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The Agony of Defeat and the Thrill Of Victory

What do we do when confronted by our limitations; our less than stellar places; the places where we don’t excel? A couple weeks ago I attempted oil paintings of my children. Always an area fraught with tension and angst. I have only ever painted them once before, as a surprise birthday present for my husband, who poses and enormous challenge to me when gift giving time comes about. But that year I thought I had it! After delaying the inevitable by spending ridiculous amounts of time on the drawing, I finally picked up a paintbrush as time ticked rapidly towards the day. As much trepidation as I had then, having never painted a portrait of a ‘real person’ before, I was somehow simultaneously buoyed on by my lack of options. Plan B girl had allowed herself NO plan B this time.

When my doubts surfaced and my finger-wagging critic droned on incessantly, I comforted myself with the thought that the effort was gift enough; after all they were our children and surely whatever the painting looked like it would be deeply appreciated (if not ever shown). Well, approximately one month later, I took my lovingly finished painting to the framer, himself an artist, who not so subtly suggested that I take my painting home, look at it in a mirror and make whatever ‘adjustments’ proved necessary. Anxiety through the roof! I had walked into the building filled with pride, presenting my masterpiece to be framed quite expensively, I might add, and in minutes this “expert” had doused me with ice water, causing me to doubt myself. I began to view my painting with judgmental eyes. I had allowed him to undermine all my hard work and worse, having identified that 'necessary adjustments' needed to be made, he refused to so much as give me a hint.

Didn’t he realize how long I had spent getting the painting to where I was happy to gift it? After all, I could clearly see my beautiful children’s faces smiling back at me. I had made so many discoveries and had solved so many problems along the way that by the end of the painting I felt like I had earned my place in some rarefied group of painters who had made a recognizable portrait painting. Hadn’t I?

Well my experience that day taught me a lot. When the painting returned to me framed beautifully, I stood it back on the easel and looked at it again trying to see it the way the Expert had. But my first look caused such a sensation in my body, a warm heat that started in my heart region and spread slowly and warmly throughout; that I put my mirror away and simply enjoyed looking, marveling at what I had created and soon forgot the Expert’s not so subtle insinuations. I loved it! And I would give it with pride. This is not to say that I did not see that there was room for improvement, but I decided I could live with the imperfections. Well, in the end, my husband loved the portrait and loved it enough to display it in his office where he tells me it receives astonished praise from clients who didn’t know his wife was ‘an artist’! Take that Mr. Expert!

But was that the end of the story? Sadly no, because what I didn’t know then was that although I had brought myself back from the brink of self-loathing at my weak artistic ability, the Expert had managed to plant a seed of doubt that had taken root so firmly that I resisted even thinking about portrait painting again for a very long time. And the next time, I shyly attempted a tiny piece that I was sure would never see the light of day. After that, nothing! Until four months ago when I decided to again attempt portraits of my children, which I hoped would hang in our home. This time I made individual sketches on canvas and planned to paint them with a painting knife, a technique that I love. The drawings proved difficult as I was sorely out of practice having retired from realistic drawing and painting several years before. But I was determined and stuck with it. Eventually, they were done and then it happened, paralysis! I couldn’t bring myself to start painting. I wasn’t good enough. I mentally criticized the drawings allowing my critic free reign. After some time, I reluctantly smeared some paint on and was horrified by the result! It was worse than I feared. Paralysis again! 

Weeks turned into months without me touching them. I viewed my disastrous first layers and was duly chastised. But somewhere in the midst of all that self-flagellation was a core of reluctant desire. I wanted to do this. What’s the worse that could happen? I wouldn’t like the paintings? I would have to start over maybe many times? There would be many ‘necessary adjustments’ that would have to be made? And?

I placed the painting of my daughter back on the easel, mixed some paint, grabbed my painting knife and began. I stood back to view what I had done and my heart sank. It was awful! I went at it again trying to make it better, breathing to keep myself calm. Stepped back, no better! Crest fallen, I doused the whole thing with solvent and obliterated my failure. I was about to give up when I realized something. Before my critic had surfaced to yell at me, I had been having a blast! Every aspect of the adventure had been fun. Even the familiar pungent odour of the oil paints was welcomed. So what was I fretting about? Wasn’t the experience of joy the reason why I painted? I looked at the now destroyed image of my daughter and resolved to return to her soon. I picked up the painting of my son, turned the volume on my music up and started in with renewed energy.

Moment by moment the painting transformed before me. I was out of my head and simply back to my happy place allowing the painting to dictate to me what it needed. I painted fast, wet into wet and in a couple of hours when I stepped back I felt the familiar warmth again starting at my heart-centre and radiating to every part of my being. I was happy. Were there areas in need of necessary adjustments? Absolutely! But there would probably always be. I was making a painting, an expression of my inner self, of my love for both my children and my art. Perfection was never the goal. Why had I allowed myself to be derailed? I reflected a moment on the ease with which the judgments of others can sometimes mirror the secret judgments we harbor ourselves. Right then I made a vow to allow my imperfect painting to remind me the next time I’m crushed by the weight of my own inadequacy that my imperfection is perfect enough!

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