is. Nothing can be done about it.
While recovering, I was lucid enough to enjoy two literary moments of significance. First, I got my latest manuscript back from the German translator who was helping me translate certain lines of dialogue into correct German, and also helping me with the elements of the plot which touch on translation issues between English and German. She had some very nice things to say about the manuscript and encouraged me to let her know when it found a publisher so she could tell her editors to be on the lookout for the translation rights. It was a wonderful boost of confidence for me as she is the first person who has actually read it in full.
The second moment came the next day, Sunday, when I received an email from one of the editors of The Lyric poetry magazine accepting one of my poems for a future issue. I don’t have any details yet, but I’ll be sure to share more when I know more.
And then Sunday night I felt normal enough to paint.
I based this painting on a photo I took years ago over a field in the Grand Ledge area before sunrise back when I was occasionally picking up a friend early in the morning to carpool to Grand Rapids. There was that glow in the sky that just precedes the sun, and a fine mist among the distant trees. One of those moments that is so fleeting and that you rarely get to experience when your house is smack dab in the city like ours.
So, I’m basically feeling normal now. I’m back to work (at home, as always) and though it is the beginning of Spring Break, the house is finally empty after our week of sickness. My husband has taken our son and the neighbor boy off on an adventure and my only companion is my canary, Alistair. I have a full inbox to deal with and some laundry that needs a kickstart. Time to brew a cup of coffee and see if I really am indeed back to normal — the worst part of the flu has been that my taste buds (we actually call them taste bites in this family) seem to be confused and coffee is the most dire casualty. Good, dark roast coffee has tasted like diner coffee with almost-turned cream. I’m hoping today might be the day everything gets back to normal…
I haven’t painted in a week, as I have just been too busy with work, freelance, and some very pleasant obligations to friends. But sometime last week, I did manage to paint this scene of a misty August sunrise.
Once upon a time I sold vintage teacups, handmade jewelry, and at least one handmade scarf on the site. But I’ve renamed and rebranded it as my virtual gallery. I invite you to stop in there and look around, even if you’re not in the market yourself. Perhaps you’ll find a gift for someone else.
I’ll keep stocking the shop as I finish paintings, and I hope to find time later this spring to develop a cost-effective system for making prints of some of my watercolors so that more than one of each will be available.
If the painting above has caught your fancy, just be aware that it is still drying and shipping would be delayed, possibly a few weeks, in order to allow it to dry completely.
Last week my husband and I took our eight-year-old son on our first big out-of-state family vacation. When the boy was five and just starting his martial arts training, we promised him that when he earned his black belt, we would take him to Disneyworld. Three years flew by and lo and behold, it was time to go.
Our little man took his first airplane ride.
We went to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney Hollywood Studios…
We swam in the outdoor pool, watched the palm trees sway in the breeze, enjoyed many interesting conversations with Uber drivers, and generally enjoyed watching our son have so much fun.
We came home to unseasonably warm weather in Michigan, though we know better than to hope it will last. And we’re getting back into the swing of things at work, church, and school.
But I find myself already looking ahead to the rest of the year’s travel. Zach to Israel, the boy and I to the Upper Peninsula, all of us to camp. And once more, in September, I get to head out to Albuquerque for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association annual retreat. The secret Facebook group for attendees has been opened and everyone is already abuzz with excitement! So I thought it would be a perfect time to work on the painting for the cover of this year’s retreat notebook.
Last year, I was flattered when our retreat coordinator and WFWA founding president, Orly Konig, asked to use the painting I did when I came home from the 2015 retreat as the image for the 2016 retreat notebook:
This year she asked me to do another. So this is what I painted today…
It’s the same lovely fountain, but much closer and from a different angle, and I composed the shot such that the background was easy to put text over and it is a portrait orientation. I’m very happy with how it turned out!
I believe I’ll get some good, professional scans done on both of these paintings so that I can make prints later, but I’m thinking about putting both of the originals in the retreat raffle. I’m also cooking up a new Etsy shop in which I can make my paintings available for purchase. They’re piling up in the house and I need to find them homes! Watch this space for more information about that in the coming months.
This week I read a great column in Writer Unboxed by Sarah Callender about navigating between hope and despair, and the part writers have in “disturbing the universe.” She used a line from T. S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” as a provocative jumping-off point, which reminded me how much I love that poem.
I was going to write that inspiring line down on a post it and stick it to my computer monitor. But that didn’t seem enough. So I thought I’d type it out in some interesting font, print it, and tape it up somewhere. But then that didn’t seem enough. So I concocted a little plan to do a painting. This is the result.
I’m not sure if it’s actually done yet. I may add another layer after this one is dry. But here is how I went about painting it.
First I typed up the line, chose fonts and sizes, and then printed it. I cut the words apart and arranged them how I thought they would fit on the canvas. Then I taped the pieces together and taped them to the back of the canvas so that, when a very bright light was positioned at the back, the black letters would show through.
Next, I painted over the letters with black gesso, which is a fast-drying acrylic medium.
Once I had all the letters in place, I let them dry.
I knew I wanted the corners to be very dark, so I sponged black gesso all around the outside, almost like a vignette.
I let it dry overnight, though I probably didn’t have to. When I was ready to paint today, I covered the whole thing with a coat of liquid clear.
Then I started to lay in the color. I chose only transparent or semi-transparent paints so that the black text would show through and I started with the brightest (indian yellow).
Now, as I tend to do, I forgot about taking any more photos as I laid in all the rest of the colors. But after they were on the canvas, I didn’t exactly like how they came together. So instead of trying to blend them together and hide the brush strokes, I swirled them all with a 2″ brush so that the brushstrokes would be part of the effect.
As I said, I’m not sure that I would consider this done at this point, but I think I need to let this layer of paint dry before making any further decisions about it.
This was a nice change of pace from landscapes and I got to use some very bright colors, which was fun. Of course, it doesn’t match any room in the house, so who knows what I’ll end up doing with it!