By Kim Wimmer
Have you ever created something that was pretty good but thought, “Hmmm… I think I can make it better?” And then you fiddle with it and add to it and mess it up? So then you try to fix it and overcorrect? And the next thing you know, you’ve made a big muddled mess? No? Me neither.
I mean, I’ve certainly never done that with recipes or writing, or conversations that become misunderstandings, or decorating, or craft projects, or providing feedback, or “clarifying” emails, or singing a song “perfectly” or say, I dunno… watercolor. Ok, you’ve got me. I’ve expertly butchered each one of those endeavors. But today, in particular, I’ve been struggling with my compulsion to ruin any watercolor I try to paint.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve never taken an art class and have absolutely no idea how to paint. But I thought it might be soothing to sit down and try my hand at it. You know, for fun! And it’s true—it really is relaxing. Until I inevitably mess up and try to correct it. And then I make a big blob. And then I try to camouflage it… with detail.
My best efforts here come off no less disastrously than those medieval painters’ terrifying portraits of cats—erily specific—while at the same time profoundly, nightmarishly unrealistic. Regardless, I can’t seem to put the paintbrush down and walk away. It’s as if I can’t help myself and have zero self-control.
Beware! Actual creepy medieval paintings of cats. A little imagery for your dreamscape.
The allure of getting something “right” can be intoxicating. I’ve previously written about how a perfectionistic approach to acting can kill a performance (Acting and the Paradox of Perfection). But my recent foray into amateur watercolor painting is a stark and timely reminder of the importance of being easy about it and embracing the art of letting go. As relayed in the intro, my inevitable mistakes usually result in a relentless campaign to correct them. To tame my unmoored feelings of uncertainty and disappointment, I’ll execute a series of complicated maneuvers that have the effect of backing me into a corner and suffocating the very thing I tried to bring to life. Suffice it to say this approach has a very low success rate. Sigh.
…watercolor is as much about having the discipline to not over-paint as it is to paint at all.
Like all worthwhile art, watercolor, I suppose, requires a degree of surrender. I was attracted to it because the act of painting can be meditative, and just like meditation, finding the flow of watercolor requires a subtle combination of confident, guiding strokes and the willingness to release imperfections. My husband commented that painting in watercolor is as much about having the discipline to not over-paint as it is to paint at all. I think meditation requires a similar level of discipline to let go of thoughts and agenda in order to be still and listen. We can easily get caught up in a persistent thought or an unsolved problem while meditating, just as we might feel compelled to fixate on correcting a mistake on the page. Sadly, in either case, such unchecked obsession can result in the dreaded overwrought medieval cat treatment. So much detail… so little perspective.
We have to leave space.
As I struggled to articulate these thoughts, the temperature climbed into the nineties and the house became too oppressive for human habitation. Ok, fine, that’s hyperbole. Nevertheless, I decided it was time to turn on the a/c, so I went to close the back door and discovered a small bird trapped in the mudroom. It was stuck behind the curtain, repeatedly throwing itself against the glass. Each tenacious attempt to escape smudged a frenetic impression on the surface. The poor thing was so frantically trying to fly through the window, it didn’t realize the door was wide open. My heart clenched.
I tentatively tried to guide or catch it. It kept hopping onto my finger only to panic and fly back into the glass whenever I moved it away from the window toward the door. It seemed desperate to pursue its only perceived way out. The frightened creature panted and seemed to beseech my help with its penetrating, tilted bird-stare. I realized I would have to catch it with my hands. I feared I’d squeeze too hard and hurt the fragile thing, but in light of all I’ve been pondering, I wondered if what it needed was the assurance of being held and protected. So I gently but resolutely wrapped my hands over and around it. It stilled. I carried it to the door and opened my fingers. The little bird flew across the yard to the garage, landed on the roof and looked back at me.
The mudroom has lured many-a-winged creature into its gaping maw. In the past, I used ill-matched tools like spatulas or magazines to help guide the trapped birds out of there. I backed them into corners, catching them in lidded boxes so I wouldn’t hurt them with my hands. In other words, in an effort to do it safely and “right,” I’d made it too complicated and probably more stressful for the birds.
In an effort to do it safely and “right,” I’d made it too complicated and probably more stressful
Surely there are no parallels to making art here, right? Just to be clear, I am aware that many of my watercolor challenges could benefit from actually learning some technique. Imagine that! But in this moment I find myself intrigued by the more metaphysical question. As an artist, I am sometimes the anxious bird, trapped in the muddy middle of the process. But I can also consciously embody the assured yet gentle, guiding hand that releases it into the world. There’s a tenuous vacillation between the two, is there not?
In that way, art is a lot like faith and the making of art is a lot like prayer. I have to leave space to listen, room for the art to breathe, and trust that a closed window need not herald the end of the journey. The answer isn’t found in perpetually flapping against the glass. Sometimes we need to breathe, trust, turn around, and fly through the open door… especially if the alternative path ends with a creepy, medieval cat.