The Challenge Of Painting Big: How To Face The Blank Canvas
I did something recently I don’t typically do.
I took on the challenge of creating a 5 ft x 6 ft painting for a southern collector who loves my black & white gestural work and wanted something in that vein.
I don’t usually work this large. I had to order folded canvas because the largest stretched canvas doesn’t fit in my Toyota Highlander. The largest piece it can handle is 48″ x 60″.
Another issue was working outside on the ground because I didn’t have a board on my easel large enough to accommodate the 60″ x 72″ canvas. Actually, it turned out to be 80″ x 84″….this size in order to have plenty of selvage to be able to stretch it later.
Staring At The Canvas
So for days after the canvas arrived I’d eye it in the corner of the studio but make no move to open the package. I knew the ritual…figure out the dimensions, cut the canvas, lay out a tarp, gather the tools, prepare the paint and begin.
Except that…having no idea what I was going to create…no image of what the result would be…and no assurance that anyone, including myself, would like it…
What started out as a few days of staring at the canvas turned into two weeks of avoiding it altogether!
I noticed my neck started to tighten up…and headaches appeared.
The Perils Of Creating
I knew what this meant.
I was afraid.
I was doubting myself.
I was second guessing everything.
I was procrastinating.
And then I reminded myself that it’s just pigment and canvas…that I can change it if I don’t like it…that sometimes the hardest thing is just starting…
And I remembered that the biggest change mathematically is from zero to one, from nothing to something.
And to just start somewhere, anywhere.
There was something comforting and encouraging about that thought.
One morning something shifted…
One morning, I imagined the feeling of activating the canvas by creating many painting ‘starts’ where it doesn’t matter what marks or moves I make…rather, it’s about breathing life onto the surface of the painting with stream of consciousness gesture, mark making and energy.
Saying to myself “let’s create a start” was liberating because I remembered that it’s not about the outcome of the painting but rather about trusting myself, allowing my gesture and energy to express itself and realizing that it’s fundamentally about creating from an attitude of experimentation…not knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen.
And I realized that as artists we face these perils over and over…the fears inherent in creating. And the recurring theme is finally trusting ourselves as we grapple with every single struggle.
Wrestling down self doubt, inner criticism, perfectionism, second guessing, overthinking, procrastination, resignation, and so forth…we realize that the most alive, meaningful, and astonishing work doesn’t come from trying too hard.
The work that’s wondrous, alive and astonishing comes from the paradox of both caring and letting go.
It comes from playfulness, intuition, presence, exploration and experimentation.
It comes from trusting and believing in yourself.
It comes from finally expressing you.
P.S. I’d love to hear about your experiences of facing a blank canvas and breathing life into it. What challenges show up for you when you start paintings? How do you feel about working big? If you’re getting started with abstract painting and want to explore and experiment and learn how to loosen up and express yourself with intuitive, gestural mark making, check out my online course Activating The Canvas. You can read about it HERE.
Also published on Medium.