You know that last post inspired by Michelangelo, about staying with a painting until it feels right? Here’s the other side of that coin: the ravaging destruction of perfectionism. That awful feeling that can gurgle up as you cover a canvas with paint, that you need to impress, to be the best… Get off that panicky road to the perfect painting mirage. Perfection is not only unattainable, but its downright soul-sucking. And a piece of art with its soul sucked out of it… well, who wants to spend time looking at that? An imperfect and passionate painting is so much better than one pulverized by anxious perfectionist energy. And I believe perfectionism also results in timid paint strokes, as fear of making a mistake is strong in this mindset. Timid paintings versus raw boldness… yup. Perfectionism can kill a piece of art.
So while it is important to stay with a piece of art until it feels right to you, it’s also important to know when to take a break from it, or consider it finished… or even scrap it. So how do you know the difference when you are in the trenches, in a ball frustrated energy? For me, this is all about a feeling. (ugh, I hate to be so vague and abstract). But here is my attempt to concretely explain what I mean by this ethereal feeling that accompanies me when I am frustrated while painting. The particulars of the feeling determine if my frustration is perfectionism or something else entirely. Frustration can be born of many things, so its important to keep alert for where its coming from.
Time to Stop When…
Are you bored while painting this work? Are thoughts such as “what will so-and-so think about this?” and “would anyone ever buy this?” and “will this get me a ton of likes on Instagram?” bubbling up? … Move on. Put the painting aside for awhile, out of your consciousness. Later, you can look on it with fresh eyes and a rested soul to see if you are truly inspired to finish it. Or maybe it’s not in your soul. It’s okay to let it go. You can use the canvas for something else. Something you are excited about.
Keeping Painting When…
Do you feel excited about this piece, even while you are frustrated? Or perhaps you feel scared? Both of these feelings are signs to keep going. Getting over your fear is the next step, but fear in general is a sign post that you are exploring something new. And that is usually worth your time.
A yoga teacher of mine has a particular philosophy on karma that fits well here: “Think about your present practice in terms of how it will help you for next time you approach it. You don’t have to be perfect right now. Your attention and efforts to today’s practice will serve you next time. This is karma.” Paint what you are excited about, explore your work and dive past your fears. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Everyone has their own measure of when to stop. I strive to stop at “it sings to my soul.” Either that or, “I hate this freaking thing and I don’t want to spend any more time on it.” And off it goes into a pile of canvases to paint over. And that, my friends, is completely okay.
So that’s what helps me. Do you have ideas, tips, thoughts on getting through perfectionism? I would love to hear what helps you! Please share in the comments!
Having Fun vs. Painting the Sistine Chapel:
What I learned from Michelangelo
So here’s a conundrum: I am a notoriously slow reader, yet I decided one day on a whim it would be a good idea to start reading The Agony & The Ecstasy by Irving Stone – a biographical novel of Michelangelo’s life. Friends, it took me a few months but it was well worth it… even if there were a few nights reading in bed that I woke up to quite a heavy book falling on my face. Those are the perils of reading a big book while exhausted… these perils are worth every sentence of The Agony & The Ecstasy.
Let me say first that I aim to write about this (and other) books here not as a review, but to explore the effect of the book on the way I make art… and how it might affect you should you happen to pick it up and give it a read.
What this book has me thinking about is what it takes to be such a staggeringly incredible artist that the world still worships your work over 500 years since your death. I mean… damn. It’s not even close to easy (hence the Agony portion of the title). The book is fraught with examples of unbearable anguish that Michelangelo chose to put himself through in order to make the absolute best artwork he could. The Sistine Chapel was more than years of painful head craning to make an utterly gorgeous painting. The way it all began? It was an order from the Pope, and Michelangelo had zero desire to paint it. He just wanted to sculpt marble. That was what his soul was begging him to do. But, the Pope is the Pope. So, Michelangelo hired a bunch of friends as assistants to paint the design he sketched out onto the ceiling. It was this lovely time full of laughter and friendship. The friends spent their days together in the Sistine, working and laughing, and boarded at Michelangelo’s place at night. They ate, drank, and painted together. (I mean, seriously: can life GET any better than that?) But then everything changed. Michelangelo realized part way through, as he examined the ceiling, that it was just not superb work. He recognized that he could create something entirely different and gorgeous - but he would need to do it by himself. So he let his friends go, and painted over that first attempt… traded his days of laughing & friends for lonely hours up on the scaffolding, freezing cold and aching… and created a new world of artistic mastery. He figured out that world as he went, for four tormented years of his life, and created an incredible masterpiece that he felt in his soul was what he needed to do.
What I, humble lil painter with a day job, take from this story is to always create something the best that I can. If a painting looks sub-par, and I know I can make it better, then go ahead and do it. Make it better. Spend as much time as needed to make it so the painting sings to my soul. I can think of past paintings I made that I thought, “eh. It’s done, I guess. I’ll move on to something else and check this one off my list.” … But in my deepest being I knew that painting was not done, and forever after that when I looked at it, it just didn’t satisfy. It might be easy to throw a piece in the “done” pile if I don’t know what to do next. But instead, I now sit with a painting, not knowing what to do, and just look at it. I keep it out while I work on other pieces. For perhaps weeks I won’t touch it. I’ll just be with it. My subconscious is aware it, and all the while that I am living and painting, it is magically figuring out what needs to be done. Then some day, the answer appears as a bolt of lightning. “ohhh! I need to tone down the background a bit and up the purples in the foreground!” And then I do it, and the painting has come to glorious life. In this way, we can all make our own private masterpieces. Our own little Sistine chapels.
When I step into yoga class, I’m not one of those superstars standing on one hand before diving into chadarunga. I look at those folks and admire them deeply, and I love to watch their work even as I wobble and fall.
Not being a master myself doesn’t lessen my experience in yoga. It’s called “practice” for a reason. Its something you do continuously – similar to honing your painting craft, you hone your yoga practice. It is a long and wonderful journey.
The lesson is this: don’t get caught up comparing yourself to the masters. Yes, take time to look at them, admire them, understand their methods. But also understand this: they are on their own journey, and it likely took them many many years to develop into what they are doing now. Those years are precious. From the beginning to the end, each moment is one to be enjoyed. Don’t push or get frustrated that you are not farther along. It is a journey, and one to be relished. Make crappy paintings. Fall out of Crow and bump your head. Experiment. Screw up. Keep on honing and practicing and loving every moment.
Photo by Matthew Kane
A few of my favorite paintings I’ve done are of bikes… or bike parts. The bicycle is such a blessing! Moving gears and parts allow us to sail on land! Wind in our faces and whipping up intense joy that just gurgles from deep inside. Pure delight sparks within seconds of pushing the pedals. I adore bicycles. I paint them a lot. And each bicycle painting has its own story.
Bicycle 1: I travelled through India, where I was kinda sorta obsessed with the bicycles. They have a lot of personality and décor and varying use. This here bike, parked up against a beautifully peeling plaster wall, had a second saddle attached it. I call it The Makeshift Double Seater.
Bicycle 2: When I got back from India, I was pretty much fascinated with the intricacies of bike parts. One day I found myself ordering a box of old bike parts from this guy off of Ebay. This provided much fodder for off-beat still-life paintings, of which this is my favorite. Bike parts paired with a mango and daisies. I call is Bicycle Mango.
Bicycle 3: Another one from India. All of the bicycle cranks had gorgeous intricate cut-out designs. This is just one of them.
Bicycle 4: Portrait of a Red Bike. Classic bicycle. Found it resting, safe and locked, against a street sign in Washington DC.
Bicycle 5: This painting is from a photo I took on Bike to Work day in Washington, DC. There were lots of fellow bicyclists around and one had a beautiful vintagey green bike. I loved the colors of the crank, and had to paint its portrait.
Check out the collection of bicycles here, where you can also get goodies and prints of them: society6.com/meghantaylor/collection/bicycles
It is with such enormous gratitude that I write about a recent trip I took to Italy. Earlier in May, I had the honor to visit Rome, Florence, Padua, Venice, and then go to a cooking school in Umbria. By the end, Italy was embedded deep in my soul. The places and people have filled the creative well for me. Which is why I am blogging about it here. Visiting foreign lands and learning and experiencing and seeing and meeting new things and people is so refreshing, and can be hard to come by in “real life.” Travel is like a reminder: there’s a big wide gorgeous world out there that you are a part of! Go experience it, and let it become a part of you and what you create in the world around you.
On Italy specifically, I can’t describe everything, and quite frankly this post would be ridiculously long and you’d be better off reading about such things from a lovely travel expert like Rick Steves anyway. So instead I want to write here about a particular moment I experienced. It was our last afternoon in Florence. I wanted to stop in to see the Medici Chapel, where some of Michelangelo’s most beautiful sculptures live. As we ambled up to the chapel door at 4:30pm, it was at that moment we realized the chapel had closed fifteen minutes earlier. I and another heartbroken tourist looked at each other with wide eyes, knowing we were half way across the globe and would not have this opportunity again… deep breath, silence…. Damn.
Of course, there was a solution! Our train left bright & early from Florence the next day, but there would still be time for me to get to the Chapel just as it opened. And this solution was the best thing that could have happened. That morning, I packed my suitcase and left it with my travel-mates at the monastery we were staying at, and sauntered my way over to the chapel….long before it opened. Just to be safe. Which was a beautiful opportunity to walk into a Florence coffee bar and order a tasty doppio to sip as I sat on the stone benches, ogling the gorgeous architecture, cooing pigeons and hurried locals going to work. As soon as the chapel opened, BAM: I, along a few other die-hards, made my way in. There was of course a lot to see there. So much Medici history. I glossed over it, a bit sadly, with so little time before my train. I half-hurried / half-mosied my way through a crypt and a stunning chapel until I got to the New Sacristy where Michelangelo’s sculptures Dawn, Dusk, Night and Day reclined over the tombs of Medici greats. And stopped short. There I was, alone with these epic marble master works. What an experience to be with these beings Michelangelo created. My heart filled up and ran over. It was just us. Quiet….and tremendous.
One of my colleagues here at my day job calls this kind of travel soul-expanding. (As opposed to a vegetable vacation of the sit-on-the-beach-and relax ilk. Equally wonderful. Totally different). Soul-expanding vacations fill the creative well. And they are just *needed* - you feel that well fill up inside, you feel part of this world and learn new things about this world and …that is just incomparable.
P.s. I invite you to visit these epic places alongside me, and hopefully feel all that awe I felt via my travel sketchbook: Rome! Florence! Padua! Pigeons! Espresso makers! Strange fruits! Cows! It’s all in there. And if you haven’t experienced the joy of travel sketching yet, I urge you to read this blog post.
only practice. Everything.
I constantly remind myself of this because it is the most important concept in regards to painting. Why? Why merely practice? Why not create finished masterpieces? It’s all about the mindset as I paint. The other day I found myself afraid to change a bit of a painting I was working on … (okay, it was the portrait of my cat … my cat painting, for crying out loud). Gazing at the painting, I thought perhaps the foreleg that stretched forward could use some lighter highlights on the tufts of fur. But the fur looked okay the way it was. Decision time: on the one hand, why mess with it? On the other hand, adding the highlights could make it really pop. On the other other hand, screwing with it could create a mess. And that would just ruin EVERYTHING and I’ll get in a bad mood and .. you know what? Just screw this whole thing. I’m not painting anymore.
you see where I’m going with this? When I find myself getting anxious with such silliness (which happens more frequently than I care to admit), I remind myself to just go for it. And the reason I go for it is
because I know this is just practice. Life, and everything in it, is not that
serious. This cat painting? Its just an experience in my learning to paint. Its an experience to help me understand the medium more, and the cat too. And if I don’t try
things, I won’t learn. And then I won’t grow and get better.
One of my favorite
teachers of all time once said to me (as I was happily gazing at a completed and somewhat successful painting), “Great. Now just do that 10,000 more times.“ I repeat that
to myself all the time. Do it over and over. Making art is more
than this one painting – it’s a long winding road of development.
I just love that.
Such an approach helps me not only in painting, but really just about any situation in life. If you don’t try something, on a canvas or in the world at large, you’ll never know how it will turn out. Maybe it will turn out like crap. But that just informs you for the next time you try it. And you just keep growing and getting better each time you do it… each time you practice. Practice is sacred and beautiful. Practice is being present in the moment – with paint or without.
-and how it enhances the way you see color
of my painting teachers told me about a particular project she was assigned as
a student: to paint something white. That’s it. Simply paint something that is
all white. My teacher didn’t feel very inspired by the idea at first and chose
a white house to render. But she was floored by what the other students brought
in – exploring the colors in a ceramic mug, or a crumpled piece of paper. The
idea of painting something that seems so plain at first glance is intriguing.
I mean, this is when you really look at something – at its shape and shadows
and highlights and the colors that are hidden in its crevices. After hearing
about this project, I grew inspired to try it out myself. A few times. For example, that white rose up there? When I got it, I immediately asked
my housemate to hold it up against our white walls as I photographed it – which
eventually resulted in this painting. More
recently, I married the concept of white on white with my diner fascination –
and painted the coffee cups and check that sat on the table after breakfast one
Sunday morning at the Rockville Diner.
The concept of painting white-on-white reminds me of that scene in the movie Local Color where the teacher explains the intricacies in the colors that exist in clouds. Painting those clouds is an opportunity to train your eyes to see coolness and warmth, to render subtle color variations with a mix of intensity and restraint. Also, its fun. Hey, want to see some stunning examples of cloud paintings? One of my favorite painting teachers in the whole wide world Kurt Schwarz has a series of them that will just floor you.
Explore painting white-on-white:
Try it out. It can be as simple as finding a white mug or snowglobe or tchotchke or what have you, and placing it on top of a white piece of paper. Bam. This is your still life. Don’t get discouraged if it looks dull as hell. This is what makes the act of painting so cool. You can take that dull scene, and make it come alive with color and contrast, with your own interpretation and style. As you fill in the colors, look for the highlights and shadows, and what subtle colors are living in those pockets. As you do this, you will breathe life and color into the canvas.
Travel Love: How a Sharpie Makes the World Shine Brighter
Visiting a distant land? Full of new sights, sounds, smells… Maybe think about carrying a sketchbook with you. This little habit has opened my eyes to beautiful things in the places I have been honored to trek in this world. I am crazy-dedicated to the practice of travel sketching,…. but I hear you. Cameras are pretty amazing contraptions. (And yes, I still do carry a camera with me. I love photographs too.) So you might ask how such rudimentary tools as a marker and paper can replace the vivid colorful creations of a digital camera? Let me explain…
Why Sketching Can Rock the Socks off of Photos
Imagine you are crossing a square in a small European village, maybe on your way to find a local café to indulge in some mind-blowing gelato. There’s a pretty fountain at the center of the square, and you snap a photo. You have logged this beautiful scene. Done.
Okay, now let’s rewind. You cross the square, see the fountain… and decide to take out your sketchbook instead of the camera. Now something magical happens. You sit down, feel the bench beneath you and the sun on your face. You look at the fountain, and see the tiny details hidden in its cornices – details that show its place in the world. Details that only exist here.You sketch a bit of those lovely details. And then you notice some locals playing a game of chess across the way. You turn the page and draw in some gestural lines portraying these local personalities… and you write a little passage “Bright sun, warm bench. Sounds of a fountain splashing and murmurs of locals playing chess.”
See what happened? You experienced that place more deeply. This is the essence of travel: to feel, experience, explore. Sketching is a tool that deepens all of these aspects of being in a place. And the memories you sketch show a more vivid tangible experience than any postcard perfect photograph.
Bonus benefit: You are way more likely to meet new people. Being a rather shy introvert, this is a nice tool for me. People love to come by and check out what you’re doing, and ask you about it. Seriously, you make new friends everywhere you go.
All you need is a sketchpad (I prefer the spiral notebook kind) and a Sharpie – fine point. If you really want to get into it, you can get a range of pens like these. Find a place, and focus on the details that delight you. Don’t worry about making a postcard. Just pick out one thing you love, and draw that. And don’t worry if you think it looks terrible. Because (a) you only get better by practice, so keep drawing and (b) who cares? You are making a memory of your experience! That coolness outshines any doubts or fears of what constitutes a “good drawing.”
P.S. If you’d like, share some of your sketches. I just posted a few of my travel sketchbooks for the fun of it. Visit India, Budapest and El Salvador by way of ink and paper, and let me know what you think!
I will be honest: There are weeks when I don’t paint. At all. And once off the painting-train, it can be hard to get back on. I tell myself things like, “okay, this week is crazy, but I will have some extra time on Saturday and I’ll paint then.” Saturday comes, and I think, “holy Christ I am freaking exhausted and have nothing to give. I need to rest, otherwise work is just gonna be miserable this week.”
The weird thing is, these sound like excuses. I feel guilty when the oil paint on my palette slowly atrophies into hard clumps. But you know what? It’s freakin okay to not paint for a bit. When the job or family or business or *whatever* get overwhelming, painting doesn’t happen. When I have to choose between enough sleep and paint, guess what. Painting doesn’t happen. Instead of becoming a big ball of stress that my favorite hobby is missing from my life, I try to take a deep breath and realize this: it is okay. It’s not gone forever. I can control this and come back to it when my body and energy let me.
My motto is: Take a break from the easel when you need it, and don’t be hard on yourself when it happens. Life is complex, and we need to make things work. Of vital importance is to recognize when to get *back* on the painting horse. A part of you will probably be resistant…that happens for me anyway. Fears arise: what if I paint terribly? What the hell do I put on the canvas after so much time off? So understand what this resistance is: nothing but unfounded fears. And then take 30 minutes out of your day to push past it and be at the easel. Maybe you’ll stay longer than 30 minutes, maybe not. But just commit to that half hour. And do it again. And again. In this way, you keep your craft going at the times that you can, and it will not drop out from under you. It will always be with you.
I’ve been annoying my friends and family on Facebook lately by posting pictures of an underpainting. The silly part is, the subject of said underpainting was completely unrecognizable. So I subsequently made everyone guess at what the hell I was working on. (someone finally got it, so my FB folks are happily safe from my pictorial mysteries … for now.) I found the activity super fun – so much so, I decided to blog out these same pictures here.
This is a telling story of the new eyes an artist must adopt in order to paint something. When you take on a subject, you are no longer relying on your mental preconceptions of what that subject looks like. (if you do, you are probably going to leave out a lot of the detail, nuance and unique beauty of the subject). Rather, you look at the thing with fresh eyes and break it up into abstract shapes & simplified areas of dark and light. You place those shapes on your canvas with a big brush, and slowly build up with color and temperature and feeling. Putting together this puzzle of shapes and shadows slowly creates the subject you are rendering. It is a pretty joyful process putting this onto canvas and watching it ripen.
So this particular painting is still in its infancy. So much more development is yet to occur. For now, see if you can solve the mystery of what the hell this is.