Going to the Y
“If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”
~ Edward Hopper
No, not the YMCA. Although, exercising those muscles is undoubtedly good for you and something I should do more often!
Today I’m answering a question some of you have asked me: Why do I paint?
Ask a room full of artists why they paint, and you’ll get a room full of different answers. For me, the answer requires a form of non-physical exercise: introspection. The truth is I have a rich inner life. I spend a lot of time inside my own head. To answer this question though, requires peeling back a number of layers because there are nuances and multiple overlapping reasons to enjoy painting. The bottom line is: it’s both for me, and for you. Here are a few of my reasons why.
Building Humble Confidence
One of the strongest motivators that drive all actions is the desire to feel appreciated. I’m no different; it feels good when people like my work or when a piece wins an award. Artists are often told that they have ‘natural talent’. Perhaps there is a little of that, but a lot of it comes from hours and hours of study and practice. For me, that is one of the best things about the creative process!
Our minds create the images we see, by interpreting information. I love the challenge of making my paintings include enough of the expected information (shadows, values, lines, etc.) to allow the eyes of viewers to see and interpret the subject as something more than ‘just a painting’. At the same time, creating a successful painting is not always easy, all the challenges and failures that are a natural part of the process provide a certain level of humbling experience as well.
Painting teaches patience. Finding subjects to paint requires taking the time to become more observant so the fleeting wonder in a moment or scene is not missed. Additionally, all paintings go through an ‘awkward stage’. The trick is to patiently stick with it until you get past it to the beauty waiting on the other side. Your mind knows what it wants the painting to look like; it takes time and persistence to work toward achieving that outcome. Sometimes the destination is never reached – so lessons in acceptance are great teachers as well. For me, that’s a good thing as it helps to wear down those sharp edges on my perfectionistic tendencies. Famous painter Bob Ross said there are no mistakes, only “happy little accidents”. These occurrences do a great job of helping to learn to accept things as they are and move on.
Building Problem Solving Skills
I love puzzles. I always have. With painting, even when trying our best, sometimes pieces don’t turn out as originally planned. Changes in the light, the limitations of your palette, and plain old lack of experience and technique mean that what you start out trying to achieve sometimes doesn’t come to life the way that you expected. From composition to color choices to fixing ‘mistakes’, a painting comes together by solving a series of problems to get the blank canvas to reflect the subject and mood desired. Although this can be frustrating and disappointing, it turns out that this can actually be good for you! Unexpected results have two benefits: for starters, you quickly learn to deal with disappointment, and in time (often through repeated error) to realize that when one door closes, another opens. You learn to adapt and find creative solutions to the problems the painting presents, and this means that thinking outside the box becomes second nature to the painter.
Improving Memory, Concentration and Learning
Painting is immersive and is a great workout for the brain. Painting exercises the parts of the brain responsible for memory and concentration. People who regularly practice creative activities such as painting are shown to have less chance of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, not only is painting making me feel better in the moment, it’s also looking after my health and safeguarding brain functions for the future.
It is a wonderful thing to learn something new - at any age. When you are young, life is an adventure, and everything seems new because there is always something to learn. It’s marvelous that you can still have that experience as an adult. I find painting offers me seemingly endless new challenges to tackle. Learning something new actually changes your brain. Science shows that as you practice new skills, the myelin (white matter of the brain) becomes denser. The more dense your myelin, the better you learn. So, learning new painting skills actually helps you learn other things faster too.
Artists often find themselves in a state of flow while painting; so immersed in something, so focused, completely separated from any distracting thoughts, and fully present in the moment. When you come out of this state, you often find hours have passed without even being aware of time. It’s an incredible feeling. And did you know that it activates the same pathways in the brain as love?
Improving Imagination and Decision Making
When you paint, you open the door to your imagination. The question you keep returning to is what if… What if that tree wasn’t there? What if she were wearing a tiara? Once you start your imagination going, you might be surprised at what develops. The more you use it, the more imaginative you become. Once you have more ideas, you are faced with choices.
Some of us are better at making decisions than others. At times, this is a question of trusting your own judgement. I admit I have long been prone to analysis paralysis. How marvelous that when painting, I get to exercise my decision-making muscle on low consequence choices, learn to come out of my comfort zone and make spontaneous choices.
Working with My Hands
I must admit I’m a techno geek. I love technology. I remember the days before the internet, and I love new opportunities to learn, connect, and more easily manage most aspects of daily life that a tech driven world offers. A good bit of my non-painting time is spent in tech-based activities, and I love that I can theoretically get pretty much anything I need at the press of a button.
But…. since you can now so easily buy whatever you need, we tend to work so much less with our hands. Whether it is baking the daily bread, sewing the clothes you need to wear or writing a letter (you know with…. um, paper and a pencil). We used to use our hands so much more. And there is a therapeutic tactile pleasure to those activities that we no longer find in the everyday. Our hands were meant to be used to construct, repair and create. Neuroscientists and psychologists have found that meaningful handwork boosts mood and that decreased hand use is linked to depression. Fortunately, I have always had “busy hands”. Sitting still without doing ‘something’ is uncomfortable for me. Even when just sitting around watching TV, I’m always doing something: stitching, sketching, sorting, and organizing. Painting gives me another great tactile outlet.
The enhanced observational skills you build while learning to paint make you better able to notice all things – large and small. Awareness leads to appreciation. Appreciation leads to gratitude for the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live. As you can tell from my paintings, I love the minute details in things. Painting makes you appreciate the delicate beauty in the tiniest of things.
Practicing Mindfulness through Painting
Painting is a meditative act – it takes you out of yourself, freeing you from physical limitations. This means focusing only on the present and the artwork in front of you, freeing your mind from daily worries and intrusive thoughts. It’s just color and shade, and “how on earth do I do justice to those incredible eyes or that gorgeous flower?” Art in any form, whether while creating or observing, reduces the stress hormone called cortisol. It also releases the feel-good hormones called endorphins which help combat stress and pain. By letting you enjoy a sense of fulfillment, it transforms you into a more positive, well-rounded human being. Art can be a healing act, a balm for the soul and the mind.
Connecting with Others
In our online world, especially after retirement, it can be hard to get many opportunities for interacting and maintaining connection with other people. Art has given me a great outlet for this as I’ve become very involved in the local art league (Crooked Creek Art League). It gives me many ways to meet new people and make new friends. Go to CrookedCreekArt.org if you'd like to learn more about this talented group.
Finally, I see so much beauty around us and I want to share it with others. For most of my life, I downplayed or ignored my underlying desire to create because I considered it an “extra”, a luxury. My thoughts went something like this: “Since I am not going to make a profession out of this, I should not invest much time and energy into it”. I have always dabbled (largely in needlework during my working career), but never really dedicated any serious time or energy to my creative side until after I retired from my professional career.
So maybe the question isn’t Why I paint? But, Why NOT?
We are still in the thick of show season in the artworld. I have my art in a number of shows currently. You can always see the list of current and upcoming shows and exhibitions on my website. Go by and see my artwork in person at any of the exhibit locations if you get a chance.
Also, you can see me painting live at the Chapin Open House event at Palmetto Fine Arts in Chapin on Saturday November 5 from 11am-4pm. Get directions HERE.
That’s it for now. I'm finishing a detailed commission piece today (it's a surprise Christmas present for one of my favorite collectors) and getting started on a series of small Christmas pieces I've had in mind. More to come on that!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts. I know this was a long one so, an extra thanks for staying with me to the end! Apparently, I had a lot to say about this question. I promise to go back to a shorter message with more paintings and fewer words with the next one.
Until next time,
Please help me share my art with more people!
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