I usually paint small. 6 x 6 to 11 x 14 inches. I have a small studio, so this is part of the reason I paint small works, but if I look beneath the surface of this excuse, I paint small, and continue to paint small because I am comfortable with it. I know my way around a small canvas. I know my brushstrokes, how much paint to put out on the palette, what kind of brushes work best, what I can get away with, how to establish the composition and how edges and details work within that area. So when I decided to do a realistic painting on a large scale, 43 x 51 inches, and a closeup of a flower, my comfort zone got challenged. Why is that?

Here’s one of my favorite poems, and one I come back to over and over as it so beautifully captures our lives and who we are in them.

TILICHO LAKE

In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.

Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.

Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,

there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow
the true shape of your own face.

David Whyte wrote this poem about leaving your false, ego self and embracing your True Self, the self that has released the ego along with all the preconceived notions and ideas about itself. You know, that false self that lives in the past and future but unable to experience the present moment, clutching fears and habits in its small hands?

This is the part of me in the studio that paints small, “safe” landscapes.

The truth is that we are afraid to challenge our preconceived notions about things. If, for example, your only experience of painting is through the Paint By Numbers kits, then if you pull out a blank canvas you won’t know what to do with it. Perhaps you grew up in a strong liberal family. It’s difficult to understand some of the good points the conservative party holds. What if you were raised a particular religion? Christianity, for example, then it might be hard to grasp the beauty of the Muslim world and vis versa. It can be anything from hating goat’s milk, laughing at opera to being for or against a certain football team.

It’s all preconceived notions. Patterns of our mental world. Habitual highways in the neurocircetry of our brains that have been developed and established over the years.

So when you begin painting small and establish the pathways in your brain of creating on a small canvas and color mixing, brushstrokes, amount of paint on the palette, details and edges and atmospheric perspectives it is downright frightening to suddenly not know, or at the very least be very uncomfortable when painting large. Just as when your belief system is challenged and you are either faced with fighting for your perspective, your preconceived truth, or allowing a new perspective to come in.

And that’s scary. It’s scary because it tests your ego’s claim on who you truly are.

It took me a long time to figure out that if I decided to let go of my beliefs and swim across the river to the other side didn’t mean that I was suddenly my opposition. If I was a democrat I wouldn’t become a conservative, agnostic to becoming a Christian. It meant that I had a fuller understanding of both sides. A sense of wholeness. A deeper understanding of where the opposition is coming from, and in effect eliminating that sense of opposition altogether. It’s terrifying to the ego because doing this forces the ego to step back and lose some of its preconceived authority and power. It forces us to release fear and embrace love (or at least raise our frequency up away from fear and towards love).

In starting this large Waratah painting I have come across this same habit. My self limiting ego fighting me all the way by insisting I do things the way I have always done them with small paintings. To do the things it knows how to do. To do the things that won’t put it in danger of judgement and rejection and threaten its false self.

In short, each time I did this I came closer to a better version of my self. Closer to Tilicho Lake. And painting has been my pathway to get there.


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