Blank Canvasses & Rock Portraits

Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to paint landscapes, Bob Ross style.1

You buy the materials, learn some techniques, make a space for yourself to work your art, and you get started. Green meadows, grey, rocky hills in the distance, blue skies and deeper blue lakes, trees… and the result is ugly.2

Okay, that’s fair. That’s to be expected. You’re just a beginner. So, you spend some time studying shading techniques, to add some texture to your creation. Skies, clouds, nice and easy. Hills, okay, they’re big and not very complex but at least you can tell them apart, sorta. Meadows… not looking good. Halfway through painting all your greenery you pause to take stock of this. You’ve put a lot more time into this, but again you’re not surprised. You’re making use of new techniques, and you need to properly take the time to really figure out how to make it work well,3 but a thought begins to creep up as you begin to finish off that meadow.

“Where do I fit the lake into this?”

You spend some time — maybe a bit too long — thinking about it. You try to work out the problem in your head, but no clear solution presents itself. You try to move forward without it, but you don’t make it very far before you realize that it’s a necessary component to this, uh, landscape.4 Realizing that you’re at an impasse, you decide to scrap this project. You tell yourself that the time wasn’t wasted5 and that this failure, like all failure, was an opportunity to learn.

You dust yourself off, and resolve to press forward, ignoring the creeping feeling of dread building up inside you.

The next landscape, you pay careful attention to where you will place your lake — and you do! You manage to make more progress, overcoming obstacles you previously failed to, but still your task is persistently frustrated. One time, the meadows looked awful. Another, the trees. Now, you just can’t make sense of how the lighting on the hills is supposed to work in the trees, and you’re pretty sure the skies you’re crafting make no sense, and no matter how long you look at it you just cannot comprehend what your hands have wrought.

You try again.

You stand in front of a blank canvas, the symbol of infinite potential, and… nothing happens. You mentally sort through the steps to painting a landscape, and still nothing happens. You write a to-do list of every step you need to take to paint a landscape, and still nothing happens.6 You decide to take an early weekend. Give yourself some time away from the thing so you can approach it later with a fresh mindset.

You wake up on Monday, filled with a renewed sense that you can take on the world. You have a nice, easy but filling breakfast to fuel your morning’s work, then approach your problem once more.

As you enter your studio, a feeling of pure dread washes over you.

The blank canvas is still there. You go to sit down, but it’s already too late. Your defeat is certain. Like before, your mind is overcome with chaos. You stare down the canvas, mustering all your willpower to just do something and yet that something you seek, that thing your entire soul is pushing towards, is wholly and completely elusive. You’ve never tried harder in your life, you know exactly what to do — dip that paintbrush in some blue and paint a calming sky — but try as you might nothing happens.

You could tolerate not finishing any of your paintings. Even in other creative pursuits, you’ve never really felt satisfied by having created something. What drives you — what is supposed to drive you — is the act itself. Where painting failures was once a delight, failing to paint feels worse than just about anything you’ve ever felt.7

They say idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and in your current state you know this to be true because the only one of your emotions you can recognize at the moment is that you’re pretty sure you’re in Hell.

You put away the canvas, and the rest of your painting materials. Your dreams are shattered, and the pieces hurt to touch, so you give up on the pursuit altogether.

Unfortunately, that creative drive does not give up on you.

Inside you is a motor, and that motor drives you to make new things and to put them into the physical world.8

So, you sigh, and do the minimum you can to stave off that drive: You take out your canvas, your paints, your easel, and your brushes. You need subject, a simple one, one so simple that you can’t hope to get bogged down in any kind of complexity. You storm out of your studio, outside, take 8 seconds to look around, see a rock that should be easy enough to haul inside, and set it down on a table inside. Yeah, that’ll do.

You whip out your white and black paints. Mix up two shades of grey. You absentmindedly brush a whole layer of one of the greys onto your canvas. Once you’ve covered most9 of the canvas, you grab another brush and dab onto the other grey and paint just enough to solidly fill a shape that roughly ressembles the real rock.

The result is, of course, bad. Awful. Not even close to good enough, but it doesn’t matter. Even if it met all your standards, you still wouldn’t be satisfied with the result. You gave up on satisfaction long before you ever even dreamed of painting.10 Results have never rewarded you. What you have instead is something far better than the feeling of accomplishment.

You’ve achieved Minimum Creativity.

After cleaning up, you retire from the studio relieved of the burden to create.

Your relief, of course, does not last very long. The next day, your brain once again tickles you with the urge to Make More. Forced to oblige it, you once again set yourself to the task. You get everything in order, but choose to make radical departure from your last work by mixing three greys. Your ambition grows. You fill in a grey background, slap most of a slightly differently grey shape together, then dip a small amount of the Third Grey onto your brush. Slowly, you dab grey #3 onto the canvas just where the light of the studio is failing to reach the real rock, trying not to commit too much. As you dab, you see the lighting begin to take shape. You finish the side of the rock, and… well, it’s still ugly, but it’s less ugly. Minimum Creativity Achieved. You ponder maybe using something brighter to actually define the shape of the canvas' rock into something more ressembling that of the real deal, but you decide not to push your luck today.

The last thing you need today is to unachieve Minimum Creativity. At least you had some fun today.

Of course, today ends at some point, and a new today comes to light. Back to the studio and the rock and your creative outlet. As you paint your dull grey background, you begin to remember what you’d pondered the day prior — What if you did try to brighten up that one spot? — and without anything else to direct your creativity to a new place11 you’re left to surrender to your insane idea. You retake the same steps as yesterday, then begin to dab some off-white12 onto the part of the canvas' rock that is roughly analogous to where the One True Rock is most brightly illuminated. It looks okay, but it’s pretty clear you overpainted and now you have a rock that is so bright it practically creates its own lens flare. You tell yourself that it’s some stylistic choice and set the work down for the day. Minimum Creativity Achieved.

You perservere on this foolish thing for… a while. Longer than you want to tell anyone else. Some repetitive strain injuries start to develop, so you skip a day every now and then. Maybe a month.13 At least, at this point, you’re actually spending a not-insignificant amount of time making still life portraits of some rock you found on the street, and your portraits are starting to get pretty detailed! It’s starting to get a little samey though, so you try to shake it up by touching up the rock itself with some of your paints, try make it a little more vivid. You think to yourself that you know this rock well enough to brighten up the right spots to really bring out the shape.

After all, you’ve painted this rock a lot — even if only indirectly.

With a renewed interest, you keep going. Now some of your stupid rock portraits are starting to look, well, you don’t want to say “good” because at this point you know this rock well enough to know that it’s irredeemably ugly, but the portraits definitely betray a certain level of competence.

You send one of your better portraits out to a friend as a gag gift. Not wanting the attention,14 you take care to fake some initials. You were pretty sure your friend would have enough of a sense of humour to at least keep the gift, but you were half-surprised when they asked where you’d bought it.

“Yard sale,” you lie. You know you don’t actually go yard sailing, but you’re pretty sure your friend doesn’t know that, your suspicions half confirmed by their lack of curiosity in reponse to your answer.

You continue rocking it out for a few weeks after this incident, but at this point the effort-to-Minimum-Creativity-Achieved ratio is starting to get tiring. You’re just too good at turning blank canvasses into rock portraits to actually feel like you’ve actually Achieved Minimum Creativity when you finish one.

So, you take some time to ponder whether or not it’s time to try painting landsc— and after a few dozen milliseconds of pondering you decide against it. Frantically, you search for a new outlet. Trees. More vivid than dull greys. More complicated. More challenging. Very challenging, actually, but you decide to take the same initial approach as you did with That Rock: start insultingly simple, then baby steps up to something competent. After some time — less time, this time — you move onto another novel piece of nature.

Eventually, you’ve mastered the arts of rocks, trees, meadows, and skies15. After mastering meadowry, you decided to challenge yourself by inserting your other known pieces into your works. You’d found that this was an excellent way not only to challenge yourself but also to bring novelty to those pieces which you’d previously mastered.

At first, it was tricky to integrate these disparate elements into a unified whole. You found that you needed still to unlearn some habits you’d picked up from your time focusing on each specific subject in isolation. However, your expertise gave you confidence that you could pull it off. You knew enough about each piece that it was not difficult to come up with concrete ideas on how to adapt them to the rest of your landsc—

Oh. Well then. That’s one way to reach one’s goals. Still, you know you won’t feel rewarded. The feeling you’ve been chasing is action, that feeling that you are doing something — not that you’ve done something. So for now, what you’re doing is something you’d imagined wanting to do. You enjoy the action while it feels fresh and exciting — and you’re overjoyed to realize just how long something so complex yet doable can feel fresh. You’ve improved yourself to a point where you can keep up the momentum for a good long while, easily achieving Minimum Creativity without having the entire thing come crashing down.

Of course, this feeling doesn’t last. You eventually move onto something else, to the dismay of your fans. Sometimes you get a spark for some kind of landscape, and you regularly put enough distance that it still feels fresh, but ultimately your spirit needs something else.

What will it be? Who knows.

Where does it end? Ask Sisyphus.16

  1. Okay, maybe not in his style, but in the sense that you both share a subject. ↩︎

  2. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have what you consider to be high standards. The last thing you want is to be a purveyor of cheap landscapes. ↩︎

  3. This is decidedly, unarguably, not perfectionism. Where others say not to let perfect be the enemy of good, you say you refuse to let satisfactory be the enemy of quality. ↩︎

  4. Yes, this is a metaphor. ↩︎

  5. There may be regrets, but regrets are proof that time isn’t wasted. ↩︎

  6. You know to-do lists only make things worse, but at this point you’ve run out of options. ↩︎

  7. To your confusion, some people call you lazy. The only reaction you can muster is to ask yourself “If this is what laziness feels like, why does anyone want to be lazy?” You’ve given up on trying to convince those whose actions betray a delight in hurting you. ↩︎

  8. In my case it’s the digital world but I don’t see much of distinction. ↩︎

  9. Well, okay, not really “most” but at least “enough,” I guess. ↩︎

  10. This is, unfortunately, not true for me. ↩︎

  11. Because it isn’t creativity if it isn’t at least new to you. Your creative drive demands it to be so. ↩︎

  12. You’re not emotionally ready to commit to full white. ↩︎

  13. It happens, and that’s okay. ↩︎

  14. You’re pretty sure you can’t handle it at this point. ↩︎

  15. From the get go, you felt that the meadows were missing something, opting to set them against skies purely to stave off the boredom. ↩︎

  16. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” - Albert Camus ↩︎