Command Z

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.

after breakfast painting


  1. Matt

    Dan it came out great- I love the way you treat the light here, it is like one of the old Masters. Donkey on!

  2. Sharon Gorberg

    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.

    Yeah don’t we all!!! Love the painting particularly the colors. Let’s see are you setting out to render a photographic representation? Knowing your work I don’t think so. One painting amidst the many that you will be doing… Donkey on master!

  3. bohemianopus

    I would pay a bazillion dollars for this painting (if I had a bazillion dollars). I love it. It is so full of life, so honest and real. It makes me feel happy and grateful for such ordinary things as dirty dishes.

  4. Dragnfli

    It looks rather Cezann-ish to me. I wish I could go back and take painting classes again. When I took oil painting in college, everything had to look photo realistic to me and I couldn’t make it happen. I got frustrated and gave up.

    • dannygregory

      Why not just start painting? I’ve never taken any classes, I just pick up a brush and do it.

      • Dragnfli

        Because, excuses. For starters, I would have to go buy all new supplies. Except a pallet knife, I think I still have it. I have a friend who teaches sometimes and I’ll try to get into his next class. Until then, I rely on photography for my artistic expression.

  5. CL McBeth-Collins

    Timely for me today as I struggle with the next step on a project. I’d love to trust the zigging and the zagging into adventure and discovery. The energy and movement in this painting is palpable. It is alive!

  6. nada

    I rather miss and sometimes think of the spotlight/search function in my room and the world around :D

  7. Arja Speelman

    Just what I’ve been experiencing lately! Thanks for reminding me we learn from our mistakes and they are always worth it. Your painting is great. Always amazed that you can make something interesting out of dirty breakfast dishes.

  8. Karen Rand Anderson

    Just spot-on. I ended up with an accidental big bold streak of turquoise across a recent landscape. Excellent mistake which I decided to leave in. Best part of the painting, in my mind.. isn’t it interesting that even when we try, we can’t recreate those “mistakes” which occur outside of our conscious control? Sometimes they are blessings in disguise, and add verve, energy, and an excitement that can’t be duplicated. Onward to the next adventure/painting, sans “command Z”.

  9. maryg

    Hi Danny I love the picture. It’s a very festive colorful painting. I hope your breakfast was just as lovely.

  10. ann @ studiohyde

    This is a great painting, make no mistake, in my humble opinion it’s a good one. Lights against darks, darks against lights, it says what it is.

  11. Mary

    LuuuuuuuuuuuvLeee! Both the discovery inside of you and the painting itself!

  12. Janine

    That is just gorgeous; it couldn’t have come out better if you’d planned it. :0)
    And this post is giving me a lot of food for thought about things I might’ve previously thought of as mistakes. They are actually clues and opportunities. I just have to remember to let go of all of my pre-conceived ideas when I start to draw and let it take me wherever it’s going to take me. Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. Bobbi Rubinstein

    Newbie here. I’m signed up for your new online classes. Can’t wait. Writing and photography are my focus but I’ve always wanted to learn to draw. Reading about your monkey/donkey battles is really helpful, especially that you still have this struggle at your level of accomplishment!

  14. Maxine rothman

    It feels to me like it might be time to stop saying ‘garage/studio’ and just say studio…own it…of course I am still working on this myself…how about a challenge?

  15. Wendy @ the Late Start Studio

    I was wondering what I was going to read because I recognised Command Z. When I read what you had done with your sleeve I wondered it you would do it again, a sort of Control Y action. But no, you obviously revised and wrote a whole new paragraph into the painting’s story. Great plot twist and an appealing outcome. Hope you find a publisher for it soon Danny.

    Tell me Danny, what’s it like getting up and painting all day? The good, the bad and the ugly? One of these days I’m going to either have to give away most of the materials I have or do just that!

  16. Laurie

    Hi Danny,
    I discovered you through your book “An Illustrated Journey” and as a result picked up a pen and paper again and have not stopped since. It’s been a great rediscovery, though frustrating yet easy at the same time, I think you understand. Anyway, I had to say thank you! You sharing your experience has reminded me that drawing is ok and necessary for me and other like minded people. I enjoy so much your writing and art. Keep it up.

  17. Oscar Solis

    I sometimes think Command Z may well be one of the worst things that ever happened to creativity. It takes away the ability to just plow ahead.

  18. CC

    I really like it! When I paint something, & screw it up royal, I learn a lot from the mistakes I made. Then I give the painting to my mom. She likes everything I paint! ;) But yours turned out fantastic!

  19. kin

    you are as skilled with words as you are with a paintbrush x

  20. anitadavies

    I could listen to your typing all day, such a way with words that even your still life items are having a conversation!!!

  21. Melissa Woodland

    This is the reason that I can never finish digital art – too many possibilities. And working in layers? Going back 20 steps in your history? Can you say “commitment issues?”

  22. Payal

    I really love this painting! :) and what I really love is the fact that the monkey inside your head kept at it! I have bought canvas and oil paints and tried to paint something but gave up because I was afraid to make a mess :P for now I’m sticking to watercolor though..I like how you create the balance of light and shadows which I am yet to master :)

  23. Mieke

    Thank God you didn’t do the dishes. Keep working and writing!

  24. Garland Goode

    Hi Danny: I love your painting! And your writing! The idea that it is through mistakes that we grow confirms my belief that there are no real mistakes and that we are exactly where we need to be right here and right now. I look forward to seeing more of your wonderful, dare I say, “work”! Rock on, Danny!

  25. Darlene Campbell

    I was hoping, as I read through, and feeling jealous because you plucked a tangerine off your backyard tree to eat, that you would show the painting. Great painting. And I think the ah ha moment is that you have to push on through the thoughts and simply keep the brush moving. Now go out and buy yourself a really nice canvas.

  26. Kathy Ericksen

    Compelling and honest word. Art creates vulnerability and a desire to be loved and understood and really it’s about the journey. Thanks for sharing.

  27. acorncrafts

    Sometimes I wish there was an undo button for life…some things I would like to do over…better or not go there at all…Great piece this.

  28. Holly Herlocker

    I try to “hit” in daily life command + z all the time. It feels almost scary, a little surreal in the how-did-AI-get-in-my-reality? kinda way. It’s nice, I guess, to know I’m not the only one that does this.

  29. Gina Sismilich

    I am doing an online class – Studying under the Masters – it looks a bit like Cezanne and a bit like Matisse (duh Matisse was inspired by Cezanne!!!) but a lot like something unique. I like the painting a lot – love the bold colors and the play of light (and I wouldn’t have left a comment unless I did like the painting – LOL)

  30. Milada

    Beautiful post!
    That’s what I like about paintings – this zig zag journey, the fact that all the strokes and all the steps and therefore all the time and energy dedicated to create that piece are somehow stored in it…
    A lot of my good ideas happen like this – by accident or when I try to correct some previous mistake :-)

  31. Margaret Abbott

    Oh, this sounds familiar!
    I carry a little 3×5 sketchbook even while driving. The other day at a light I saw something I wanted to capture. Camera was in the back seat (darn, darn.) Like you, for a tiny moment I thought of holding my open sketchbook up to take a picture. I’ve been doing iPad art too so computer / camera / sketchpad signals got crossed. Humans are so adaptable!

  32. Owen Swain

    Oh so familiar.
    And, I share you passion for letting things be.
    My own maxim runs, “Let mistakes be takes.”

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