Jessie Raymond: Fear, self-doubt and a kitchen easel

I’ve always heard the phrase “tortured artist,” but I never quite understood what it meant until now.
I just finished my first painting.
Unlike many artists, who I assume express themselves to work out inner turmoil, I just needed something big to hang on the blank wall over our bed.
I had taken a couple of art classes in college, but I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in 30 years. Still, on a morning walk last spring, I had taken a nice photo I thought would be fun to paint. (Real landscape artists no doubt prefer to paint “en plein air” — French for “with gnats” — but I never claimed to be a real artist.)
I decided to paint on board rather than canvas, because we had boards. And I went with acrylics over watercolors or oils because I had a set of acrylic paints lying around from November, when I had made a papier-mâché cave for my grandson’s toy dinosaurs. Like Monet had, probably.
I went downtown and bought a fistful of paintbrushes and a black turtleneck. I was ready.
I laid a four-foot-long piece of primed birch plywood on the kitchen table (henceforth referred to as my “easel”), brought up the inspirational photo on my laptop and got started.
That’s a lie.
I stared at the board. I stared at the image. How do you start a painting?
I grabbed the computer and asked Google. And for the next two months, whenever I got stuck — listen, wispy clouds are tricky — I’d watch a YouTube video and learn a new technique on the fly. (Some techniques, such as what to do when you spill a cup of coffee on your painting, I figured out on my own.)
Painting was harder than I had expected. Trying to make my untrained hand render the picture I saw on the screen required concentration. And bravery. What if it turned out bad?
Plagued by self-doubt but also captivated by the process, I kept at it off and on. Sitting down for a session took real courage. I worried that if I didn’t meet my own expectations I’d be outed as a fraud by the Society of Real Artists.
I ended up postponing the final push until last weekend, when I decided that fear of failure was not a reason to quit, though it had always worked well for me in the past. Late Sunday morning I cleared the breakfast dishes off my easel and set up the painting stuff.
Approaching the nearly finished work with more apprehension than eagerness, I whispered the very words Michelangelo was rumored to have said each morning at the Sistine Chapel: “Here goes nothing.”
I commenced on the part I feared most, the foreground details. I applied paint in what I hoped was a grassy, wildflowerish way. Sometimes the brush strokes looked convincing. Sometimes they didn’t. But I kept working until I noticed, to my shock, it was 2:30.
I had painted right through lunch.
I don’t know how real artists know when a painting is done. I knew this one was done, though; partly because I felt I could add no more, but mostly because I was out of yellow.
In a fog, I rinsed the brush in my coffee. I put the tablecloth back on the easel and tried to remember what day it was. Didn’t I have errands to run? Wasn’t I supposed to be somewhere?
At that moment, I understood the magic of the artistic process: It had transported me to a different level of consciousness.
I quoted Michelangelo again: “Holy crap, that’s freaky.”
Once I got my bearings, I stepped back and looked at the painting. It might never generate a bidding war at Christie’s, but it wasn’t bad. The Society of Real Artists would have to pick on someone else.
I can’t get over one thing: The finished painting doesn’t reveal the underlying energy that went into it, the all-consuming fervor that occupied my mind and body over many weeks and challenged my assumptions about my creative abilities. It thrilled me.
But I’m scared to do another one. If I keep allowing my mind to run free in that artistic otherworld where vision becomes reality and time is meaningless, I’m afraid I might turn into a true tortured artist.
If you recall, I got so engrossed in this project I missed a meal.
If that’s not torture, I don’t know what is.

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