This past June, I picked up a paintbrush, dipped it into acrylic paint and applied it to a canvas for the first time since ninth grade. That’s some thirty-eight years ago. With that act, I began a hobby that I’ve come to enjoy tremendously. Which is surprising, because if anyone had asked, I would’ve told them I had no artistic talent whatsoever and no inclination to try to paint.
However, I’ve come to understand that I’m a hobbyist who knows his limitations and is quite happy working within them.
That is, to be frank, another surprise. To my great misfortune, I am, or perhaps was, a perfectionist. Typically, if I couldn’t do something really really well – okay, perfectly – I didn’t try. Often when I did try, I strove for a level of perfection that led to perfection paralysis. Yet, with painting, I’m quite happy to make mistakes and learn from them. There is no overriding desire for perfection. There’s only a desire to make the effort and, in making that effort, to learn.
With the first painting you see in this post, which is also my first acrylic painting, mistakes are fairly obvious. I didn’t have a sense of how much paint, or how little paint, to add to my brush. Nor did I have any understanding of what colours to apply first, how to blend colours or the drying time of the paint. I was, in all respects, a complete novice.
By my third painting, I’d learned the trick of not adding too much paint to the brush and rudiments of how to blend. I’d learned to apply lighter colours first and apply darker colours over them. I’d learned about the drying time of acrylic paints, about the poor quality of the paints I’d bought, and about the poor quality of the brushes I’d bought. But I was okay with this. I’d bought materials that fit my modest budget and I’d accepted that I’m a hobbyist.
But I’m also realizing that the more I paint, the more I gain in confidence. My lines are crisper, my application of paint is less muddy. And this is good for me because over the years of struggling with mental health issues, my self-esteem was massively eroded. Now, I can build my self-esteem by trying something completely new. Simply put, if I start off with no skill, I can only get better, not worse. As I get better at painting, my self-esteem grows that little bit.
In this context, better is relative. My third painting is clearly better than my first. And my most recent is clearly better than my third. However, each painting reveals that I’m a novice. And that’s also good for me. For not only is my self-esteem growing, but I’m also staying grounded, staying modest. I’m remaining within my limitations but acknowledging that those limitations have changed.
I’m not a great painter. I don’t pretend to be. But I am someone who suffers from extremely poor self-esteem who has found a tool that helps to improve it. Additionally, I’m someone who is learning to overcome his perfectionist side.
But painting brings other benefits to me. It’s fun. It’s a true pleasure to sit down with a blank canvas and then create something on it, even if that creation is a copy. Applying the paint begins a journey of discovery. While you may know the desired outcome, you really don’t know if you’ll achieve it. In my case, my lack of training and the poor quality of the tools I have, means that I don’t know what will happen when I start to blend or create definition along lines. This means that for me, and I suspect every artist, each painting is it’s own unique discovery.
In addition, painting is meditative. Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness to be “paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This definition can be so readily applied to painting. When I paint, I’m certainly paying attention, I’m doing it on purpose, I’m in the present moment and I’m painting non-judgmentally. So, to me, painting is an act of mindfulness.
When I paint, all of my attention is devoted to that task. I’m not thinking about the past, and I’m not thinking about the future. I’m thinking about the paint on my brush as it gets applied to the canvas. I’m thinking about the blend of colour or the crispness of an edge. I’m thinking about shade and tone and hue. Which means that any worries that may be plaguing me have been set aside, whether they be worries about future events which are yet to be, or ruminations over past events, which have already happened and cannot change. I am completely in the moment.
Additionally, I paint without expectation. Yes, I’ve improved, but I have no aspirations of perfection. I only aspire to enjoy what I’m doing, an aspiration which is satisfied each time. With no expectation, comes no judgment, no criticism, no negative self talk. That may come after as I seek to learn from possible mistakes, but even in that, it is about learning, not undermining myself with criticism.
My journey into painting began as a lark. I had nothing to lose and was open to both having fun and learning a new skill. This openness allowed me to discover a new activity. This new activity has benefited my mental health. My self-esteem is growing, my desire for perfection has waned and I remain more grounded. Moreover, it has added to my use of mindfulness in combating my illness. I ruminate less about the past, and worry less about the future as I learn, increasingly, to grasp hold of the present moment.
Painting is a hobby that I was lucky to find. I recognize that it isn’t for everyone. But I encourage each of you not remain open to unexpected opportunities to try something new. You may find, to your surprise and benefit, something you might grow to love.
About John Dickson
A lifelong battle with Major Depressive Disorder resulted in a suicide attempt. That attempt taught me the danger of being silent about my personal struggles with mental health. I've had to learn to be more open about my struggle. I now choose to reach out with the hope that someone will be inspired and end his/her own silence. I'm a dad, a blogger and a new convert to the power of social media.