If you ever go look at my Holiday Cards, you'll see I've done quite a few over the years. That's actually just a small portion of the cards I've painted - there has to be over a hundred. Sadly, most of them just never got scanned or photographed for one reason or another. They came from a time when resourcefulness at the holidays was key, and I wanted to give the people I loved something at the holidays, but gifts were simply out of the question. But I get ahead of myself. Read on for the story behind my holiday cards...
Story of Holiday Cards
Back in the winter of 2001, I was a full-time Assistant Professor of Theatre (Scenic and Lighting Design) at a school in the midwest - one of the largest theatre programs in the country. I had gone into teaching because I truly enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed doing. I loved designing sets and lights for professional as well as academic settings, and bringing home lessons and stories for my students, and even taking them with me when I could. But the longer I stayed in academia, the more I discovered it just wasn't for me. It was taking a toll on my students and fellow faculty, and I was miserable.
So, throwing caution to the wind, I decided to go be a freelance designer. I got myself an agent, resigned as a faculty member, put my house on the market, and got a bunch of job offers out of the blue. I moved back to the east coast, and had an incredibly busy summer. The work and money were flowing in, and things were looking really, really good.
Then, September 11, 2001 happened.
If you read my previous story on The Gate (found here) you'll remember how dark things got for me. I mean, it was bad. I lost everything and had no work at all coming in. When it got to the holidays in 2002, I had literally almost no money at all for gifting, and as someone who enjoyed giving gifts, I was furious. The rage at having left a secure life behind (even if I was miserable) roared within me every single day, even during my favorite time of year - the holidays, and as the days went on, I got more and more miserable.
Creative in All Fields
Yet, at the same time, I began to work toward finding ways of giving that used my skills and ideas. Not expensive things, but things that piqued my curiosity and lit a spark within me. Using things I had lying around my studio, I started creating things. I tried making unique indoor fountains (yes - I had those parts lying around - weird, I know). Sculptures made out of leftover or discarded model pieces. I tried writing and making music. The list honestly goes on and on, and I think I've blocked most of them out because each and every one was a disaster. I wasn't making things as much as I was making a mess of things.
So fast forward to a few days before Christmas. I needed to get out of the house, so I drove over to Barnes & Noble to see what was new and "test drive" all the new books and comics and so on (man I really miss that). I remember it was getting late - the sun was already down, and all the little Christmas lights were on, making everything glow and sparkle. I was enjoying reading a lot of the books, and wanted all of them, but couldn't even consider buying one - especially any of the books in the Art section.
I was reading up on some watercolor techniques (because remember - zero formal training - so when it comes to techniques, I was like a sponge) and the things I found most interesting were the techniques that had a more "zen" approach to them. Ones where you let the paint work through you - don't force it into tight constraints. Let the paint do what it wants to. A technique where less is more. And considering my current circumstances, less was a really good thing.
Later on, when things would finally stabilize and I'd have things like...you know...an income...I would go and buy a lot of these books and keep them as resources. Some I still own to this day, and love to look and glance through - in an odd way, it's like coming home.
When I got home, I got out the remaining painting supplies I had left. I put enough painting supplies aside that if I somehow managed to land a job where I needed to do an illustration of a set, I could. The remainder was...well there wasn't much, but I had enough left to at least give it a shot a few times. Two sheets of paper, 5 or 6 tubes of color, and a handful of worn out brushes. I also borrowed my mom's water sprayer that she used to water her plants and her hairdryer.
Art Comes to Life
The big thing I remember reading about was the painting process. Mix up your paint. Make it watery. And then, before you do anything - do nothing. Sit. Clear your head. Don't think. I didn't realize it back then, but it was essentially a meditation. Just breathe. Get calm, get centered. And then, put the paint on the paper, and let it do what it needs to.
There's a whole lot more here about a technique that's important but it's not important to this story. The thing I remember as most important was my sparing use of paint. Whatever I did, I didn't have much, so it had to count, yet at the same time, to not make a big deal of it. Work with less, and let the natural order take its course. Let the water and the paint work together, and step out of the way.
Art as a Therapy
It was a short process. Maybe 5 steps, with lengthy drying times in-between (helped of course by mom's handy hairdryer). And I remember spending lots of time just being - not trying to force it or make something beautiful - just letting it happen. Taking time in-between coats to clear my head, and let whatever was going to happen, happen.
I used almost no paint. So little, that I wished I had more paper because what little I used I had left over. But when I applied that last spatter coat of white on the paper to mimic snow, and I stepped away...well...I couldn't really believe it.
I had never done this before. I had never done anything like it before. It was something amazing that I couldn't be more happy with, and made out of the need for less.
I knew I liked it, and I wanted to do it more, and later it would inspire me to change my entire theatrical design style to make it looser and more organic.
Change of Painting Style
Over the years, my styles have changed. I've adapted to different colors and layouts, and every year that I create them I learn the same lessons. Use less. Let go. Let the paint do the work. The paint wants to do the work.
You're just the instrument for it. You are the catalyst for the magic - but you cannot control the magic. The most you can do is choose the color, and then influence the paint to do what you want.
The Magic is The Simplicity
If you'd like to paint with me sometime, keep an eye on our Facebook page, where we hold online, live FB parties where you can learn to paint with me (check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/nelsonmakesart/). They're fun! Come hang out with us!