First Drafts

I am a huge fan of Anne Lamott. Huge.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne offers instruction and her observations on writing: how to write, what to write, and why we write. However, In virtually every passage, you could substitute “painting” for “writing” and have an excellent survival guide for the visual artist. In both writing and painting, I have felt the passion, panic, isolation, euphoria, (insert every other emotion here) and creative paralysis she describes. In fact, reading this book the first time, I was sure she was writing about my real life insecurities as a painter, transcribed from the actual running dialogue of voices chattering away in my own head at any given time. Downside--clearly I have issues. Upside--Bird by Bird is choc full of good advice.

So what does this have to do with you or me or our painting? 

Well, I am a competent painter and have a lot of "brush miles" but I realized a long time ago that growing as an artist would require more than just sharper technical skills. So, I developed some practices that have helped me be productive, despite my natural disposition toward procrastination. They are more coping strategies than disciplines, but they work—and many of them came from Bird by Bird

One of the most useful of Anne’s instructions, for me anyway, is to write (think paint) what she calls a “shitty first draft.” I paint almost daily at home, but arriving in Mexico for my workshop with Jim McVicker, an artist whom I admire greatly, I felt overwhelmed. Of course, I was super excited about my first big Plein Air painting trip, but the lapping waves, breezy palms, sunshine, and other nice workshop attendees just set me on edge. I mean, it was a dream to get out of freezing Maryland in January, but after about ten minutes, I realized that I had no idea what to do. Paint the boats? The beach? One of the hundred or so stray dogs? No idea. 

Jim’s first morning demo was on the beach. He made quick work of the pretty little scene outside our casa, and made it look easy. Still, I don’t paint a lot of tropical boat scenes back home in Maryland, and felt like I needed something a little familiar to warm up with. I wandered around for what felt like 2 hours, musing about why I signed up for this workshop to begin with, and how else I might fill my days here in Boca if I abandoned the idea of painting altogether. Crazy, right? 

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Anne teaches her writing students that the best thing to do in a situation like this, (maybe after you go pee and get a snack, but before you lose nerve) is to bang out a “shitty first draft.”  Don’t chase perfection down some rabbit hole, wax poetic here, or get twisted up with every SAT word you know—just get the gist of what you need to say down. Now, Anne’s writing is amongst the truest things I’ve ever read—in my estimation, right up there with the Bible and Thoreau. So, I have a hard time believing that she writes a “shitty first draft” or "shitty" grocery list, or less-than-inspiring anything else. Nonetheless, she says this is what she does, and she is kind of my Yoda, so for years now, whether writing or painting, I have done the same.

The image to the right is my first “draft” of the workshop--a regrettable study in orange and mustard--and worse in person than the photo portrays.

I am sharing it because:

  1. I am really committed to this concept—and I am sure it works
  2. My paintings got a lot better after this one
  3. I think we have to own the crappy ones along with the good ones—its healthy

Eventually, I settled on my spot and set up my gear. I started out thinking about how Jim paints, kind of forgetting how I actually paint, and making a mess of it almost immediately. Where Jim’s painting looked fresh and bright, mine looked like I had dropped it face down in the sand—and then kept going. My paint was tacking up too fast. My boats were too big. My hat felt too tight. Still, I persisted. 

Over the course of the week, I had a couple of false starts, but forged ahead, building on the one or two useful bits from that first “draft.” The sky wasn't bad; I liked the gesture of the palms. My last painting of the week, below, was from roughly the same spot where I started. I had worked out my color palette, a little shorthand for the palm trees, tightened up my focal point, and generally sorted out how I wanted to handle the energy and color of this hustling fishing village. My work was starting to feel like this place, sharing a lot of the truth without all of the facts. You can see my other Boca paintings here.

Low Tide Boca.jpg

Whether we tell our stories in print or in paint, we have to start somewhere. We have to bleed out the fear of failure, shush our inner critic, and overcome the spirit crushing compulsion to be perfect. We have to do this over and over and over until we have something we don’t hate. If we are lucky, we pick up some tricks to help along the way, and take comfort knowing that we are not alone in our struggles. Painting really is so very much like writing, and I highly recommend Bird by Bird if you are looking to grow. Thanks Anne.

My next post will address some practical considerations for international art travel, ala “leave the gun, take the cannoli.“ Spoiler alert, I wish I had taken a bigger can of bug spray.

Til then,