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When you want to burn your work

Recently a friend commissioned me to do a painting of James Baldwin. I had been wanting to do a portrait of Baldwin since 2018, but I just couldn't get started. Now I feel the pressure of someone's expectation of a finished painting pushing me forward.

Since I started this painting in August, it has been a LABOR. When people say that if you do what you love, you won't work a day in your life, let me tell you - they're lying. What actually happens is you work your ass off, because you love it so much that you can't stand to give anything less than everything you've got.

Here's a little glimpse into what that process looks like for me. Not too long ago, I finished another commission for someone who wanted an icon painting of Black Madonna. Here's how it looked fairly early on:

A partially finished oil painting of Black Madonna

I was so frustrated with not being able to get the lips just right (I find lips really hard to paint), and I felt like the eyes lacked any depth or emotion, but I was happy with how the halo turned out. At this point, I thought it would never actually look good, but I kept going so that at least it would be finished.

Many many hours later, I had made some progress on the painting but little progress in my mental perspective of how it was "working":

The eyes looked better, and it was starting to feel more like I wanted it to, but I still felt something was off. I had decided to use red for her clothing, but it suddenly felt all wrong. At this point, I had to decide whether to just press on to get done or to repaint the clothing with a new color, hoping that it would be an improvement.

I decided to repaint over the red, and kept going. I wanted to burn it several times, and nearly started over at one point. Writer Maureen McHugh describes this (sometimes torturous) process as the "life of a project." Here it is in infographic form by writer and artist Austin Kleon:

This is basically the process I go through with every piece of art I create - not intentionally, of course, but in the inevitable way that things go when your hands simply cannot make what your brain wants to see, and your brain can't stop hoping that you can make it if you just keep trying.

I finally did finish Black Madonna (and put prints up for sale on my Etsy shop), and I think my friend was happy with the finished painting. I even felt kind of content when I looked at it every now and then. But then I started on James Baldwin, and the process began all over again. Currently I'm in the "I just need to burn this and start over" phase, willing myself to keep putting brush to canvas until this, too, somehow hopefully transforms into something I can look at every now and then and feel kind of content.

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