Day before yesterday, I was working on a painting. A proper easel painting of a still life, as if I was Paul Cezanne or Wayne Thiebaud or someone. It was quite idyllic, a mild breeze coming in the studio door, hounds slumbering on the rug, Badly Drawn Boy playing on Spotify.
I had sort of blundered into the painting as if it was just another page in my sketchbook. I had a bunch of dirty breakfast dishes piled on the table and I plunked a sheet of cardboard on my easel and started making marks. The fact that I had just plowed into it kept haunting me, a little monkey voice in my head reminding me that I’m not Jan Davidszoon de Heem and I wasn’t even painting on a canvas, for crissakes. Before I had even put the second snausage of paint on the palette, a large percentage of me was convinced it was futile.
Nonetheless, soon the whole picture was covered with a first layer of paint. It all felt a little top heavy, the things in the foreground seemed distorted for no good reason, and my palette just seemed to contain shades of brown. I was tempted to stop thinking of it as a painting and get out a big Sharpie and start drawing on top of the paint with black lines that might somehow fix it.
But a little donkey in my head kept on painting. It refused to listen and just kept traveling back and forth to the dishes, then back at the palette, then up to the painting and back to the dishes, ‘round and ‘round.
Every so often I stepped back and walked out into the garden, listened to the doves that loiter on our neighbors’ phone lines, ate a tangerine off the tree, then came back and was pleasantly surprised. It was starting to look more like, well, a pile of dirty dishes. Fair enough.
Mid-afternoon, Jack texted me, attaching the half-dozen brilliant paintings he’d just done. I fired back a snapshot of my easel and grumbled, ”I am wrestling with a shitty painting at the moment.” He texted back encouragement and support — but what does he know about painting, he’s a kid.
At one point, I got a bit highlight mad and started putting little flecks of white on everything that could be even vaguely reflective. Maybe years of watercoloring have starved me for the luxury of using white paint, but soon my painting was a snow storm and I had to rework it all back down.
The most notable moment, and the reason I even thought to write about it today, was a moment when I was painting the corner of the teapot and the paint I had managed to get on the sleeve of my hoodie sudden slalomed across the painting and left an ugly magenta streak across what was supposed to be white china. And at that moment (and it was a moment, so fast, so subconscious), I felt my thumb and index finger and some glinting little part of my brain simultaneously type and say, “Command Z”.
Command Z. That’s the keyboard shortcut for ‘undo’.
What a scary moment, on several levels. The most obvious being that, despite my new creative odyssey into my garage/studio, I still find myself tapping away at the keys of this infernal machine too many hours a day as I have done since 1983, and I have clearly been reprogrammed like some bloody pigeon in a box in a Psych 101 lab.
But on another level, despite all of the conflict between my mental monkey and my mental donkey, I don’t like to fail. I don’t want to make mistakes. I just want to create effortlessly, perfect paintings with very little work or thought.
The painting I ended up with, for better or worse, was not what I set out to do. In fact, I’m not sure what it was I had in mind when I set up my easel but I hadn’t imagined this. And again, for better or worse, this painting, like most art worth spending most of the day doing, is a constant negotiation between mistakes and rethinking. You draw something too big or too blue, or your line’s too fat or too straight or too just wrong, and you’ve gotta just keep going, donkey head down, until it gets better. You come up with a solution and the work gets a bit better and richer and more interesting. You don’t just drive from A to B. You zig and zag deep into adventure and discovery.
But Command Z robs you of that possibility.
Bottom line, despite my weaknesses. I don’t want to undo my mistakes, I want to triumph over them. Because the keyboard of my life doesn’t have an escape key or a delete key or control or command or return.
I blunder on and eventually get to places I’d never planned. And that’s no mistake.