I’ve been working up a storm recently. You can see one of the results of that storm above. It feels rich and lovely, doesn’t it? The birds are singing, the sun has come out, and my paintbrush has been a dear friend again. Art is like that. Some days, the inspiration is there. Sometimes it’s not, and then the question is whether you keep plowing through or burn your failures and just give up.
When I was growing up, my dad was a high school art teacher. On Christmas break, when the high school was empty, my dad would pack us all in the family minivan and we’d have the place to ourselves. He’d unlock the gym and pull out some basketballs for my brothers, and then take me down to the art room where he taught. We made all kinds of stuff in there. My favorite thing to do was build sloppy little sculptures out of clay. When I got older, he taught me how to throw pottery on a wheel. I remember watching him pull and push the spinning mound of clay into beautiful shapes he’d bring home to my mom to be displayed in our home. The first time I successfully managed to pull together something that might sort of pass as pottery, I happily looked up and waited for his approval. That’s when he came over and smooshed it into a crumpled lump.
Yup, he destroyed it. Then he said something like, “Good job. Try again.” I sat there and stared as the ruined lumpy mess went around and around. It was a small miracle I had managed to pull a shape out of that glob of grayish brain matter. How in the world was I supposed to do it again? It wasn’t exactly the perfect warm fuzzy ending to the cute anecdote from my childhood. Now, don’t get all worked up. My dad’s not a ruthless barbarian who derives his joy from his children’s pain. He was helping me. He was teaching me one of the most valuable lessons I picked up in that art room: “Don’t fall in love with your first idea.”
First ideas are rough. They are (in my case) lopsided and they tend to be incomplete. Excellent work usually comes from several attempts at the same idea. You get better at it the second time, because you get a chance to work out the kinks. You get a little bolder, a little braver, a little more ambitious every time. The lesson wasn’t, “Your work stinks.” The lesson was, “Don’t fall in love with your first idea, because you’ll miss out on your best idea.”
I know it doesn’t look like much, but I’ve been working on the piece you see above for almost 6 months now. Some pages are marvelous. They fall in your lap and come out in a storm of creativity. Others require a long, frustrating, laborious process. This piece is definitely in the second category. I’m going to do something I never do: allow you see my failed work. Below are the first two drafts. I dislike them both for various reasons, but I show them to you so you can see what the process of painting looks like. The explanation behind the work will come later. Today is just about persistence, and the sweet relief that comes with hard-earned success. P.s. I love you, Dad.