How to Start a Painting

One of the first questions I get asked when people find out my vocation is some variation of “How do you start a painting? Do you know what you’re going to paint when you start?” Which is an odd question if you think about it.

Of course I do.

And of course I don’t.

Starting a painting is many things. It’s the excitement of a first date and the anticipation of an exam. It’s the challenge of a Rubix cube and the peacefulness of an afternoon kayaking. It’s the promise of a newly tilled garden bed and the terror of speaking in front of 1000 people. It is overwhelmingly wonderful and horrible all at once. So, basically, it’s kind of like life.

There are two ways to look at the start of a painting; the physical start, meaning the actual putting of paint to surface; and the less-easy-to-define other start – the emotional, spiritual, insides-brought-out start.

I always saw the physical start as the easier of the tasks. When I used to teach workshops I would tell my more hesitant students – the ones who had been staring at the canvas for the last 45 minutes – “Give yourself a problem to solve.” A blank, clean perfect surface is coma-inducing. It is precious. And good art, though it may end up there, cannot be started there. So many of my students were so busy expecting to create a masterpiece that they were petrified to start. Or worse yet, they started and were unwilling to take off the kid gloves (which honestly is not really starting). In their minds every mark and brushstroke had to bring them closer to a piece they could frame up pretty and sell at the local art league exhibition. And that, though important for paying bills, is disastrous for creating art.  So how do you start? Make a mark, paint an underpainting, use the color you hate the most. Then your brain will start to see ways of solving the little problems you’ve created for it and a painting will begin to take shape.

Starting a painting is not about the finished product. It is about the process. The process of making art is vital to the condition of the end piece. It’s part of the reason I can’t just copy a piece I’ve done before. I already said what the first painting had to say, to repeat myself would be empty, shallow – it would have none of the depth of the original. No one’s copy would. And there’s a reason for that. Creating is a spiritual act. I will repeat that. Creating is a spiritual act.

Which brings me to second way of looking at starting, the other start. The act of creating is grounded in things that cannot be explained by the physical; it has the power to feed us in a way that reaches our very souls. The sum of the paints pushed and pulled across the canvas to create a piece is greater than the parts of colorful strokes individually. More goes into a session of painting than just the materials; it is an intentional and demanding act to create something. We were made as creative beings, by a creative God; it is embroidered in our fabric to make and innovate and seek. For me it comes out in paint or pencil or ink or whatever is sitting around my studio that day.  The process of making is a form of meditation for me; a way to process and understand whatever is going on in my life – seen and unseen. And starting that process can be overwhelming if I look at it as a whole – going straight for the high dive. But if I look at it as small moments of quiet and connection, earnest seeking and bonding, well then, it is just baby steps into the deep end.

Sometimes life gets in the way and I don’t get to paint for a while… a long while. At some point my kind husband will just stop and look at me as I’m melting down like a two year old and he’ll say, “I think you need to go paint…now.” He sees clearly that I haven’t been nurturing that part of me and it’s affecting all of me. I need a time out.

So then I must go to my studio (begrudgingly because while he’s right, I’m still behaving like a toddler) and start. Those are the most difficult starts. The gunk that’s been building up needs to be scraped off. My vision is fuzzy. And all I can manage is the physical start. The very act of touching color to surface seems insurmountable. But I do it. And I keep doing it. And then the most important part of all. Discipline. Discipline is vital to creating anything worthwhile. Discipline is what will allow me to see through the gunk, refocus my vision, and get on to the other start I so desperately need. I just keep going, even and especially when I do not feel like it. And eventually I have a start.

My guess is that every artist has a unique way of starting, a way of beginning again for the hundredth or thousandth time. But the key is to start. To actually do it. Not every painting I start is a success, they don’t all end up being exhibited or even shown to anyone. But they are all necessary and they all teach me something. So, if you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe especially if you’re not) go try it yourself. Grab a pencil or paintbrush and a piece of paper, any piece of paper – the less precious the better – and start something yourself. Draw, paint, create, seek, and find. It’s just one little start away.

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