A Typical Day Painting

Painting is a relatively rare profession these days. Many people do not know any fine art painters personally, just as they do not know any giraffes or grizzly bears. So I will reveal all, reader! Here is a typical day in the life of me, an average fine art painter.

The first thing I do is buy coffee, artfully, of course.

The second thing I do is purchase a snack. Painting burns a lot of mental calories and it's impossible to paint when I'm hungry. So, I buy a chocolate croissant while I'm getting the coffee.

After dawdling at the coffee shop, it's time to go to the studio. Just as I pull onto the highway, there's the remembrance of the missing art supply. This is different from the remembrance of things past; it's the thing I really need that I have run out of. It's probably any one of the following: linseed oil, turpeniod, flake white, rags or gloves. Whatever it is, it necessitates a trip to the art store now. When I was young, a trip to the art store was a $15-$30 event. I would pay cash for one tube of paint and leave. Now that I'm old, the art store is more like a $200 event, minimum. I buy the best paint, three gallons of turpenoid, and bulk canvas. When I add up the coffee, the snack, and the large tube of cobalt blue, this day is getting expensive.

Yeah, that's part of the typical day of an artist: bleeding money.

Sherrod in Mirror

So I finally get to the studio. It's definitely time to talk to the other artists, maybe have a bite of that snack. As I walk by my studio mates, I quickly study their work, judging whether it's any good or not. Shining among the crowd, there are always the naturals who draw perfectly. Their hands move without hesitation across the paper, dipping and scattering paint like the wind scattering leaves in the fall. Around these Michelangelo's, I always feel two warring emotions: inspiration and envy. If only…well, in another life. To sooth the envy attacks, I also chat with people that I think are terrible artists—definitely worse than me, in my mind. While talking to them, I discover that they think their latest creation is fantastic. They think they'll be in New York any day now. I also think I'm fantastic and New York bound—does this mean I'm deluded too? The problem with thinking someone is worse than me is that every once in a while they knock off a masterpiece, and then, there I am, wondering if I'm sane.

Besides the just-plain-bad artists, there are the crazy people. They're always around the studio, somehow able to produce an artistic vision out of the hurricane inside their brain. Maybe they have 150 canvases crammed in the corner, or maybe they roll in the paint and apply it with their body. Maybe they spray fixer up their nose while smoking a clove cigarette next to a can of gasoline. If you think there's no crazy artist at your studio, then the crazy person is probably looking at you in the mirror.

So I do some judging, chat, drink some coffee, unpack my supplies and by now it's one o'clock. Probably I should paint now. I start arranging the space: chair, easel, canvas, paints, stools. Since I'm using oil paints, I get out my mediums too. I reach for my favorite tools first. My favorite tool is my palette knife, which I've had for more than 20 years. Its handle is covered with layers of old medium, shaping it to my hand. I've mixed thousands of rounds of paint with this knife, and I've never found another as pliable and strong.

The palette knife came from my first paint box. Once, while I was visiting my grandmother, she went into her bedroom and brought out an oil paint box. I'd never seen one, so I didn't know what it was at first. It was a beautiful wood box, with copper clasps that turned clockwise. Inside were the brushes and tubes of oil paint. The box contained a ruler, an X-Acto knife, and a grease pencil, too.

"I saved this for you, honey," she said. "It was Edna's box, and she died."

I took the box home on the airplane and was surprised when my seatmate asked if I was a painter. How had I become a painter without knowing what a paint box looks like?

I used the box until it fell apart and my grandmother has passed away, but I still have the palette knife. Every time I use the knife, I remember the box and my grandmother's house. A gift like that is like a wedding present: when someone gives you something nice as a wedding gift, like a fine cooking pan, you remember them every time you cook.

Another favorite item is my large studio easel, which I got at an art auction. At the close of the auction, when my husband and I were about to leave, the auctioneers brought out a very large easel that had belonged to an artist who had died of AIDS. It was so large it had wheels. Up to this point, I had only painted small paintings, but when I saw the smooth wood easel, clearly a beloved item of its former owner, I felt a door open into a new world.

I bid $50.
A man standing nearby bid $75.
I bid $200.

I waited. The man looked at me, shrugged, and walked off. The easel was mine. My husband and our friends were excited; we ran up to look at the thing and figure out how to get it in our hatchback Escort. Miraculously, it fit between the seats, with the tall beam sitting over the gearshift. The easel holds a six-by-six foot canvas and can store more canvases in its back. It is always holding the latest thing I am working on. I often think of that dead painter and wonder if he or she would be pleased at the easel's ongoing adventures across the bay in Berkeley.

Every painter has special things like these. When I first started to make art, I don't know anything about tools. When I was younger, I stood in each aisle of the art store, wondering if I needed something there. Did I need a brush that big? Did I need a conte crayon? Some of these things, it turns out, became dear to me, even priceless, while others I just threw in the trash.

So there I am, an artist in my studio, with my coffee, my croissant, my special tools and my new rags. I have all the things I need.

Now I must paint.

For me, now that I have reached the ancient age of 48, this part is easy. I always have a subject lined up and a canvas ready to go. But when I was in my twenties, I used these moments right before painting to agonize about whether what I was doing was even worthy. Self-doubt can take up a lot of time. I would stare at my painting for a while, wondering why it were not good, when I painted on it so much. Around me, I heard conversations about one man shows in New York and collectors from Napa. Every time someone else succeeded, I spent more time convulsing over my own failures.

Now that I'm almost eligible for AARP, I don't care. I didn't become famous after all, but who cares? I'm here to paint because I love painting. I get out my canvas and sometimes I see that it's still bad but after all this time, I know that some paintings come out great and some don't. Maybe this one will come around after all. I get out my paints, ready to leap once more into the breach.

The first hour that I paint is the hour that I spend clearing my mind of the garbage of the outside world. Mental trash includes any recent conversations with comcast or AT&T, drama at the PTA, or worrying about that email I shouldn't have sent at work.

While my head chatters on about this drivel, my hands move as they always have, unpacking the paint; setting up the medium in a jar; getting out rags, turps, and brushes. My left hand picks a brush that it likes. My fingers touch the paints on the palette, deciding which are still usable and which are dried-out. I dip the brush in the medium, feel it soften. It feels good against the wood of the palette. My head starts to shut up a little. Now I step back to survey the painting and try to decide what needs work.

As I stand before my canvas, ready to apply paint, I feel something is off. How do I sense this? My eye doesn't rest easily on the painting. Instead of feeling inspired, I feel bothered by the image. Being the maker of this thing, I want to adore it, but part of being a painter is learning to attack the flaws. Just like being a parent, you cannot make a child great with love only. Some discipline is required.

Since I am a realist, not abstract painter, I usually have a reference photo. Often I am painting a building or scene, with near and far elements. Let's say it's a house. I measure the windows on the canvas against the photo. Okay, the windows are okay. The roof is okay. The wall is okay. The stairs are…the stairs are off! In the photo, they are located in the bottom quarter, but in my canvas they are located at the halfway point. How did that happen? Crap, that means I have to redraw a bunch on the left side. Yep, the street, the fence, and the stairs are all in the wrong places. Better get to it.

Now my brain really turns to the canvas. I have the paint, the brush, and the motive. It's always nice to fix a big problem in a painting. This means that there's still hope the painting will turn out well. If I wasn't trying to fix it, it would mean that I'd given up and the painting was headed for trash heap of time. A professor once told me not to be dainty, so I make a big slash to cut out a new section. I wipe out the previous stairs and the sidewalk. Sometimes, it's hard to wipe out a section I thought was nice, but another professor told me not to be precious. I'm really going now. I re-block with grey and umber.

At this point, I'm starting to enter the zone. To paint something like stairs, I have to concentrate. I cannot be thinking about the bill I need to pay to CableUSA.com. I need to focus.

Stairs are hard. One single stair-step has four elements showing. There's the top of the step, the highlight on the lip, the shadows on the lip, and the bottom. Let's say in my painting there are six stairs, all with different shadows and different highlights. I have four square inches to paint this if I'm doing a big canvas. I have one square inch if I'm doing a little canvas. As I look at the stairs in the photo, they start to vibrate and blend, confusing my eye.

I start to falter. I've been here before, where my mind can't process competing details of light and shadow. I tell myself to just work on the first step.

Before I put down the first stroke on the stairs, I imagine that these stairs are going to be mind-glowingly gorgeous. In fact, these stairs might be the heart of the painting, glowing in the evening light. These stairs are going to make Michelangelo look like a hack cartoonist. Leonardo himself couldn't draw these stairs better than I can. I'm ready for the glory. So I put down the first stroke. It's okay. It's about the right size and shape.

Okay, now the lip. I get out a small brush to apply a highlight. God, I know I am terrible with a small brush. I do the line of the lip and it comes out too big. Well, I tell myself, I can fix that when it dries. I paint the top of the step. It feels off but I can't quite say why. I'll come back to that one. I paint in four more steps to block them out. Then I notice I should have six steps but I've only put five. Well, this house don't really need six steps anyway, right?

Even my stairs never quite glow like Renaissance stairs, in my mind, I keep hoping they will. Being an artist means believing that one's next creation will be magnificent, despite evidence to the contrary. Novelist Anne Patchett writes the difference between what's in the artist's head and what actually happens:

This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book.

This may sound extreme, but the exact same thing applies to painting. The image in my head is a dancing butterfly, but what I actually paint is a specimen. I may have all the materials, talent, and time in the world, yet what I envisioned and what I actually produce are separated by a vast abyss. Still there is the magic that keeps me going. A color I didn't think was right pivots the entire painting in a better direction. A strong composition lifts the work above mediocrity. A brush creates the right effect all by itself.

Most of the time, I will create a painting with one or two striking aspects and a lot of okay-ness. On my best canvas of all time, maybe half will be striking and the rest very, very good. The average painter, may be frustrated that the greatest strokes he or she ever made are right in the middle of a bad painting. This happens. A lot. Often I wonder: When will the stars align and let me paint the whole painting well? Probably never. However, I soldier on, still clinging to the dream.

One has to have a degree of idiotic belief in oneself to be a lifelong artist. It's okay to overestimate one's talent. It is a requirement, in fact, for getting through a bad painting session.

Back to the stairs. I spend an hour botching them, and then decide it's time to concentrate. Now I enter the chess master level of concentration. I put aside my concept of stairs and turn the painting upside down, as I learned from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don't think of "stairs," but instead just paint the exact colors and shapes I see. I slow way down. I rub out the lip that is too big and very delicately put the right thing in place. I take a piece of paper and edge in the top step. Now I see how the steps get smaller as they recede. This thing is starting to make sense. That blob in the photo is the shadow of the tree across the railing. Ah.

This type of work can take hours. To paint upside down, I have to let go of one of the main impediments to painting well: my tendency toward self-praise. Each time I step back, look at the painting, and tell myself that I've done well, I'm interrupting my concentration. If, on the other hand, I temporarily remove the ability to judge outcome, my brain has to stop its twitter. Of course, it's very difficult to put off self-judgment. I had a teacher who would put on super-loud rock music and tell us we couldn't think while we worked. Just keep moving your hand and don't look at the paper, he would shout, leaping around the room to the beat.

One way to shut down my mental voice is to paint for a long time. Around hour five, I get so tired that the chatter in my head quiets. At that point, all my brushes and paints are messy. My colors start to blur together. This is when the best painting happens. At this point my body will start to make decisions, without conscious care for color or medium. In this state, I do things I wouldn't do if I were thinking. I might put in a green face and a purple roof and a red sidewalk. I get lovely free swaths of paint across the sky.

Late at night, I can turn up the music to sustain the reverie. Everything will fade away, leaving just the paint, my eyes, and the methodic movement of my hands across the canvas. If it sounds like sex, well, it is.

One of the best painting moments of my life was a five-hour plein-air session in San Francisco. I started at 2:30 p.m. At the start of the session, I was berating myself for starting so late on such a splendid day. What had I been doing? Sitting around reading the comics and parade magazine. Why? Because I was young and I could.

On this day, I was painting a golden house that blazed in the late afternoon sun. This house was deep yellow to start with, and when the fall sun hit it through the trees, the sunlight made its walls incandescent. I had to buy light, medium, deep and lemon cadmium to get near the real thing, and all that yellow couldn't match the sharpness of the sun.

I painted for five hours straight, but I hadn't yet gotten to the trees on the right side of canvas. It was 7:30, getting dark, but I didn't stop because I felt guilty about frittering away the morning. This autumn sunlight, this house, and these paints might never come back my way. By 8:00, I had trouble seeing which paint I was choosing. In the deep twilight, I hit the magic number where the logical frontal lobe turns off and the ancient lizard brain keeps going. By feel, I painted the trees, picking what I figured were probably the right colors from the palette. I cleaned up by memory, pouring what I thought was turpenoid into the plastic cup and moving the brushes in it the usual number of times. I put everything up and walked home.

When I got home, my boyfriend was blasting "Charlie on the MTA" on the sound system. At that time he had extra-large speakers that you could sit on—the kind they don't even make now that phones have gotten smart. I put the painting on the speakers in front of him and we both looked at it.

"Wow," he said, "you should paint in the dark more often."


Well, every painting day isn't like that. There are a lot of days where I paint badly and ruin a perfectly good painting by "improving" it. Once I was working on a figure watercolor in the art school studio. A professor walked by and said "good start." She passed again every 30 minutes or so as she made her rounds. When I was packing up, she stopped one last time. "You should have stopped an hour ago," she said, and walked off.

This happens. I have a lot of paintings that were very good up until my last session, at which point the angel of death took over my hand and killed them dead. Right this minute I'm working on a house that I couldn't get right the first time. I let it dry for six months, sanded the house out, and started again. When I repainted it, I remembered why it didn't come together the first time: bad composition. The house is squat and has a brown porch railing that's difficult to pull off. In the end, I made it orange to disguise the fact that it looks like a child drew it.

So, in summary, on a typical painting day, I spend a lot of money on supplies, over work a painting that will end up in my estate sale, and then go home and think "Oh, yeah, I should have done some marketing."

Why do I keep doing this?

When I was young, I did it for the hope of fame and money. Now, I still have a little candle burning on the alter of fame, but mostly, I have moved the candles over to the shrine of transcendence. When I have a late night painting session that lasts five hours and ends in sublime access to the old brain, then I go home full-fathom changed. For those days, one keeps going.