Monday, November 3, 2014

Shhh-Listen to the Painting

Gathering Light 13   60x60"  oil on canvas © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

I struggled with a painting I was working on the other day.   It’s a large one, 60x60”.  I kept getting unwanted lines. Nothing was blending or flowing.  I am always aware of how the painting is going, what it’s saying to me as I work on it and I try to follow that.  What I didn’t realize is that I was trying to control the painting more than I knew. As I  struggled, I talked to myself a little.  I told myself that I could always add  another layer on it tomorrow. That’s normally the way I work, layer upon layer, gradually building up the surface day by day, in thin transparent layers. I worked this one over and over, back and forth, trying to blend it, going in different directions, adding more paint.

I tried to stay in a calm meditative place but after several hours of this, I needed a break. 

I stepped back, sat on my comfy chair and took a sip of tea.  Then I turned to look at the painting again.  In the space of my moving away from the painting and sipping my tea, the painting had changed!  While I normally move back and forth to get a different perspective on my work, I was farther away here and could see it differently.  The unblended layers had opened up another way of working.  It looked like a crystal waterfall.  It needed more darks, more depth.  But I could easily change that now that I had come to appreciate what was going on and move in step with the painting.

There’s a fine line between moving with the painting and trying to form it.  This painting felt as though it had a life of it’s own.  It moved to another place ahead of me, as though it were directing the action and that I needed to let go and catch up. Not all paintings work in this magical way. But one thing that it did teach me, once again, is to get myself out of the way, to let go of expectations and plans and make room for something greater than myself to enter.  That’s when magic happens.

" Ah but, don't think you now have knowledge--the answer to how to paint", the painting seemed to whisper to me as I stood there smugly thinking I now knew a secret. In the next few days, I tried again listening closely to the next painting I was working on.  There is no formula.  What worked for three paintings in a row, now was not working and I had to let go even of those ideas. 

In Natalie Goldberg's book, "The True Secret of Writing" , she quotes the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen, "Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness."  Goldberg says, "You have it; you don't have it.  You are free."


  1. Again wize advice. Really magic this piece!!!

  2. It's beautiful, Janice. Your thoughts on process are spot on. Getting out of the way of your own work as it develops is so challenging, but also so rewarding.