Wednesday, January 27, 2021

What Happens When You Get "Unstuck"

I thought I’d follow up my last post by sharing some of the positive results of having spent some time in the desert.

Recently I listened to the “Three Day Effect” on Audible. I highly recommend. It’s a 6-episode documentary that talks about the benefits of spending at least three full days immersed in nature. I have already known this about myself, that I need regular escapes to the outdoors. But what’s really cool is that there is now tangible evidence proving that extended time outside—that magical number of 3 days or more—can offer so much more than vitamin D! It can open new pathways for creativity. It can help you get “unstuck.”

Case in point: I started this 36x24” oil painting of my son Everett, at the beginning of August… so, about six months ago. I really hoped to get it done in time for his 2nd birthday on August 20. But I quickly discovered as I dug deeper into the painting, that there was no way on earth that was going to happen. The painting began to represent many of the emotional struggles I’d had that year (hello, 2020), as well as bringing to light some debilitating mental blocks that had been plaguing me without me even realizing it. I was able to paint Everett very quickly as I often do with the figurative element of a painting… but as soon as I began to tackle the surrounding space and design, I knew I was in for a long and bumpy ride. I thought I had a plan, but it turns out I was just stumbling around blindly trying to control the chaos and turn it into something that made sense. Oh, how appropriate for 2020, haha!

I’m sharing some cell phone shots of my progress here.

Progress 1 (above): This was the start of my block-in. The painting is on double oil-primed aluminum. I primed it myself to intentionally gave the surface some texture and irregularity. I didn't want it to look like a commercially primed surface because the premise behind this painting is disorder and chaos, a "beautiful mess".  Because it is a large painting, I used a grid with vine charcoal to draw the main elements of the design.  

Progress 2 (above): This was a couple of weeks later. As you can see, I had Everett pretty much locked in. But I was already starting to feel overwhelmed by the crayons, markers, papers, and plastic bins... as I often am when I see a mess like this in real life. Which is like... every day.

Progress 3 (above): I used a spatula to lay a bunch of paint down in the background but clearly didn't know what to do with that left side of the painting behind Everett. I liked the balloons that I added, but the blue ball didn't really work where it was. Meanwhile, I began to painstakingly paint the various papers and pencils and markers, trying to keep them loose and not too detailed. My hope was that Everett would be the "tightest" part of the painting without being the focal point. Unfortunately, I didn't have my focal point figured out yet (and that's something you should know before you put down the first brush stroke! Rookie mistake, ARB).

Progress 4 (above): this was around the end of September. I spent most of my time painting the foreground elements and decided I would figure out the background later. 

Progress 5 (above): I thought, "Maybe I'll try simplifying the background while making it more colorful." It was worth a shot. At this point I was feeling kind of over it, and not sure if the painting was worth continuing.

Progress 6 (above): Early November. It was at this point that I sent a photo of the painting to a couple of trusted artist friends for a critique. They both agreed that it felt like the painting didn't have a focal point, or a plan. It was hard to hear this but I knew I needed to seriously reconsider my goals for the painting if I planned to finish it.

I set it aside for about two months to work on other things, in the hopes that I would have some kind of revelation once I had given it the time and space it needed.  

When I got back from my trip to Joshua Tree, I realized that I was ready to tackle it once more. Not only did my trip help me get "unstuck," but it loosened me up enough to where I didn't feel like I needed to take myself or my art quite so seriously. I just needed to have fun and experience joy from it again.

The painting came together when I used the papers--the white ones in particular--to give it a stronger value structure. I darkened the background behind Everett's head, made the background elements a bit "messier" and not as tight, and did some glazing in various places to give the design a better visual pathway. 

I adore my children and I love painting them, but I realize that this painting is, in many ways, another self portrait. There is so much that it represents about this stage of my life, not just as a mother who is constantly cleaning up messes, but as someone who is seeking to return to a place where wonder and joy are constant. My children are setting a great example for me.  I want to be more like them, to see the world the way they do. 2020 was messy and chaotic, unpredictable, and full of bad and good moments that challenged us all. And yet there was certainly beauty to be found. Everett is perfection and his curiosity outweighs the mess and the hard. He is learning, growing, exploring, and the innocence and purity of that makes the mess all worth it. This painting represents my mess... but I learned and grew from it, and I am so thankful for that experience. 

"Curiosity and Chaos" - 36" x 24" (2020-2021) - oil on aluminum


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