I recently found myself on a dairy farm. While this revelation in itself wasn’t surprising, I stand on farms and paint barns and landscapes most days of the week, what was surprising was my subject material.
Wait, you’re telling me you were surprised to find dairy cows on a dairy farm? No. I’m telling you what I found surprising was what was on my canvas.
If you know me, you know I “don’t do” animals or people. You see, somewhere along the way I was told I wasn’t any good at painting figures and I just gave up. I quit trying. My ego was bruised beyond recognition. I retreated to the comfortable.
Yet, here I was on this very cold morning trying to paint a bovine who wouldn’t stand still for me. the whole time I was wondering, what the heck am I thinking? Why am I bothering? I can’t do this. And guess what?
I proved myself right. My painting stunk. Misshaped cows stood in awkward poses on my canvas. They looked imported from either a very early Picasso or Chernobyl, I couldn’t tell which. Very humbling indeed.
However, this time the face of failure was different. Not because I stunk. No, this time was different because failure smiled at me. It may have even mooed once or twice. For the first time, I wanted to do bad art to get to the good art I know is still inside me. It’s there, waiting patiently for me to do my part.
I owned the mess on the canvas and I take full responsibility for it. (But not the mess on the ground, that’s the cow’s not mine.)
Taking a cue from the Masters I went back into my studio UNDEFEATED (and I dare say a bit defiant) eager to learn. I began researching cow anatomy, cow measurements, cow pictures, cow breeds, and cow parts. Did you know a cow has a “hock”? I didn’t. Or a “withers”? Who the heck named cow parts? Was there a committee? Were they laughing late one night at the Cow Parts Naming Committee, “No wait, I got a better one, we’ll call it a…” and then they all laughed and poured another round of milk shots. And while they drank milk, I began drawing cows with my brush – trying to get a cow’s gesture.
Remember earlier when I said “I take full responsibility for it.” In my failure that morning I’d actually won. I defeated the ghost of misshaped figures past. Was I embarrassed to show the dairy farmer that painting? You bet. We both knew it was a bad painting.
The crux of the story is this: If you have ever been told you can’t do something. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself if you want to own it. If you choose to own it, then do something about it. Don’t retreat for many years like I did. Think of all the lost opportunity my self-imposed exile cost me. Don’t be like me in this regard. Instead, be like me in owning what’s yours and doing what you can about it. Do the work. Practice. Learn your scales. It isn’t supposed to be easy to make art. Sorry, it’s not. If it was, everyone would be doing it.
Since that first step into the cow field I have been back. My cows are still very shaky at this stage of the game but can you imagine where I’ll be a year from now? Maybe I’ll get invited to the next Cow Parts Naming Committee and hoist a mason jar of milk with them. Or, maybe, I’ll just go paint some more cows.