“Still the risk must be run; the mark made”
My first painting in 25 years.
Last week I picked up a paint brush for the first time since I was a senior in high school (which was nearly 25 years ago). I was with two friends at an ArtJamz event, at which you get handed a blank canvas, an easel, and an unlimited supply of paints. Reading Lily Briscoe’s meditation on painting in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse made me think about the way I had approached the canvas. I kept thinking back to that high school painting class when I didn’t understand art as an expression of thought, of passion. And I felt that this time I had to say something when I painted. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about it nearly a week after the fact:
Looking at the blank canvas I think, Well, what is it I want to say? And I have no idea. The universe of what I might want to say is so large, so floating-just-above-fingertips that how can I know what I want to say at that particular moment with that first brushstroke. And why am I looking at that blank canvas wondering about saying and meaning. When I write a poem, I simply do. I act. I write one word and then another, whatever comes with that sweet release of ink. The meaning, the connecting of dots doesn’t come till later, and it’s only with long years of practice that I can truly write poetry with any intentionality at the beginning. Even so, it’s laborious and what I think I might say is hardly ever what I do say. What I mean is never the exact shade of what I thought I would mean. And how can the poem teach/show/reveal otherwise? So why before the first brushstorke of the painting should I, a young voyager in a foreign land, already expect to know that painting’s language?
And here’s (an excerpt) from Lily’s reverie on painting that prompted my own reverie:
She had taken the wrong brush in her agitation at Mr. Ramsay’s presence, and her easel, rammed into the earth so nervously, was at the wrong angle. And now that she had put that right, and in so doing had subdued the impertinences and irrelevances that plucked her attention and made her remember how she was such and such a person, had such and such relations to people, she took her hand and raised her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made. [emphasis mine] (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)