Blank Canvas

Outside the window, sun filters through the trees, shifting from the bright light of day to the softer light of dusk. A slight breeze filters through the window, blowing a hair that’s slipped free of my ponytail so it tickles my cheek. I glance down at my palette, pausing my paintbrush over the brightest blue.

My instructor’s voice lifts and falls in the background as she moves seamlessly between students, giving an idea here, a bit of encouragement there. Her voice calm and soothing. I reconsider, move my hand to hover over the magenta. Pause. Uncertain.

A song plays quietly, a broken soundtrack to our class as it cuts in and out following the whims of a satellite signal. Right now it’s a light jazz that somehow perfectly fits the mood.

Little BighornI glance again at the landscape photo I’ve chosen for my project, one of my favorite places in the world. I want to get this right, somehow capture how it makes me feel, what it’s like to be there. An ambitious task for my first attempt. I move my paintbrush to the yellow. Hesitate.

A sharp crunch breaks into the quiet as someone nearby bites into a carrot. Chewing, she steps back from her easel, putting her work in perspective. She tilts her head, takes another bite, assesses her work. Her eyes zero in on an area. She sets the carrot down, takes up a paintbrush and delicately steps back to add a swish of color here, a dab there.

Refocusing, I pick up a glob of blue, mix in a touch of green. Then some white. My paintbrush moves smoothly through the paint as the colors swirl together, blending to become a color found only in the biggest box of crayons. For a moment I soak in how it feels, my gaze hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of changing colors. Forward and back. Round and round.

I take a dab of paint, move to my canvas. Digging for a confidence I don’t have as a virgin painter I take a breath. Ready myself.

“I don’t know,” a sharp voice fills the room, a stark contrast to the subtle mood. “I just hate it. I’ve made such a mess of it. Ruined it.” I look up. It’s Diane, star student, mouth turned down, brow furrowed. On the easel in front of her is a painting she’s been working on for weeks. A stunningly accurate representation of the photo taped beside it. She’s captured perfectly the soft yellow shades of trees in fall, the mountains in the distance majestic in their detail. She’s woven empty branches of trees that have already lost their leaves into a tapestry of trees alive with fall’s colors.

A perceived imperfection of a bush in the foreground has caught her attention, invisible to the rest of us. “It just has no dimension, looks so flat. I’ve tried everything. Everything I do just makes it worse. I’m so frustrated.”

“Take a step back. What do you like about it?” our instructor asks patiently, moving to her side.

“Nothing. I don’t like anything. I can only tell you all the things I don’t like about it. I need to start over.”

I try to tune her out, refocus on my own work. Yet every time I go to make the first stroke, her criticisms ring sharp in the air. Around me, no one else seems bothered. A couple students offer feeble comments of encouragement as they work, others appear unaware of her, lost in their own worlds. The instructor seems unfazed, patiently soothing her. I alone seem unable to move forward while she’s talking, the biting criticism of herself harsh, demanding, relentless. It’s distracting and consuming.

The music jolts back on in the background, a loud jazzy blues song that underscores her criticisms, sharpening them. They weave together into a crescendo, persistently demanding my mind’s attention.

“Why is this bothering me?” I wonder. “Why can’t I tune her out?”

 And then it hits me.

The sudden realization creates a vacuum, leaving an air of deafening silence around me. So still I can almost hear my heartbeat.

She is voicing thoughts nearly identical to those in my head.

Thoughts that keep my hand poised over my canvas, instead of painting freely.

Thoughts that keep me afraid to try.

Perfectionist thoughts.

Identified and exposed, the vacuum recedes taking the binding thoughts with them.

Slowly the noises of the room creep back into my consciousness. Diane has quieted. She’s refocused, already putting our instructor’s suggestions to work. The music shifts to something quieter, fading in and out.  Another breeze wafts through the room. The soothing mood returns.

Familiar.

But I am not.

Suddenly free from the thoughts that held me captive, I make the first stroke, a brilliant blue streak across the sky.

Painting freely in defiance of perfectionism.

painting little bighorn

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