Laying the Groundwork

Last night I decided to start a new painting. If I’m being honest, it was a feeble attempt to self-soothe. I turned on the music, poured myself a glass of Sangiovese, primed the canvas and began laying down the first layer of paint.

This stage of the painting process is typically referred to as “underpainting” and is undoubtedly the most vulnerable stage. A blank canvas almost shouts, “Alright, now….get inspired! Turn this into a masterpiece!” Every single insecurity whispers: You don’t have what it takes—You’re not that good, anyway—Why even try when someone like *insert favorite contemporary artist* is clearly better than you?— I think I’m a little hungry, as it turns out. A blank canvas is incredibly intimidating.

And it doesn’t get better right away. Even after the underpainting stage, it’s just this wimpy, bare-bones painting that looks like something a 5yr old brought home from school. People will walk by when I’m in the middle of this stage and see it sitting there all dumb and basic-looking, and I wonder if they think I’m a terrible artist and should just give up. Last night my grandmother walked by and said, “Wow, that’s looking great!” I assumed she didn’t really mean it, so like I usually do, I brushed off her compliment, and mentioned that this was just the under-painting—you know, like the layer I’ll paint over.

Nope, no insecurities here.           

What struck me after she walked away was how perfectly this painting process mirrored my experience in life. How the first steps of any new season are the shakiest. The finished piece is revealed quite slowly. It’s not all that pretty until you’ve added a few layers of paint to the canvas and step back to gain perspective on what you’ve been working on.  Whether it is a new job, a new city, career path, child, a newly emptied nest, a relationship or something else entirely—it takes time to lay the groundwork (the underpainting), and eventually see the colors begin to blend into something beautiful, something you’re proud to share.

Like the beginning stages of a painting, most life changes bring with them feelings of uncertainty, self-doubt, emptiness and confusion. The challenge is to keep working through that awkward, unclear stage and begin to add a few more strokes—broad strokes at first—and then to start painting in the details once the foundation is solid enough. It will be messy and it will not look put-together like you want it to. It will probably look like something a 5-year-old painted—and how fitting—because a 5-year-old is pretty new to this world…much like you are to this season of life.

Interestingly, aside from underpainting, there is virtually no other way to get that inner glow that artists work so hard to achieve. Artists will oftentimes paint this first layer in the opposite (or complimentary), color palette from what they’re actually looking at. For example—if an artist is looking at the green leaves of a tree—the underpaint color they’d mix up and lay in would be reddish (try to recall the color wheel from grade school here). Using the intended color’s compliment underneath adds depth to the painting because the underpaint makes the paint color that sits on top of it more vibrant and luminous. Chances are, laying the groundwork in a painting, as in life transitions, will sometimes feel counter-intuitive. So even though it might not make sense to you, or the untrained eye, laying in that messy, backward underpaint is all part of creating a beautiful painting. If you jump to the final step without paying attention to the underpainting, you might end up with a finished painting, but it will appear very flat and dull.

As I took a step back from my painting that night, I gained a new perspective on this transitional season of my life. I wonder if we could all benefit from taking a look at our own painting. Understanding where we are in the process might give us a little compassion for the bumpiness we all experience as we strive to create this brilliant painting we call life.

As you face your blank canvas or trudge through the newness of this season—try not to let yourself get caught up worrying about what other people think when they walk by and look at your work. Most likely, they’re admiring the fact that you’re actually doing it—something they aren’t able to do (at least that’s what people tell me, and I’m trying to believe it).

We are all working on our own messy canvases and no one knows what the hell they’re doing. Trust the process and the journey you are on…and just paint the next stroke.

Even when it looks like this 😉


–Photo documentation from that night