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The Messy Middle and the Tyranny of Expectations in Painting

I've started noticing how many expectations I have whenever I start to paint. I usually start a painting because I have an image I want to explore or a new technique to test. Starting a paint is usually the fun part for me, getting all my paint out, filling the surface with shapes and colors. It is a joyful and exciting place to be.

But then there comes the messy middle, the part of the painting when my expectations of what I initially wanted to paint depart from what I paint, when it starts to get complicated, frustrating, or disappointing. I start to have regrets and second guess my previous decisions. I go back to my reference photo, retracing my steps, painting and praying that it will eventually get better, but somehow it never does.

I thought I knew what I wanted to paint and how I want to paint, but this is an illusion I created to create a sense of control and safety. The reality of the painting constantly changes as I add each new mark to the surface. And instead of recognizing and appreciating each new addition, I keep comparing it to my expectations and judging myself for how it falls so short. This is the tyranny of expectations, the desire to control the future and the denial of the truth, of what is happening in the present.

Letting go of expectations is so hard because I don't know what will happen if I no longer cling to these expectations. What is this painting really about right now? What if I ruin the painting? I feel this is the moment that defines who you are as a painter. As a beginning painter, I don't enough painting experience to know what are all the best possible moves I could take. Instead, I must stumble ahead with what I little I do know and stay present, stay open and responsive (and not critical or judgmental) as the painting continues to unfold. It could end up being terrible, but it could also be interesting, or even unexpectedly great. Either way I will learn something.

I'm in the middle of this painting right now and I could feel myself getting frustrated, so I stopped to write this blog post and remind myself that it's ok to let go of my reference, to let go of my expectations, and to appreciate where I am right now. Where do I want to go next?

A photo of a flower and berries painting in progress.
The messy middle stage of a flower and berries painting.

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