I tried to hold the canvas as close to me as possible without risking touching it. It was dry, but with oil paints you never really know. It’s painting care 101: Don’t move your painting around when it’s wet. Any artist worth her salt knows that. But if you had spent the better part of a month – sometimes fourteen hours straight a day – painting, you couldn’t wait to deliver it either.
I used to assume that ‘real’ artists are passionate about the process of art: the meticulous mixing of colors in search of that right shade, the thrill of sliding down the sleek brush down the white canvas and watching the paint settle in the fibers, the smooth transformation of hues as they fuse together, the slow evolution of the picture.
But not me.
I’d always worried that I must be a lousy artist as far as true passion goes. My enthusiasm lasts for all of the first hour. After that every painful, imperceptible movement of the brush is an irritating itch; every line that doesn’t follow the path I dictate, every shade that changes colour without my explicit permission, and all the annoying invisible details that I have to somehow find, decipher and change (and then change again and again, like running blindfolded through a maze, hoping this time I’m on the right path) until it looks about right, is a frustrating process.
But watching the picture slowly fill up the blank canvas like the pieces of a puzzle coming together is somehow fascinating. When the last inconsistency in color is glossed over, the small extra fleck of paint is dissolved and the last touch of white to make sure his eyes gleam a little brighter is duly placed, and you finally get to lay down the brush, take a few steps back and look at your handy work – that’s where the true magic lies. A bold face peeks out from his two dimensional world, his eyes following you around as if he knows who it was that sat by him day in and day out.
It often feels as though the face is no longer just layers of dyes that I diligently painted but a life force that sneaked onto my canvas over night when I wasn’t looking. The enchantment of the final piece has always been incentive enough for me to chain myself to a piece of cloth for months; so I can ‘wear’ it around proudly like a badge of honor when I take it to the exhibition.
Yet I often find myself trying to recall every difficult detail of the process to feel in its possession again and reestablish my identity as the artist. Because stepping away also makes everything impersonal. The flat familiar face that had become almost a friend becomes a stranger again. The connection I feel with the portrait ends with the process and I find that as much as I love my finished piece, I miss that intimacy. I miss the sheer exhilaration of figuring out what is wrong and the surge of power I feel when I can set it right.
It’s a very quiet unobtrusive sort of power but to feel it, is to truly feel alive. Painting might have once introduced me to it but now I can recognize it for what it is every time I figure out a twisted physics question, or get off a podium knowing I braved every one of my demons by giving a speech: the feeling of triumph over my fears and weaknesses.
I don’t worry about the authenticity of passion anymore. It’s not about enjoying every second, but loving every second enough to persevere through the boredom, frustration and fear because, inevitably, the realization dawns that the struggle is what makes the destination worth the road. And passion is just my insatiable thirst to overcome that challenge.
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