Molly Fisk: Starting Over

14866199984_82342e2e5c_zImage by JackPeasePhotography via Flickr. (CC

Last year, in a fit of blinding courage, I started taking an oil painting class. I’ve been talking about learning to paint for a long time. There are artists all over my family and I’m envious of what they can do. My aunt and two cousins are painters, another’s a sculptor, Mom was fabulous at portraits in pencil or charcoal, two of my siblings are good photographers. In my thirties, I was a sweater designer, which is also art but of a slightly more constrained sort. Then I became a writer and only expressed my visual glee through paint on my walls and flowers in the yard.

My friend Jane finally cajoled me into her art class, taught by a guy whose paintings I love. He’s not the most step-by-step teacher, but when I get lost Jane can answer my questions. We paint from photographs, and I’m happy to say that after a year I have produced three small oils.

Maybe you know what it’s like to be competent all the time and then go back to being a rank beginner. Humbling. But kind of liberating, too. I flip-flop between impatience at not knowing how to accomplish what I’m aiming for and little shivers of delight at mixing a wonderful color or really capturing the contour of a hillside. Right now I’m sticking to one subject: Mt. Tamalpais. I grew up on this mountain’s flanks near San Francisco — its shape is imprinted on my retinas. So far I’ve painted it from two sides and I’m about to embark on a third view, not of the whole mountain, just cliffs falling into the ocean near Stinson Beach.

What’s most instructive about this class is how hard it is to see the thing you’re looking at. The brain really wants to take short-cuts, make assumptions, average out what it knows about, in my case, mountains, and then move on. When I look at a photo my brain says, “Oh, yeah — mountain at this angle, sky this color, no problem.” Then I paint what I thought I saw and the mountain’s top is too low and way off center, the sky isn’t that smoky gray-blue at all, it has blue, gray, green, and three different shades of yellow in it. Which doesn’t make any sense but now I’m learning to look closer, I can see those colors.

If I’m getting shape and color so wrong in a simple 8 by 10 landscape, what is my brain making of more complicated matters like world politics and human relationships? It doesn’t bear thinking about, except in the larger sense of arguing for patience, to remind me there’s more to certain situations than meets the brain, even if it’s all there right before my eyes.

Starting over has had other benefits — reminding me what it’s like to know nothing, not even what questions to ask, which makes me a more compassionate teacher. Taking me back to my early years of writing so I can appreciate how far I’ve come. And giving me the felt experience of acquiring a new skill. Not that we’ll necessarily need more landscape painters if the world falls apart, but now I know I’m not too old to learn new tricks, so I can cope with whatever happens.


Recommended For You

Molly Fisk: Glass Houses

2841505578_6a64dcbef5_zHumans are made up mostly of water, stardust, and self-involvement. Our main lifetime recreation is making mistakes. Even if you’ve never once done anything wrong — and pardon me while I raise an eyebrow — it really is tempting Fate to cast the first stone.

Molly Fisk: Younger Friends

1183108855_301862f316_zI like the energy of people young enough to be my children, which I don’t get anywhere else, since I don’t have kids of my own. There’s so much fun stuff going on in the world that this age group is interested in and I know nothing about.

Molly Fisk: Proximity and Distance

4592600750_4b4d4ed3fc_zThis week I’ve been thinking about proximity and distance. When you’re a poet you get to do this sort of thing and actually admit it to people — thinking is part of your job description, and the odder the subject matter, the better.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Jeanie May 7, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    Stellar work you’ve written here about blind courage. Your journey is so important for me to read. Calms my heart. Thank you!

  • 1010ParkPlace May 7, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I tried watercoloring when I was in France last week. What a humbling experience! Brenda

  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger May 7, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Dear Molly,
    Thank you for the humbling thoughts on what we might get wrong and how starting afresh makes all the difference.