Why I Paint
Five years ago, I took a drawing class. I had a simple idea: I wanted to be able to sketch what I saw in my garden. I had kept a garden journal on and off for years–in fact, that journal was the inspiration for my first book, From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden. But a garden journal needs illustrations, and I wasn’t up to the task.
I had always seen art as a mystical process that required some special kind of genius. You either had it or you didn’t. But to my surprise, I found that it is actually possible to teach someone to draw competently.
It makes sense, really. A hundred years ago, art and music were practical, work-a-day skills. A well-educated person was expected to know how to pick out a tune on the piano or do a decent sketch of a flower or a building. Art is another one of those handy skills that we’ve lost. But sit in a class for a few weeks, and pretty soon you’ll know how to draw an apple. Once you can do an apple, you can do a house or a bird or a pair of pea pods. And then you’re off.
The same is true of writing, really. An art student can learn perspective, shading, negative space. A writing student can learn how to assemble a scene and how to construct a sentence. Both require a great deal of humility, and a willingness to scratch it all out and start over again. And the most important thing that an artist or a writer can do is to simply show up every day and do their work. It’s like running. You don’t lay around dreaming of the day you’ll win a marathon. You just get up in the morning, lace up your shoes, and hit the pavement.
So now I’ve moved on from drawing to oil painting. It’s not a medium that lends itself to garden
journals, but I continue to paint what I find in my own backyard: fruit and flowers, chickens and eggs, leaves and seeds. My painting teacher is Linda Mitchell; every Wednesday night she opens her studio to a group of women and we get together to swill cheap red wine, tell gossip, and get a little painting done. I’ve found that painting is good for my writing. It gets me away from the computer, and it forces me to set words aside and exercise a non-verbal part of my brain that otherwise wouldn’t get used much.
(It’s also interesting to note that the cover of From the Ground Up is an oil painting based on a photo I took of my garden in Santa Cruz. It’s a lovely little painting; I bought the original from the artist after the book came out. The artist is Joan Griswold.)
But what I also love about painting is that painting is a hobby to me. It’s not my job and it’s not the thing I was born to do. Because of that, I get to do it when it’s fun and not do it when it isn’t fun. I get to admire other people’s art without thinking, "I’ve got to figure out how to paint like that." I get to go to galleries and museums without thinking, "My art should be hanging on these walls." I have no goals or ambitions or burning desires related to painting that I know I must gratify so that I won’t someday leave the planet unfulfilled. If I got bored with painting and never did it again, that would be fine. It’s wonderful to have something that I can do in such a relaxed, not-attached-to-the-outcome way. So wonderful that I’m thinking of setting up an easel in my attic so that I can paint in between Wednesday night classes, an act that would no doubt give my painting teacher a heart attack. She’s been trying to assign us homework for years to no avail.
BUT–after five years, the paintings have started to stack up–literally. They sit four or five deep on a row of bookshelves that runs the length of my office. I invite my friends to take them home, but still they stack up. I’ve been inspired by a group of painters who are posting small paintings on their blogs and selling them on eBay, allowing them to generate some income between (or instead of) gallery shows, and giving them the pleasure and daily practice of completing smaller works as they finish larger, more complicated paintings. (To find out more about this movement, visit Duane Keiser or the Daily Painters Guild.)
So I’m thinking of selling some of my small paintings on eBay (and my blog), too. It’s not easy making a living as a writer, and sometimes the expense of oil paints and canvases can be a little hard to swallow on a freelancer’s income. So I figure that anybody who buys a painting would get a piece of original art to hang on the wall, not to mention the satisfaction of helping to keep me in paints and brushes, and away from that dreaded day job, for a while longer.
I’m mulling it over, and going through my paintings in search of eBay-worthy work. I’ll keep you posted.