A painter’s palette

dead-painters-palette

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.

Framing the past

bird

I had bought a couple of cheap frames while I was in town  Inevitably, as it was a spur of the moment purchase, they were the wrong size for the paintings I intended to frame, but, with the thought of the boxes of old scribblings and paper piled in the corner upstairs, a trip to the studio might produce something.

Now, let’s be fair. Although I paint and have a room grandly referred to as the studio, in actual fact it is the simple luxury of a tiny back bedroom now vacated by the last of the fledglings. It is space I inherited from my younger son and the luxury of a room little bigger than a cupboard cannot be overstressed when canvasses the size of a small county have, hitherto, been painted on an adapted deck chair in the living room, getting in everyone’s way and making dinner taste inevitably of turpentine and varnish.

It is ironic, of course, that I finally have this space to use uniquely for painting yet, when I do paint, I tend to bring the whole lot downstairs so I can spread out, oblivious of the mess or the turpentine flavoured coffee as there is now only me and the dog…and she will curl up quietly under the easel wherever it is. It is the only time she does.

yellow lightThe piles of boxes hold sketches and pads full of stuff going back years…decades. I keep meaning to go through them and throw the rubbish away, which would be most of it to be honest, but I never get round to it.

For years they were shoved into the attic to make way for an ever increasing household as my own children grew, stepsons, their children and dogs took over the small house. In relative silence I stood by as more and more of the things by which I thought I identified myself… books, paintings, photographs and memories from the past… were pushed to one side to make way for others and the necessities of daily life.

I imagine many people will identify with this if they think about it, in some form or another. It may be that personal pleasures and hobbies are foregone in order to fund things for the children. Time, energy and opportunity are spent where the priorities and necessities lie. And at some point most of us turn round and wonder who on earth we have become, because it sure as hell isn’t who we thought we would be.

It took me a while, of course… half a century or so… to really pinkgrasp that the ‘things’ don’t matter. They do not define me, simply remind me of times, places and people I have known. They may reflect my tastes or my efforts, my experiences or my hopes and dreams. But they are not me. They are not the experience, the person, the place or the dream. They are not even the memory. They are just things. Precious by association, meaningful because of memory, irreplaceable sometimes, but they only describe or reflect, they do not define.

And I have a feeling that once you come to that realisation, you are able to let everything go. I’m not suggesting a mass bonfire of memories and photographs here. I mean simply that you can enjoy them for what they are, triggers for memory, reflections of dreams…things you own, but which do not own you.

I was torn between cringing and chuckling at the awfulness of some of the things I had kept in those piles of papers.  But I found a few to frame. Not because they have any artistic merit at all, but because they remind me of a journey I have been taking all my life to bring me to today. They remind me that I have had the courage to try something new, to experiment, to play and explore, to laugh at myself, to not be afraid of mistakes or failure, because they teach us more than success, every  time.

So I framed past failures and hung them on the wall. And do you know something? They still make me smile.

treedancer