Art for when things go astray

I got some news today that I wasn’t hoping for, and after a year of so many things going astray and not turning out how I imagined or planned for, it just felt particularly big. The losses of this year do feel like they are piling one on top of another, magnifying which little time to recover. At least sometimes that’s how I feel, but the general tenor I glean is that it is this way for many people.

So, I came home, and after we had dinner, I recused myself to try a color meditation I had seen demonstrated the other day, but hadn’t yet tried. With a set of watercolors and a piece of paper, hold it upright, pick an edge, and start adding droplets of water in one spot. Put some paint on your brush and add the paint and more water to that growing drop until poof! The surface tension is overcome and the drop starts falling.

Heather's hand is holding a postcard-sized piece of paper with green, yellow, and blue drops of wet watercolor paint running down it.
I picked a limited palette of colors I knew would bleed well together, but for the purposes of this as a spiritual discipline, there’s no need to constrain yourself in that way if you don’t like!

The process

As the water flowed down the paper, I played at tilting it to and fro, in an attempt to influence the direction the droplet chose. Sometimes that worked, and one time I lightly tapped the bottom in such a way to make the droplet skip a little before rejoining the paper! That was my happiest surprise in pretending to direct the water. You can, if you wish, paint the water on first in the path you hope it will take, although that is not a sure technique for achieving what you want. And I found I could never find where I’d started that invisible path, so I’d guess and the water would just do what it wanted, anyway. Eventually, I filled up this orientation of the page, and had to set it aside before dropping water from one of the short edges. So I did another one!

A similar drop painting using warmer colors and a highlight of dark green.
I selected sienna, ochre, red, and a highlight color, green.

There’s really no right or wrong way to do this. I loaded one water path with more pigment and let it start down a little ways. Another path ran into a neighbor, and started bleeding into it. I’m a fan of the contrasting lengths of the different paths. Then, I had to set that one aside to dry for awhile before I could add more. (OK, that’s not true, because there are no rules, but I decided I wanted to let these paths dry mostly before adding paint on a perpendicular edge because it would risk changing these paths further and I liked the idea of having them somewhat set for a little bit)

After drying, I chose another edge, and I added more paint, including a new color to my cool-tones card.

On edge two, I got some fun and unpredictable interactions with the first set of paths, as well as some new ways for paint to spread and search for the easiest route downwards. Ultimately, this project isn’t about the finished product. It’s about letting go and letting things around you happen. That’s a scary and vulnerable place to be. Especially with creative pursuits. I recently read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. It is fantastic, but the one citation I made is her discussion of “creativity scars.” It comes in a section discussing organizational culture and the frequent or infrequent use of shame in the culture. In schools, particularly: “One reason that I’m confident that shame exists in shchools is simply because 85 percent of the men and women we interviewed for the shame research could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves as learners. What makes this even more haunting is that approximately half of those recollections were what I refer to as creativity scars. The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or something creative.” (pp 189-199) This. Is. Devastating. I’m going to tackle this more in later blog posts, but I wanted it out in the open for this post in particular because according to Brown’s research, about 43% of the people who read this post will still think “I can’t do that” or “I can’t be an artist.” However you choose to try this out, you are doing it right, and it will be beautiful.

The reflection

In case you want to spend some time communing with your child’s watercolors before reflecting on it, I’ve grouped this post into two sections. 😉

Being an artist or a musician comes with a lot of practice and with practice comes a sense that we can control things. I think that turns “non-musicians”* and “non-artists”* off so often-the sense that because they “can’t control” what their voices or brushes do, they can’t be an artist or a musician… This exercise proves otherwise! But it also shows us more about letting go of control and letting creativity enter. I find it reminds me that sometimes those things I couldn’t have planned for are actually turning out really neat. And that my best laid plans don’t always turn out, and it works out just fine. By controlling what I could (color palette, what direction to turn the paper and when), I worked with the paint and the process and to make something that made me feel a little more free and a lot more relaxed. [*I still dislike this terminology]

For those of us that “don’t do vulnerability” (another Brené Brown quote), this is a very safe and very low-risk way to get out of the perfectionist paradigm (armor is her word). I’m fairly confident the worst you risk is a papercut (but I used heavy watercolor paper, so not really?). I don’t know of a single artist in history who found “the way” to make a drop of water flow perfectly down the canvas. That’s not a thing. The process is the goal, not the product, so what if you don’t like how the colors combined or the path went completely astray? That’s the whole point. Find the meaning in it. I can only tell you what I’m thinking of: you are master of your own creation here.

So yes, I got some upsetting news today. I had been making a plan and hoping for the best and was getting excited. But these little works are my color prayer tonight that God will set me back down on the paper in just the right spot for something unpredictable and beautiful to turn out. They’re also my visual reminder to try to let go even more, and let my call come to me rather than try to box myself into something because I’m feeling anxious and vulnerable. They’re a challenge to myself to find new ways to be creatively me and to creatively follow my calling… that I’m not sure of, or what it looks like, or where it will lead or how to get there or or or… But that all is just me. What do you see?

O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!

Psalm 71:12

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