We’re grateful to offer this guest post by Caroline McCartie, a process painter from Massachusetts. Caroline completed a three-year apprenticeship program with The Painting Experience and is a friend and facilitator of this work.
An empty expanse of paper is taped to my wall. I’m excited to begin. The paper stares back at me and says, without hesitation: Paint a big, red flower.
I say, also without skipping a beat: “Nope. Not painting that today.”
I lean over my paints to choose the color that has the strongest pull. No color jumps out to catch my eye more than red. I take a breath. I fidget. “Okay, okay. Red. But no flower.” I dab a little red onto my palette and then pour a huge puddle of purplish-burgundy. Just to be clear about who is in charge of painting what today.
A burgundy blob is the first mark to bloom onto the blank, white space. I add a few thin red lines. I grab some pink and orange and sweep them into a tall, rounded arch. It’s all feeling fine except for the distraction of the as yet unpainted big, red flower that’s blinking on and off like a neon sign over on the left side of the paper. I’m knee-deep in resistance by now, and it's taking some effort to keep pushing away. Resistance, I’ve learned, can bring the flow of painting to a screeching halt.
Fortunately, I’ve also learned that resistance is just a knock on the door. A call to wake up. Listen, it’s saying. I want you to paint this. And then follow me, because I have something to show you. You’re going to not know and maybe not like what you’re doing for a while. But you can trust this.
I do trust that call. Its offered up one unanticipated insight after another to me over the years. So, I say: “Fine.”
One big, red flower flies off of my brush, followed quickly by four more, until the paper is filled from edge to edge with five red flowers. I don’t like them!
Trust that, bring the dislike in here, the painting says.
I paint long, sharp teeth in the center of two of the flowers. I outline all of the edges with prickly, black spikes. It’s weird, but it feels completely right. The momentum is shifting now.
I divide the biggest red flower into petals which become, out of nowhere, ten red birds. The original burgundy blob becomes a woman in a red cloak with a tall, pointy hood. She’s kneeling in a blue puddle. I love her, but I don’t know why.
Sometimes, as odd as this may sound, I tell my painting how I’m feeling. I wrap the ties of my apron around my waist, open my paint box and face the painting: “There’s a dark, heavy feeling today. I can’t name it and I can’t chase it away.”
Follow that feeling. Bring it in here, the painting says.
The woman in the red cloak cries a hundred blue tears. I think the puddle she’d been kneeling in had been tears all along, before she’d even shed them.
After painting the tears, the feeling begins to spiral down into something more difficult. I can’t quite name it. I keep painting, feeling, following. Black lines come shooting in from all edges of the paper, surrounding the big, red flower.
Black forms that look like birds or sharks enter from the edges and fly/swim towards the red birds, threatening. Black snakes appear, a lot of them, and they’re wriggling towards the center. I let them in.
The next day, I paint with friends. I tell them I’m stuck.
They ask: “Is there a color you could start with? What size brush feels right and where on the paper do you want to go?”
I don’t know what to do or what will happen, but I say: “Something is calling up there in the corner, above the woman. It feels empty there.” I choose brown. A medium brush.
“Good,” they say. “Go.”
I watch and wait until something comes. There’s an animal there. A horse? A dog. One dog with long, brown ears appears. I paint another and because that felt good, I paint one more. They all have sharp teeth and creepy, red eyes. They surround the woman, growling.
I tell my friends: “I’m afraid if I paint anything else, I’ll ruin the whole thing.” But I know it's not finished.
My friend says: “If you didn’t have to worry about making sense or ruining it, what would you paint? And where?”
The space to the left of the crying woman is calling. I go there reluctantly, with black. I paint an arrow-shaped line, then a whole series of them. I hate them! I wish I hadn’t painted them! I’m frustrated, uncomfortable. I wait.
The next thing that feels right is a grey knife blade behind the arrow lines. Then the tip of the arrow keeps going, going until it ends in a point in the middle of the woman’s body. It pierces a hole and explodes a little, into the shape of a big, red flower.
I was able to follow the trail of breadcrumbs in this painting. I’m not always able to do that, but this time I trusted the images that came, allowed them in and painted through the discomfort with and confusion about the strange feelings that were arising. In the end, I marveled at the process of being led, full circle, back to the image I’d rejected at the beginning. The last mark I made, after the explosion of the flower on the woman’s heart, was a tiny, white figure in the center of the circle of birds. I felt relief and I knew it was finished, though I still didn’t have a clue about the meaning of this whole experience.
The following morning, I came back to face the painting with fresh eyes and was surprised that I hadn’t seen before what was clearly there on the wall in front of me. The imagery described, in dream-like form, the river of worry and trepidation that flows below the surface of my awareness. It’s dread. For weeks, I’d been trying to find a name for the constant flurry in my belly, the restriction anchored right under my ribcage, the sensations that whisper, over and over again, that all is not well. Once named — it’s dread! — I can more easily meet it. Then, the shift in relationship can begin: from adversarial “other” to curious companion. This, for me, is the magic of process painting. Sometimes I tell the painting how I’m feeling. And, as odd as this may sound, sometimes it tells me.
To further explore the topic of working with resistance, see Annie Rousseau's blog posts Facing Resistance in Painting and Working From the Body: Feeling and Painting. Also take a look at Stewart Cubley's post, Be Fierce, The Way Out Is In!
To learn more about opportunities to paint with us see our schedule of upcoming process painting workshops and online painting classes.