Muse-ing - The secret of how a painting becomes a painting.

Parnassus or Apollo and the Muses - Simon Vouet c. 1640

Parnassus or Apollo and the Muses - Simon Vouet c. 1640

Everyone's heard of muses.  The common accepted theory is that there are nine of them on hand (when they feel like it) to assist the artistically inclined in their work. Some sport odd names like Melpomene and Terpsichore. They seem such dainty things … all Greco-Roman in swirling chiffon gowns and crowns of delicate anemones and snowdrops. They recline on giant cushions with arms draped languidly over brows. Feminine. Soft. Fickle! Most certainly fickle! Quite frankly, as a woman, their coquettish Victorian allure just doesn't work for me. For years I fought a losing battle looking for help from these demure prom queens. I came to realize that my inspiration lay elsewhere amongst the wild things; beneath tattered autumn leaves and polka-dotted poison Amanitas; in the quicksilver flash of a forest stream, in the dry bone clatter of a shaman's rattle, and a raven's raucous bark. Not bathed and anointed in rose oil mine … but furred and feathered, painted faces, sharp pointy teeth, furtive glances, wild and magical! Something more akin to a Brian Froud creation than say the ladies of Simon Vouet's painting.

If I'm in need of inspiration it's best I head off to the woods and not the nearest Roman bath. But even so, Inspiration is one of those things that can't be tracked and hunted. Trust me on this, I've tried … oh how I've tried! It doesn't leave footprints to follow when you're needy and grasping. It will leave footprints when you're relaxed and open and not really looking. I can't go to the woods and yell, “Where the f**** are you???!!!” That will likely result in a shower of pinecones on my head or a hemlock branch whipped across my face. If I go to the woods and enjoy the woods, it might sneak up and tap me on the shoulder … or not. Waiting doesn't work either because then the work becomes intermittent or worse, completely non-existent. The more you wait, the more It hides and the more anxious and needy you get, and the further away It gets because quite frankly, who wants to play with the needy, anxious neurotic? They're just not into that. Then you wear yourself out with pacing and hand-wringing, and acting out your own ridiculous artist-does-Downtown Abbey episode.

There's only one thing that ever really works and that is to simply show up. I think that applies to most everything in life. That's one of the hardest things. It seems counterintuitive. You want the flash of inspiration so you know what you're sitting down to paint. But oftentimes, in fact, more often than not, it works ass-backwards. You sit down, stare at the blank sheet of paper/canvas/computer screen, you pick up your pencil/brush/stylus and you have to make a mark, throw some colour on, do anything to beat down the BPT (Blank Page Terror).  I admit that I routinely go through spells of goofball panic where I believe I've suddenly forgotten how to paint. It's quite ridiculous but seems so amazingly real when I'm thinking it! Much later when the painting is done I will look at it and wonder who painted it!

But the wild things, the muses that follow you around like a cloud of invisible bumble bees, pay attention when you just show up. You sit there, you push paint around, or scribble and erase. The more you throw any sense of agenda out the window,  the more you play instead of "work", the more intrigued they become and the more they want to sneak in and nip at your fingers with their sharp pointy little teeth, and perch on your shoulder and blow ideas in your ear, the whole time gesticulating wildy as if to say, “try this!!” If you start strong-arming your own ideas and force the work to be that thing of perfection YOU have decided upon, they get all snotty with you and sulk, and suddenly you find yourself on your own again with an image that just isn't working. But if you give in, humbly say your mea culpas to them, and hand it back over, promising to supply just the arm and not the ego … they deliver.

And the next day … you do it all again. It took me a long time to learn that. Show up, pick up your artistic implement of choice and start. And then quietly, somewhere during the process, when you're not noticing, the muse beasties, the prom queens, whatever form your personal muses take, will join in and a party will happen in front of your eyes.

And THAT, my friends, is how a painting gets done in my house!