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Journey Through the Tulips

I had a breakthrough today.

I’ve been working on a 16 sq. ft (4x4) oil painting of tulips for a few weeks now, and I have been incredibly frustrated about the amount of time, myriad of mistakes, and my overall lack of enthusiasm and motivation I’ve had to finish it. I have felt defeated at my lack of sales, and the huge amount of positive comments I receive have been nearly impossible to believe.

Set against a dark background, the colors of the flowers stand out like an awkward teenager who is trying their hardest to fit in. With each sweep of my palette knife, more brightly mixed values are added on top of another, picking up the paint beneath it and adding unwanted streaks into the new layer. As I scrape away the unwelcome smear of expensive paint, I get annoyed.

Why isn’t this working? Why can’t it just cooperate? I’m being gentle. I’m taking things slow. Yet the thick oil paint on my canvas refuses to do what I want it to. It refuses to create the depth I’m looking for in the petals. It refuses to stay put as I add new values next to it. Are these tulips or deflated balloons? Is this fine art or just a bunch of mud?

I put my supplies down and take a few steps back. I stare at the giant canvas. Maybe if I squint my eyes, the innumerable imperfections will disappear. I look at my reference picture then back at my painting. Tears well up in my eyes, and a flood of negative self-talk washes down my cheeks.

I want to scrape every layer of paint off and throw away my canvas. Besides, even if I finish it, what then? No one will buy it for the price I know it’s worth. Why am I wasting my time? There are bathrooms that need to be cleaned, dishes that need to be washed, children that need to be nurtured, and a husband who needs to feel my presence. Maybe it’s too late for me to make it as an artist. I’m tossing my money into the garbage, and my family is suffering for it.

I take a picture of the work in progress to share with my 399 followers on Instagram. As I edit the lighting and increase the contrast, I notice something I hadn’t before. The small scale of my painting doesn’t show the imperfections that were screaming at me from the canvas. The smears become invisible and turn into a blending of values which start to take shape. I can see the outside petals of each completed tulip carefully hugging the inside of the flower. The once muddy highlights now stand out brightly against the shadows, exactly as I had hoped.

When I look at the bigger picture on a smaller scale, the little hiccups and mistakes that made me want to quit fade away into accomplishment and beauty. I can see that the difficulties I face as I try to create something I can be proud of are a necessary foundation for the future I have envisioned for myself.

This painting is turning into a metaphor of my journey as an artist. It is teaching me to embrace every single obstacle I come across and to take a step back when I feel like those obstacles are impossible to climb. It has forced me to reflect upon how far I have come and how far I still have to go.

With every stroke of color I gently lay onto my canvas, I am another step closer to accomplishing what I initially set out to do. The details are meant to be messy. It is the mess that creates perfection.


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