Half the Battle



Most Mondays, especially after painting at a wedding or two over the weekend, I like to reset– think about the work I want to do for the week, take frequent walks, and make lists. Today, I started scrolling though paintings from a couple years ago, and I came upon this abstract piece I had forgotten about.

It lit a little fire in me, and I think I want to revisit this horizon line idea in some future pieces. But it’s been so long, I feel this nagging fear– what if I can’t do it? What if I need to move forward not backward?

And then, just like that, I remember, to my great relief, that this is ART. This is paint and canvas and simple little knives. There are few shoulds or have tos. There are many cans and wills and mights and coulds. Progress isn’t linear, moving around is more important than moving forward.

We will see what happens on the canvas later today, but half the battle is overcoming fear– so I’ll consider myself halfway there.

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Day 31. You do not have to be good.


“Another Beginning” 12x12, oil on canvas 

This morning’s weather is a bit sad. The rain isn’t pounding, not threatening. Just a little grating, making soft piles of red mud in the backyard as I watch through the window.

This is the thought I keep having: how is it that after 31 days, that after seven years, I am no closer to knowing? 

Knowing what? I asked myself the very same thing. And that I don’t know either.

This is the hope: painting is not about knowing or achieving something eventually, even though I think of it that way often. There is no finish line, no trophy, no box to check. But maybe, hopefully, painting is the thing that soothes the uncertainty– that makes all the not knowing just a little bit more manageable. I think I do this 31 in 31 every year partly because it asks me to “just be.” Asks me to paint like it’s as natural to my day as eating or sleeping, brushing my teeth, or sipping coffee. Asks me to make painting an essential thing and in being essential, less profound. But more important. 

Often, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem that starts: “You do not have to be good.” and I thought about it again this morning when I was listening to the rain, looking at the stack of paintings I made this month but didn’t post, the paintings that in some way or another fell short. Which, I realize, is all of them. I do not mean that to be self deprecating. There would be no art in the world at all if falling short were not allowed. You do not have to be good, Oliver says. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert. You just have to be. 

You still belong.

You do not have to be good. The whole poem suggests you are good. You don’t have to be. You can’t help but be.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

To make something in the world is to be a part of it. 

I’m a little sad this morning. Maybe that it’s “over”; maybe that I didn’t make the grand epiphanic painting I always think is lingering out there somewhere, a stroke or two away. 

But even through these quiet raindrops, which, turns out, are the perfect setting for my morning, I’m celebrating this month, these small paintings, the people who took this journey with me, and day in and day out, inspired me more than they could possibly know. It has been a pleasure taking up space with you– announcing our place in “the family of things.” 

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Day 30. Amounting to Something

“Breath of Blue” 16x20, oil on canvas

I painted this one almost simultaneously with yesterday’s. I had them side by side on the easel and went back and forth between the two. 

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going with this one. I didn’t know if the bird would reappear at all or if it would be completely dissected into those glorious shapes of color. 

I love abstract work, but I find it the most challenging to create. There’s some underlying fear of applying so much paint and not knowing if it will amount to anything. But this whole month I’ve been trying to reframe what “amount to anything” means– trying to put the power of “amounting to something” in the quiet of the process, the joy of discovery, the inhibition of play and not solely in the final product. 

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Day 29. Orange you glad you went to Target

“Bird’s View” 16x20, oil on canvas

I went to Target to look for a mirror to hang in my bathroom. Sometimes when I pass by the home decor section, I do this snobby thing where I turn my nose up at all the mass produced art. But this time there was a print of a bright blue peacock against a coral background and the colors, well, they were just so bold and lovely I could not even bring myself to scoff.  In fact, I think I’ll swear off scoffing.

When I got home, I thought, how can I, too, use those bright blues and oranges that sparked some joy in me? Today’s painting is the result– part representational, part abstract. The bird part got me started, gave me something concrete and specific to grasp onto so I didn’t get lost in endless possibilities and then, having already something solid, I freed myself to play with color and shape. I started another, more abstract version at the same time. In that one, the form of the bird and the focus on just shape and color is more blurred. But I’ll leave the final result for tomorrow.



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Day 28. Rule Breaker

“Follow you anywhere” 11x14, oil on canvas

I’ve talked a good bit about “rules” this month– namely, that I’m working on breaking some of my more rigid ones. Hi, my name is Denise and for all my all natural, spiritual, mantra-saying, kale-eating, yoga-doing, wild hair a flowin’ habits, I am still very much a  rule follower, people pleaser, high expectation setter, others comparerer extraordinaire. If there were recovery groups for such things, I’d be the first to arrive and keep a notebook of all the rules. 

Usually my 31 in 31 has this rule– no wedding paintings or commissions allowed for the daily posts. I don’t know why exactly, except that maybe I don’t consider those my “real” work.

“Real” work is a silly notion, isn’t it? I’m working on it. Step one: walks on the beach are the very “real” work of being inspired, or clearing my head. Step two: sketching, doodling, and other forms of art play are the very real work of figuring things out. Step three: commissions absolutely count.

Today’s painting is a commission from a special collector who gives my paintings frequently as gifts. She’s the easiest person to work with and gives me images that I truly love. If all commissions were like hers, I would take them on more frequently. This painting features someone she calls their “adopted grandma.” I don’t know the story yet, but I think this painting kind of tells it. Yes?

Tell me, friends, what’s a rule you just might break today?

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