How To Begin A Painting? (The Happy Collision of Intention and Discovery)

A letter to my daughters – encouraged/inspired by my friend Kevin Flanagan.


How do you start a painting? By making the first mark. Then you keep making marks, and those ideas and accidents build on each other and work their way towards something that feels like you. (First, question the notion of an accident; the mental process of visualizing something must, by the constraints of the physical world, undergo a transformation when put to paper, canvas, conversation…a convergence of intention and discovery through the process of doing.)

Am I supposed to know what it’s going to look like when it’s finished? The fun of painting is that you start with an initial idea, but then that changes as you go – the surface, the light, the colors, your mood…all continue to shift and change. So your initial idea is a fun place to start – but the actual journey (I mean, the painting) takes you somewhere you didn’t expect.

How do I know if the painting is good? Let me answer with another question: Does it matter? The act of making the painting, putting down your marks, erasing them and replacing them with new ones (or making marks over the first ones) – that is ultimately what matters. That feeling you get when you are creating something uniquely you – there is nothing that compares. Well – maybe something like looking at the Grand Canyon at sunrise, or having your first crush…those probably are in that same category of feelings. Big, immense joy.

What do I do when I don’t know what to do next? Keep painting and the answers will emerge (do you think your parents know the right moves to make, the correct choices in every moment?). Painting can be frustrating; you get to a point where things feel mucky, nothing seems to be working. (Keep painting)

Geology, 2020, oil on canvas, 36″x 48″

When is a painting complete? That’s hard to say. It’s not something you’ll ever really know – you can keep painting one painting your entire life. You could finish a painting in five minutes. It all depends – it depends on you and what you need from the painting in that moment, and that time in your life. Because you keep growing, emerging and changing like the painting – until your last day on this earth. You are your own work of art. All I did as your father was help build the canvas for you to paint on.

What I want most for you is confidence in your power and your vision. Confidence doesn’t mean having no fear (fear is natural and good) – it means moving into the unknown with curiosity, a willingness to mess up, to take a wrong turn on an unfamiliar path but to appreciate your surroundings despite maybe being lost for a bit. Confidence means having the strength to be yourself, even when it feels like you’re supposed to act like other people. That confidence might scare some people – but it will inspire many more.

Love, Dad

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