Oil on Canvas

“if i wait any longer i will never paint anything”

This is the chaotic splendor of my painting’s origin. From the windows that line up between our houses, I stare at the neighbors eating dinner, observe the thoughtless bites taken amidst conversation and the children rolling baby carrots around their plates. I have alternated between doing this and watching The Office reruns for the past hour. Preschool art projects decorate their fridge, rife with the vibrant clutter of finger paint. I envy their confident completion, the way they hang like features in an art gallery. I am three pages of research notes, 12 thumbnail sketches, two ruined paintbrushes, and a practice painting into nothing, not even a blank canvas. The uncertainty of my self-taught knowledge of oil painting has inhibited any desire to actually make something. I retreat into the comfort of drawings. I watch another five speed-painting videos on YouTube. I read another article on proper oil paint technique. I wait until I’m sure that if I wait any longer I will never actually paint anything, which would only be slightly worse than completely butchering the piece.  

With a scattered outline of a plan, I pinch small quantities of paint from metal tubes. Splayed haphazardly on a palette, the concentrated pigments appear as if they’ve been divinely concocted, their stiff consistency perfectly rich and balanced. I cautiously follow online painting instructions and mix them with linseed oil and titanium white to create ideal hues. Before they are fully combined, the substances resemble condensed galaxies, swirls of paint particles suspended in pale space. I prepare a canvas, stretching fabric over a wooden frame, applying thick layers of gesso. Even a small canvas intimidates as the effort required for painting becomes abruptly evident in its fresh emptiness. I hold the brush over the cotton expanse.

I begin to paint.

The process of oil painting is a moth stumbling from its cocoon contorted and wet-winged. It falters, fumbling over prior forms, and shakes itself free with great spasms of intuitive movement. Without the slightest certainty that it might ever become something more, a painting is first a dot, then a line, and then a thin layer. The thick fluid settles stubbornly onto the canvas, its wet surface easily perturbed and quickly muddled by the addition of further color. For several days the layer is maddeningly malleable with a single movement capable of compromising the entire expanse and prolonging the entire affair for days more.  Still, with each new application of paint the work becomes a fresh image, a tentative development of intention.

As the process goes on, I abandon all formalities, drown out my preconceived notions with the In the Heights soundtrack on repeat. The painting begins, however deliberately, to expose me. Muscle exhaustion reveals itself in the inconsistencies of coloration. Concentration disregards the accumulation of paint smudges by the various fingerprints along the edges of the canvas. Personality adds hints of color, slowly creating a comprehensive tone. Passion molds the sharp crests of the final brushstrokes. Relief signs its name on a corner of the canvas. The creation becomes a collaborative discovery between paint and mind, a new dimension of each contributor realized with every careful move of the paintbrush.

I wonder if the painting is too large to hang on my own fridge. I wonder if this is how oil painting is intended to be.