Trying to Paint with a Cluttered Mind: From Muddles to Breakthroughs


Work in Progress, seeing shapes
Work in progress, April afternoon

Yesterday the cloud cover almost kept me in the studio trying to finish my bright sunny April paintings from memory. Although I was comfortably painting in the warm room under controlled light a voice kept pushing me out the door, encouraging me to do a painting under cloudy skies, without shadows, “this may be my only opportunity!”

I was motivated to the pond by this voice in spite of the hassle and logistics of schlepping all my stuff. The journey from point A to B ended up including dealing with two phone calls and six emails and an NPR crisis update filled with terrible news. By the time I made it to the pond my mind was ringing with the noise of modern life. I felt like I was swimming through something thick, like those dreams when you try to run but can hardly move your legs.

I imagine the archetypal artist’s life of focused solitude. Rilke spending years in a stone tower alone on Lake Geneva, sinking deeper and deeper into his creative process and developing laser-like focus.


I imagine that that total focus may be the only way to succeed as an artist and that I have failed to create the right conditions for my own potential to be realized. I pick up my brushes even as I find myself swimming in unanswerable questions and doubt.


I try to refocus on my purpose. In spite of the news and the emails, I remember my singular reason for being there: to paint my subject without shadows. But as I got to work, the sky abruptly cleared. My controlling, out-come driven mind was very frustrated and this frustration was now added to my state.

Then something happened. On this morning with this scramble in my mind, as I looked out at my view, suddenly I just saw shapes! Not leaves and trees and water, just shapes. This idea is nothing new in the history of landscape painting but I was having a living experience of it. There was something thrilling happening to my seeing, accompanied by a sudden sense of fascination, delight and wellbeing.

As the sun came out, I noticed the difference between what I was doing today and what I had been doing the day before. I was fascinated by the emerging dialogue between the natural objects and the pure shapes. Suddenly I was on a path that I didn’t imagine being on just an hour earlier.This small shift woke me up to the fact that I could see at all and that I was co-creating my visual world. I became engrossed in the humble miracle of simply seeing.

Was this a breakthrough? Why did this happen this morning?

I reflect on the circumstance, my distracted mind, my foiled plans to paint in diffused light, my doubt, struggle and frustration.

Why do I often find my breakthrough moments follow a struggle? I need to be willing and receptive to have these moments but it seems like something has to be broken open first. Why the resistance to openness? Is it fear? Is it lack of faith that I will encounter something substantial, powerful or important, or useful or real?

It is well known that creative breakthroughs often emerge out of muddles, confusion, even a sense of failure. But eventually I want to find the practice that gets me to the place of receptivity without tearing something apart. A place beyond agendas and self-consciousness. I want to remember that I don’t know where I’m going and to finally be comfortable with that. It is not my job to get somewhere, it is just my job to start walking.


2 thoughts on “Trying to Paint with a Cluttered Mind: From Muddles to Breakthroughs

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