Facing the Blank Page

It happened again. The blank sheet of beautiful, white watercolor paper stared me in the face, daring me to transform it into a masterpiece. After going to the Celebration of the Arts in Scottsdale last month, I’ve been looking forward to transitioning my art studio from the winter work of pottery to the summer work of painting.

Seeing the work in Scottsdale stirred my creative juices, sending new ideas swirling around my inner landscape, waiting to be tested. That word turns out to be a landmine – more on that later.

My first step was to prepare the paper with a medium that allows me to both put paint down and lift paint up. The paper curled, created ripples and valleys that made it impossible to use. I solved that problem by rewetting it and drying it under pressure.

Now I had a beautiful, flat, ready space on which to unleash my vision and create the masterpiece floating around inside of me. I froze.

I felt the pressure and I also felt the temptation to run away from the pressure.

There was a time where this would have been the end, because my fear of failure and ambition to be perfect would have caused me to put the page away until I developed more “skill.” While gathering my materials, I found a painting I started 15 years ago that had been set aside in a similar moment of self-protection.

No one ever died from making bad art, but you wouldn’t know it from the way I feared taking the next step.

Sometime after that never-finished painting went by the wayside, I wrote an article called The Secret to Better. The core message of the article centered on better ways to think about mistakes. I’ve been on a journey to change my relationships with mistakes and pressure ever since. The principles in this article helped me tremendously over the years– and lately, I have found even more pieces to the puzzle.

This time, I have frames. Not picture frames – I’m many, many steps away from putting a frame on this picture. No, I’m talking about a mental tool that both keeps me present and moves me towards that end goal. I’m breaking the process into frames. Much like new high-definition cameras can break video into more and more frames per second, I can break the process into smaller frames that make up the process of getting from here to there.

The more frames I choose to use, the more choice points I have.

It’s one thing to know what you don’t want; it’s a whole different thing to actually change to what you do want. Facing the blank page, with a vision floating around inside of me, I want to snap my fingers and have the picture appear. But doing that would cheat me of the process.

More importantly, that desire comes from an assumption embedded in my own upbringing and also in our culture. The assumption is so deep and so ingrained, it’s practically invisible. My conditioned way to see the challenge is to treat it as a test. The assumption goes something like this: “If only I can get what’s in my head on this paper, then I will get the A, pass the test and I will be ok.” As if some imaginary teacher/approver/artist was standing over my shoulder at all times!

Lately, I’m coming to realize that I can see this type of pressure as a catalyst. It’s not the outcome that matters. The outcome is simply a way to put me in the heat of the fire. Solving problems throughout the process is where the action is. In other words, it is IN doing the painting that I will let go of old assumptions, thoughts and beliefs that don’t serve me. The painting may or may not come out as I envision it. However, if I choose to treat this painting as a catalyst, rather than a test, I will reward myself for slight progress in every step.

Even if the outcome doesn’t turn out according to my current imagination, I will have added to my personal repertoire. And that’s why I do it.

I’m off to my studio to take the next step.

What types of pressure cause you to freeze? What hidden assumptions do you have about mistakes? Where would breaking things into smaller frames offer you more choices?