an oil painting of a woman in a black dress sitting on stacks of books arranged like a throne

It’s funny how going from working on something like the Angel Tarot to working on whatever you’d like can make you feel like the slowest painter in the world. While working on AT I reached a frenetic, unsustainable pace in the last month of it to get it across the finish line, and now while I have a lot of projects in the pipeline, none of them have hard and fast deadlines. Instead of working like a madwoman I can slow down and enjoy the process again. I can also examine some of the processes I use now and determine if they are ones I want to keep.

When I first started out painting I always started with the faces. If I liked the face the rest of the painting would usually turn out good. If I didn’t like the face it usually turned out to be a weird omen that something would happen during the rest of the painting and the whole thing would either end up discarded or be one of my least favorite pieces. It’s not the “right” way to paint – you should paint the background first, and go from left to right if you are right-handed, and opposite if you are left-handed – particularly so if you are using an unforgiving medium like watercolor. I never much cared about what was the “right” way to do things when I started out. Seeing the finished face and liking the result also motivated me to finish some of the more boring parts in order to show the world the little character I had made.

One day I recall someone saying something like, “you can always tell an amateur painter from a professional, because amateurs always start with the faces.” Or something like that. And I didn’t want to be seen as an amateur at that point, so I immediately stopped painting the way that works for me and I switched to painting “the right way.”

Now I don’t care if people think I am an amateur. Some people will think you are an amateur no matter how skilled you are or how far you go. You don’t have to sit in on very many conversations between artists before you find one of those people. They are everywhere and usually they aren’t very good or very successful anyway – at least that’s been my finding. I think sometimes these comments come from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the speaker’s own work or insecurity about their financial success. Maybe the only thing they have left to feel good about is that they are doing it “the right way” even if it isn’t really working for them.

For a really long time I stuck to painting the right way, and for a really long time I’ve struggled to connect to my paintings the way I once did. Initially when I started on this painting I was doing the same old thing. I started on the background in the left corner. And then I thought, I’d really like to see her face. Realizing that I didn’t have to work around the wet paint, that I wasn’t on a deadline and I could just paint her face, let it dry, and work on the rest another day, I went ahead and painted her face.

Once her face was there it was much easier to convince myself to paint the tedious background of this piece. I think it has great visual effect, her throne of books, pumpkins, autumn leaves, and a cozy firefly lantern, but it was nonetheless tedious to paint 130 books and if I didn’t feel connected to the piece I probably would have given up after the first few dozen books.

Feeling connected to your work as an artist is so important. Often we get caught up in the idea that the subject matter of the painting is where the connection lies, but the process is also important. Working the “right” way has its merits and uses – if I had to hurry to finish this painting then working around the wet paint on her face would have been tricky and I might have smeared it on accident. But if the “right” method hinders your personal connection to your work, makes you enjoy it less, and makes the process feel like a slog, then leave it behind and do whatever gives you that sense of connection. That connection, that desire to finish the piece and share it with the world, is often what will prevent burnout and artist block – at least that’s how I feel. Having to stifle myself and especially working on things that I can’t share, or don’t like enough to want to share, always makes me feel blocked and burned out faster than anything else I could do.

I don’t really care if it is childish to paint the faces first. I have been doing that since I started this piece and it’s been working fantastically for me. I also did it for approximately 200 pieces before I stopped painting the faces first and those pieces are the ones that I built my career on. I see each of my paintings as little stories and it’s hard to connect to a story that doesn’t have a main character, isn’t it?

This little story is sort of a self-portrait. No, the character isn’t me, but the hoard of books? Yep, that’s me. Her To Be Read list is probably as long as mine, and if I didn’t have a library in my home I’d probably be sitting on chairs made of all the books I haven’t read yet. As the weather turns cold and gray I relate more and more to this character. Little pumpkins from my garden dot the surfaces of my house, I miss the fireflies of summer, and if I had the shelf space I would probably go out and buy a list of books as long as my arm. Unfortunately even in my private library shelf space is running out and I am beginning to lose my closet space to the books I am reading currently. Perhaps I will have to give away some that I have read or maybe I will have to build more shelves on the remaining empty wall of the library.

The rest of this month will be spent working on some wintery paintings, some special things for Yule, and NaNoWriMo. Since I am currently taking it easy with paintings and giving myself more time to work on them, I decided I would take the time to do something that I always wanted to do and write a novel in November. I am on track as of this writing at 16% of the way through my novel. Only 20% of the people who attempt NaNoWriMo actually finish it, and I intend to be in that 20%, but I also intend to finish some paintings.

Hopefully I can do both and maybe add something to your TBR pile.


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