I sit across from the blank canvas imagining all the things I can fill it up with. Abstract shapes take form in my head and disappear before they make it out to the flat white surface. The round pointed brush in my hand, sometimes gently taps the side of the mixing plate, and sometimes rests on one edge of the canvas, waiting for its appointed task to begin. Sometimes, as if on its own accord, it starts to move on the canvas, without any colors, perhaps just giving me a hint of the things to come.
Do I really paint? I ask myself. Or is it that the painting just happens through me? As I sit there, starting blankly at the limited rectangle of unlimited possibilities, I often experience a certain block. It’s as if I don’t know what I sat down to make. Whatever happened to the theme that had been simmering in my head for days? Where did that go? I ask myself all these pointless questions knowing fully well that there is no answer to them after all. They are just chatter in the foreground and I just need to get through them to reach where I need to be, which is, be full of this impending painting up to the brim of my consciousness and then empty myself out on the canvas in front of me.
I make a big deal out of the whole thing–I hear you say this in your head as you read these lines. It is true, I am not the first painter in the world and I am not going to be the last either. And contrary to what it may seem like to you, dear reader, I have no misconceptions about my actual skills. In fact the questions often is, is there any skill at all?
You see, I was never an apprentice or a student of the art (at this point I imagine you smirking and saying, well, that explains it). But be that as it may, I was drawn to it, partly out of what I was going through at the time. It was beyond words, it was beyond any other mode of expression I knew possible except for sinking my head into a pillow and crying it all out, and that, as fate had ordained for me it seems, I had done quite often.
But at one point in time, many years ago, my anguish somehow wanted to come out in another way. It was something I was not familiar with. And I locked myself into my room and filled it up with sheets and scraps of all the papers I could find, my hands nervously holding a pen and sketching one tentacle after another and here and there and sometimes there were things that were more recognisable than the others, likes birds and fish. In fact, very often what started out as a bird ended up as a fish and vice versa. But it was not really about what I was making. It never was and it perhaps never is even now. It is always about how I am feeling.
Sometimes I wonder, if during moments of peace and calm in my life, rare as they are, I lose my ability to paint. Well, I don’t know if I had any real ability to begin with, but it’s as if I am content, I am just happy, there is nothing trying to burst out and express itself in another way. If at all there is, it usually comes as some light humming which I indulge in leisurely while strolling in my little garden. It is during these moments that I sometimes wonder how come there isn’t any urge to paint today. Is that not who I am now? Does that not define me? Then why don’t I paint? What am I waiting for?
This madness is never going to end, the critical voice inside me tells me. My self-loathing sometimes reaches a point where it questions everything I do. Is this productive? What is it leading to? Why aren’t you doing what you are supposed to? A few moments of calm repose are followed by several such episodes of intense self-criticism and usually when at the end of these I find myself brush in one hand, and stroking my beard, black, with a smattering of grey hair with the other hand. I draw a blank. I don’t know what would come out.
Then from somewhere deep within me something stirs. I start with an outline, a wing or a leaf, and then it all flows. I struggle sometimes to contain it all on the canvas in a way that looks presentable.
But some days are different. Often a theme presents itself in my mind and keeps simmering there and I paint it out on the canvas of my mind, imagining the composition and the colors. Many times, especially when I don’t have the time, they just stay like that, my mental compositions, waiting for the day to be born on canvas. The lucky few that do get a chance to come out also take their time while doing so. Gestation, yes, they gestate like human babies do.
Things are not always very smooth, you see, when we try to create something in our world. In our thoughts, we can do perhaps a million times more, but to actually do things in life, on paper, on a canvas, that is a skill that a lot of us don’t have to begin with.
I think it is also about patience. Yes, patience is key. Allowing things to happen and to unfold. Imagine a mother pregnant with a baby, yes, like that, exactly like that. She is the epitome of patience.
And even when I say this, dear reader, you will be surprised to know, how many unfinished paintings are tucked away in my attic. They too wait patiently for me to come back to them one day and add the finishing strokes that will complete them and then they can go out in the world and live their own life.
I talk about them as my children? Well, that is what they are, my children. My creation but not really mine. A very ancient philosophy this is, and I agree, all I can do is paint whatever comes to me, and how the result fares in the world is not in my hands. At least it is a comforting thought for an almost successful painter.
‘You are too resigned to your struggles,’ a voice rings in my head again. That’s her, yes. That was her biggest complaint. That I let things be. I accept my fate all too easily. I give up.
‘But if I am meant to be successful and famous, I will be,’ now that is my voice, clearly lacking conviction. I guess that’s why she left me, not because I wan not successful then, but because I wasn’t convinced that I would be or even that I wanted to be. I did not exude confidence, and unfortunately, too many take it to mean apathy.
Apathy is the cross on which we hang those unfortunate ones among us who fail to demonstrate a certain acceptable standard of enthusiasm and optimism about life.
Anyhow, here I am. I have seen a certain modicum of success, which took its sweet time coming. It can stay as long as it wants. And very much like her, it can also leave whenever it decides to, and I will be here, doing what I always do. Wait, for things to be born through me.
Will she come back?
I don’t know.
Do I want her to come back?
Yes, perhaps just to show her that I did it. I managed it finally. But does she even care?
What of love?
What of it? It’s been over two years. It has now subsided and blended within me. It has become a part of me.
Two years ago, yes, that is when she left me and I was enveloped by this very intense feeling I had no idea existed. Such pain, it was heart wrenching. And I had been through this kind of pain before, but this time it was different. Something snapped inside me. And then I painted my best painting ever. The one that finally broke through the clouds of my anonymity.
To think of it, she put me on the path to recognition by leaving me. As immensely painful as it was, it led to something bigger and beautiful, the most beautiful ever for my rather wobbly standing as a painter till that time.
Sometimes we need to go through purgatory to become who we were meant to be. Yes, many people talk about that too, don’t they? The difference between diamond and coal? Or the alchemists who wanted to transform mercury into gold.?Yes, something like that. Failure, anguish and despair build character. But they hurt, oh, they hurt so much.
I feel I am coming out now of my personal purgatory. The fire that consumed me, it is time to set it on canvas in its proper context. Yes, that is what I will paint today. My vision of hell as I say goodbye to it finally. I am on the exit and I turn back for one final look. All those years of anguish and pain, they will now cease to be, except on this canvas.
Oh Life, thou art a tough taskmaster. But thou hast taught me well. I thank thee.
I don’t remember who said those lines. But they fit.
So here we begin…