On Painting: Traveling Without Moving

cape cod painting

A couple weeks ago I returned to my Thursday afternoon painting class, an outlet I always realize I miss very much after my teacher, Joan, closes our sessions down for the summer and during the holiday season. I felt the same mix of relief and relaxation spark up as I started working again on this painting of the Cape Cod seashore, from a trip I took in 2006.

Most of my paintings have been close-up flower studies. Channeling my artist-muse-hero, Georgia O’Keefe, it’s been hard to escape her influence on my style and choice of subject matter.

So the painting above, along with one other seascape I’ve completed, is a bit of a departure.

In class, we work from photos and still-lifes. When I’m ready to start a new painting, I pick out a picture from my collection of photographs, one that resonates with me or how I’m feeling at the time. I select one that creates a strong emotional reaction or brings up a memory, some sensation I feel drawn to try and capture in a painting.

Joan usually helps me pick one out, one she believes would ultilmately make a nice finished piece.

Why paint a picture from a photo? I think painting allows me to express something else about the image I took, an additional interpretation of my own feelings that a photo doesn’t always contain. At least, that’s the realization I’ve come to for myself.

I started out trying to paint as realisctically as possible, but soon found that unsatisfying. Now. my goal is to become, instead, more free in my style, more impressionistic, and less focused on all the little details.

But it’s still very difficult, sometimes, fighting the urge to follow the detail. A bit like swimming upstream against a strong current. But just like the salmon who do it every year, it feels to me, somehow, like the right course to follow.

When I’m in class for my short, two-hour window time just flies by. I will be painting happily along, trying to be looser and looser with my brushstrokes every time, not get caught up doing too much detail. Then I’ll look up at the clock and suddenly, class is done.

There’s always a brief sense of disappointment when that happens, as I think I could probably go on standing there forever, working.

Painting, like yoga, is a form of meditation I’ve found that truly works for me. My mind shuts off completely, not thinking. It’s quite different from writing, which I also love and find cathartic. But writing is mostly all about thinking, processing, giving life to words.

By just focusing on the canvas before me, I am absorbed, calmed, taken out of myself and any worries or thoughts about the day. It’s a wonderful feeling, like waking up from a long and dreamless sleep.

I’ve done four or five paintings now, the one above of Cape Cod, still unfinished, will be my sixth. I don’t foresee myself becoming the world’s best painter. But I do think I can get better and better at it.

What that means for me, though, is not about portraying an image as accurately as possible anymore. It’s more about capturing whatever feeling it created in me successfully, portraying an emotion, or emotions, if I can. Expressing with color, line and texture on a three-dimensional surface something intangible in a flat -though otherwise lovely-photograph.

It’s very different to try and paint something than take a picture of it. Not only are there more tools involved, but time is also not on your side. It forces you to think a little bit more about the picture, your response to it, what you really want to preserve, for yourself or others, with it’s image.

And that’s really how I want to grow as a painter: become more fluent in speaking that language, using it’s tools well so that I can say ever more clearly what I feel or think, why I loved a certain scene, what feelings it created in me upon looking at it. If a scene is still realistic or recognizable when I’ve finished, well that’s an added bonus.

And if someone else sees it and appreciates it, then that’s a wonderful feeling, too. Reaching a similar feeling in another person, connecting with it and communing, is a powerful thing, indeed.

In the end, I think really it’s the process I enjoy most, not the product of my efforts, even if I feel very happy with how a painting turned out. In the act of creating, expressing, clarifying for myself, is where my true joy lies. That feeling of losing myself in the work, my mind quiet and focused, is like, so far, no other experience I’ve known.

Painting takes my mind to a whole different place, backward and forward, inward and out. It’s become, for me, an internal journey to lands still mostly uncharted. Traveling without moving, except for the quiet, constant sweep of brush on canvas, to it’s final destination.