Sunday Skills: weekly, informal articles on trying to get better by examining all the little stuff (which invariably reveals itself to be the big stuff).

Norman Rockwell


Today I wanted to talk about marks. I said I would last week, and that discussion follows nicely from my last article. In fact, I have about 80% of an article on marks that I really like written. But it’s just not ready, and it’s not going to be – even though it’s been 80% done for three days.

Why am I saying this instead of just finishing the article and posting it? Because this weekend my Mom and Dad are in town. I spent the first day they were here thinking constantly in the undertow of my mind that I’d have to find a little pocket of time somewhere; I’d have to get focused and finish this article – around a family wedding and between heart-to-hearts and probably instead of sleeping – because that’s what I said I’d do. This article is “weekly,” after all, and I’d already set the topic. So even though my own awesome mom and dad were RIGHT THERE IN THE ROOM, I was somewhere else. Was I with my parents, or was I composing the article in my mind? I didn’t know what my priority was, and so I had no priority: I was doing neither. 

This is surprisingly common in painting, too. We fail to name our priority, so we don’t really know what our paintings are about. Drama or dynamic action? Humor or horror? We want them to do everything – to be so, so much. Because paintings have meant a lot to us. We want our next painting to have dynamic lighting, and gorgeous mark-making, and this character over here is sad, and that one’s leaping through the air, and oh yea chromatic aberration (I heard that’s a  cool thing), and the planet is being mined for ore, and the galactic alliance doesn’t know AND THE EVIL EMPEROR ZERG IS WATCHING AND WOODY’s – wait. No, that’s Toy Story now.

But seriously, a painting isn’t like that – it can’t be. A painting is a single moment, united by a single priority. Maybe the priority of a painting is a mood: “spooky.” Maybe it’s a subject: “check out this cool space gear.” Whatever it is, everything in the painting is for or against that idea, is in some way a reaction to that priority. All must be in harmony. Even the most complicated Rockwell paintings, replete with empathetic characters, tender exchanges and nostalgic settings, have a singular priority: often a story moment that unites everything and gives the painting direction.

“Our boy is leaving for school.”

Gut punch.

So that’s how it’s done: painting by painting, saying one thing at a time. Just one thing! We have to say what we’re trying to say. We have to do what we’re doing. We have to know our priority. It sounds so simple, but somehow I always need the reminder. 

Once I realized what was going on in my head (why I felt so “argh” and stressed about my article), I felt totally at peace, and fell back into the moment. The pieces settled into place, and I was with my parents again. My priority with them is to enjoy and be present for our time together, because I love them. My priority here at Muddy Colors is not to rush unfinished articles out into the world because of some arbitrary schedule, but to write the reminders that I need to read, like this one. If I need to be reminded, maybe others will appreciate the reminders too. That’s my sincere hope.

So try and remember, Tommy, that the mental feeling of “argh,” of stress, is a cue. A cue to ask yourself: what’s my priority? What’s the one thing I’m doing? Better results will follow. The masters know all about this:

“Painting is just like making an after-dinner speech. If you want to be remembered, say one thing and stop.” 

-Charles W. Hawthorne