Recently, I’ve begun doing a little painting again. I have been slowly working on a watercolor of sparrows dining at a feeder since January — my visual response to LL’s poetry play over at Seedlings in Stone. She doesn’t even know I started it back on January 26. I didn’t want to tell her in case I never finished. So far, I haven’t.
That’s the problem with trying to live the creative life. It’s risky. Projects get started and stopped like rush hour traffic. And sometimes, like we often hear on the 6 o’clock news, some of them never make it home. Casualties of the system.
Every time I pick up a paint brush, strap on my guitar, or sit down to the keyboard, it’s like climbing onto a bus with no route number. I don’t know where I’m going to end up. That’s why all too often I just turn on the TV or go for a walk instead. It’s safer that way.
So I wasn’t surprised when last week, as I grabbed the paints and canvas, I skipped right over the sparrows and ended up painting a cow with a mind of its own, instead.
Months earlier, my mom had given me a copy of a photo she had taken of one member of their Angus herd basking in the glory of a flaming red tree on a beautiful fall day. She thought I might want to use it as the subject of a painting some day.
The colors were striking, the composition decent. If the painting turns out, I thought to myself, it would make a great Father’s Day gift for my step-dad. So, mustering the creative courage required to begin something FOR someone, I set to work.
In the first sitting, I tackled the background, painstakingly mixing the colors for the chalky sky, the browning grass, the wheat field just beneath the horizon. I blocked in the fence posts, and added the receding tree line. And at that point, decided to call it a night.
A couple of nights later, I went back to the painting, still hoping to have it finished in time for Father’s Day. I added the rest of the complex fencing system, added the smaller tree that had already lost most of its leaves, then spent a good deal of time trying to get the colors and scope and shading right on the red tree which was the focal point of the painting. By the time I had it just right, I realized I still needed to put the cow in, and it was already 11 p.m.
Painting animals has never really been part of my creative repertoire, so I proceeded carefully. I started with the head, and then outlined the body, working hard to keep the proportions right. Because the cow was all black, there was only very subtle shading, and so I carefully mixed a charcoal gray that would be slightly lighter than the black I was already using. I added in a few wisps of grass around the feet, and was amazed at how well I had done, all things considered.
But as I looked at the painting, I realized something was not right. The cow itself looked fine, but its addition into the composition was throwing something off. Suddenly it hit me. I had painted the cow a little bigger than I had intended, and it was now standing just OUTSIDE the fence.
By now, it was 11:20 p.m. on the night before Father’s Day, and the paint wasn’t even dry. I wasn’t sure I could rework that section to move the cow back into the pasture without ruining the whole painting. So, in a moment of genius and to maintain the integrity of the composition, I decided to just repaint the wire of the fence as if the cow was pushing through it, trying to escape. Afterall, would anybody really look that closely at it anyway?
The next day, I slipped the painting into the house as a surprise for my step-dad. I had other stops to make, and by the time I ended up back at the house later that day, I was dying to know what he thought. When I found him on the porch, I asked him how he liked the painting, and he just smiled.
“It’s good,” he said. I was relieved. “But my cow’s getting out.”
We laughed over it; I tried to explain the problem with my technique; we agreed that the cows got through the fence in real life more than we’d like. And in the end, he said he liked it anyway.
But as I was driving home last night, I realized the truth that cow was teaching me. The truth about the creative process, that is. It’s only risky when I think I’m in control. The sooner I realize that cows always get through the fence, the easier this creative life will be.