Every time I go to Ghost Ranch, I am drawn to paint the view outside the studio. Whenever I try, I run into the limits of my ability - I don't have the skill to make it look the way I want. Last week, after finishing a very intense painting, I was drawn to try again. Instead of trying to paint the view, I just tried to paint how I felt in the moment looking at the view. The result doesn't look much like the hills but it was still most satisfying of all my efforts to paint the high desert.
At the end of each workshop, I ask painters to give me feedback about their experience. It is no surprise that the painter who took great delight painting giant glittery flowers had a good time. It makes sense that the one whose painting evolved from a dark tangle into a powerful tree felt better when she was finished. What is interesting is how often the ones who painted the darkest, most painful feelings consistently tell me that they feel lighter when they finished.
Painting dark emotions can be intense. When I first became a facilitator, I worried that some people might leave a workshop feeling worse. Since then, I’ve learned to trust that something magical happens when a process painting goes to difficult places.
Before painting, the dark feelings are churning around inside. After, you can step back from the painting and see their shape and color on the paper. Maybe some of that magic comes from taking the emotion out of your body and putting it on paper. Maybe some of it happens when you can step back and take in what you created, allowing you to see and reflect and not just feel. Painting allows the emotions to come out a way that is totally safe and without hurting anyone else. After all, it is just a picture, nobody else needs to see it.
I’m sure someday a painter will tell me that she felt miserable after a workshop (and if that painter is you, please let me know so that I can support you) but that will not shake my belief that magic happens when we truly listen to our own experience and allow it to guide us while putting paint on paper.
“There is a monster coming out of that cloud so I added more white because I don’t want a monster in this painting.”
“What do you notice as you look as your painting?”
“I’m feeling sad but I don’t want to put sadness in this painting. I want it to stay happy.”
“What color wouldn’t belong in this painting?”
“Black! Black really doesn’t belong.”
“I’m noticing a lot of energy around black. What would happen if you put it in anyway?”
“But it’s supposed to be a happy painting. Black isn’t a happy color.”
Our inner judge knows how things “should” be. It will give you so many reasons to ignore the quiet of voice of intuition that is calling you to take a risk, appreciate the complexity of life and to allow things to continue to evolve and change.
So, what might happen if you listen to that invitation, allow the monsters, the sadness, the color black to show up in your painting?
When I talk about process painting, many people like the idea of expanding your creativity and self-knowledge by playing with painting. At the same time, they often hesitate. "I'm not very creative", "I'm not intuitive" and, most often, "I can't draw!" I tell them, "It doesn't matter. The focus on your process, not the results. No one else will care what the painting looks like." They believe me, but they still don't want to do it. The problem isn't other people, it is their inner critic. That voice inside your head that points out all of your mistakes and shortcoming. It tells you, "It's not good enough." "You can/should/must do better." It tells you, "There is no point in doing something if you can't do it well."
But there is a secret that your inner critic doesn't know. Sometimes doing well is irrelevant. Can you fail at jumping in a puddle? Process painting is like jumping the mud puddle. There can be big splashes and small squishes. You might even be uncomfortable if you step on a pebble or your toes get cold. In the end, most people will say that they feel lighter, freer for the experience. And, in any case, they are guaranteed to be able to say "I chose to jump in a puddle today and I did it. Hooray for me!"
Process painting is such a magical experience that I want to share. My invitation to you: Paint. Play. Discover.