The faded flower caught my eye as I was trimming the potted plants on the windowsill. The rich shades of its life and death were so striking they would make an amazing watercolour. Appropriate, really, as the flower was an Anthurium, the painter’s palette. The heart shaped bloom seemed too beautiful to simply add to the compost so I reached for the camera, thinking that really, I should have reached for the paints.
Then I realised that I haven’t painted once since I moved house several months ago. In fact, I haven’t even unpacked them. Granted, there is a problem of space. There is no longer a spare room to serve as a studio and storage area, but that excuse only works for the oils and the big easel. The watercolours would slip in a drawer.
I used to paint something every day, just to keep learning, even if it was only a ten minute sketch. I never learned formally, I started to paint and learned as I went. I knew just how much technique I lacked. I always saw the perfect picture in my mind and failed to attain it. It didn’t matter. I loved it.
The smell of oil paints and turpentine excites me. The texture of canvas and the feel of paint on brush or, just as often, fingers, always makes my heart smile. Yet, what with one thing and another, it is a long time since I have painted. In fact, I realised with a jolt, I haven’t really painted for the past couple of years. Life got in the way and then, if I’m honest, because I stopped practicing, I lost confidence.
You see, I always knew that I was not a particularly good painter. My perspective ends up all wrong, the colours, light and shade are never right, my drawing skills leave much to be desired. I never once painted a picture with which I was completely happy. But that only spurred me on to learn, it did not detract from my joy in the process.
Most of my paintings were of dreams and visions, full of hidden forms and symbols that spoke to me quietly. They were personal. So no-one was more surprised than me when the paintings began to sell. Not just to friends who might just have been being kind, but to people I didn’t even know. They seemed to be seeing something in the pictures that I did not and, whatever it was, the images spoke to them. While I still saw the imperfections, they were seeing something else.
Then the commissions started to come in. Some of them were for prestigious locations and companies. For a few years, I earned more as a painter than I can imagine earning as a writer. My confidence grew. I still saw the flaws in my work, but learned to accept them, even whilst trying to learn. When I was called to paint an enormous mural at an important venue in London, I began to believe in myself. That confidence reflected itself in my work and the pictures began to get better. The stiffness disappeared; the brushstrokes became surer and more expansive. I allowed the paint to play instead of trying to force it into line with my inner vision.
I learned to believe in what I was doing, not because I was getting it right, but because I was doing it. My very first mural came from taking a chance and ‘having a go’. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, but did it anyway. I made it up as I went along… and it led me to paint at Wembley.
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page,” wrote Jodi Picoult. The words apply just as well to painting and living as they do to writing. If you are doing something badly you can learn how to do it better. If you are getting things wrong, you can learn how to get them right. If you are doing nothing at all because you are afraid that you might not succeed, then you have nothing to work with and no experience from which to learn.
How many of us hold back through the fear of imperfection? How many leaps of faith are refused through fear of failure or disappointment? How many times do we decline what life offers, just in case we are not good enough?
The first page, the first chapter… the first tentative step in a project, relationship, dream or adventure… It is always a moment of fear; especially if we have tried and failed before. My own early paintings were utter rubbish. I still have some of them, a testament to where you can come from and where you can go, just by saying ‘yes’ to life.
Even on the inner journey of personal and spiritual growth, there is a choice to make. Do we stand still and wait for life to push us forcibly forward, or do we take the leap of faith into the unknown regions of discovery?
‘One day’, ‘maybe’, ‘I wish’… sometimes the only thing that is stopping us is ourselves. We hold ourselves back, paralysed by the spectre of failure; it is true that we cannot fail if we do not try, but nor can we succeed. Confidence does not grow from learning how to do something, it grows from doing it. It is better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing at all.
If we are going to fail, let it be in a glorious blaze of colour. Let it be with fireworks, bells and trumpets… not a failure to ignite the inner flame until it forgets that it could ever flare into brightness.
As for me, I need to unpack my paints.