Why I paint (aka finding your flow)

I’ve always loved art — seeing it, learning about it, experiencing it, and creating it. My most serious art pursuit took place in Japan, where I studied during my junior year of college. I went to focus on economics and Japanese language, but took an elective in Sumi-e painting and it was love at first sight. In retrospect, it both makes sense that this meditative, slow art form was so appealing to the type-A me that ran through the rest of my life while juggling, and is equally puzzling.

I’ve dabbled with a tiny bit of abstract painting over the years, but when I say tiny I really mean it, maybe 10 paintings in two decades. Kiddo and I have been doing art projects together since almost the day she was born – everything from calling upon our inner Andy Goldsworthy and creating ephemeral art out of leaves and branches in our backyard, to collages, vision boards, and other fun stuff.

But I’ve always wanted to paint. Really paint, with oil, or watercolor, or acrylic, or anything else. I love color and I’ve been curious about figuring out how to express myself using color on canvas. At the top of my bucket list has lived the same item for a few years now: Go painting in Tuscany. I have no explanation for putting it there other than I’d heard that the light in Tuscany is magical and the idea of going to Italy to paint sounded magical.

Given that in a few months I turn 40 (going to just glide right over this one), this year I decided to give myself the gift of taking “painting in Tuscany” off my bucket list. The experience that ensued was so life-changing, that I won’t go into it here — it deserves its own blog post or a book. But while spending two weeks in Tuscany was a dream, the gift I got there was the one I didn’t quite expect: A passion for painting that burst out of me with a force I had not experienced in a long time.

My Tuscan painting adventure was in watercolor, simply because that is what our instructor taught the week I was there. I found it fascinating and difficult, and came back intending to keep working on it, while also trying oils. Once more I was reminded about the power of intention in my life because shortly after I came back I started in a small 3-person art class with a new friend, artist, and teacher, with whom we organized our little workshop. I had met her only recently but we were kindred spirits — with love of art and much more in common between us — and I’d asked if she would consider teaching a few of us. She agreed and as soon as I was back from Tuscany, we were off to the art races.

Reminder to self and anyone reading:

If you love something, if you want to find a way to do it, don’t forget to do the simplest thing: Tell people you love it and you want to find the way to do it. The universe turns out to be incredibly generous but not a mind-reader.

Every Monday night, after work is done and kids are fed, we gather in Irina’s beautiful art studio. She sets up a simple composition and we spend a few hours doing our own interpretation of it. I chose to try oils and wow, what an adventure it is into color and texture and learning to manipulate this beautiful medium in ways that express what I feel.

After the first session where I accomplished not much more than playing with oil on my canvas, Irina set up a mandolin composition. At first look I found it boring, which I shared with her. “Find your voice in it,” she told me, “just start putting colors on your canvas and listen to what you hear.” I’d never painted this way but I went with it. She would come over, turn my canvas upside down, ask me to use a different brush or knife, suggest that I do something really drastic in one part of it and then see what it leads me to.

Before I knew it, two hours had gone by and this vibrant mandolin was looking back at me from my canvas. I didn’t remember thinking about anything, I was just trying to feel each color, not judge what I was seeing emerge, and allow myself to experiment without being attached to something on the other end.

IMG_5171I was reminded that night about this beautiful state of flow — when you find yourself so immersed in something, so focused, so completely separated from any distracting thoughts, being completely in the moment of what you are doing. It’s an incredible feeling and no wonder science tells us experiencing this state of flow is one of the components of our overall well-being. I could hardly sleep the night after I painted this canvas, and I can only describe how I felt while driving back from my friend’s studio in one word: Full in my soul.

The next week I ran to the studio right from the train I took back from NYC, where I’d spent a whirlwind 36 hours and felt pretty beat up for it. When I walked in and saw that Irina had set up a guitar composition, I hesitated for about a second before I knew that my guitar would take on an nontraditional shape. In NYC I went to see a Picasso sculpture exhibit, and his art seeped into my veins. When this emerged on my canvas, I was not surprised:

IMG_5278I called this “Picasso came to tea.”

I’ve been trying to paint any free second I get between work, family, and the reality of our busy life. At home I cleaned out a small storage room and turned it into my art studio, where I play with acrylics, often too late into the night after the to-dos of the day are done. (I have to think about the trade offs between sleep, something incredibly important for our health and souls, and doing something I love so passionately and being in the flow.) When I paint, I don’t think about anything else. In fact, I don’t think, I feel. I’ve only started to meditate recently and the closest to true meditation I’ve come is while I paint, rather than while I sit on my meditation cushion. The object of meditation is not to feel a certain way, but to feel how you feel — and this is what I feel when I paint.

I think there was a part of my life when would consider my painting an extra. I’d think of it as something outside of “real life”, a fun experience but not one that I felt was integrated into the rest of my life. My perspective would be narrow: Since I am not going to make a profession out of this, I should not invest so much time and energy into it.

I could not feel more differently now. Doing something that I love, something that allows me to express myself, to explore my feelings, to be in the moment, to experience the world in a fundamentally different way than I do most of my time — I consider this a gift. There’s zero doubt in me that making art a more core part of my life benefits not just my own well-being (I can’t think of a better stress reliever) but my family, friends, colleagues, clients, yoga class friends, people I run into at the store, all of whom get a more vibrant, happy, and inspired me to have around.

I paint because I feel alive when I do it.

I paint because it feeds my soul.

I paint because it makes my body sing.

I paint because I can’t not.


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