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How to Approach the Canvas with Confidence

How to Approach the Canvas with Confidence

Eric Maisel

Hello, Dr. Maisel:

There’s something missing from my life and my art-making that I just can’t identify. It has to do with the “bigness” that I would like to feel and the “smallness” that I actually feel. That’s probably too obscure to make much sense, but maybe you have some ideas about what I’m feeling? -Cynthia L, San Jose, California.

Thank you, Cynthia.

It just might be a lack of feelings of grandeur.

We tend to associate the word “grandeur” with events like royal weddings and sights like the Grand Canyon. Hotels are grand, canals are grand, and cruise ships are grand. But something about that way of thinking prevents us from demanding grandeur from the other stuff of existence, like an image that we craft, a jam that we jar, or a kiss that we give. For more reasons that we can count, grandeur isn’t very present in our daily lives.

In all the meetings I’ve ever attended—faculty meetings, business meetings, meetings of therapists, and, yes, meetings of artists—I’ve never herd anyone say, “What’s wanted is a little more grandeur.” Have you? On the long list of things discussed when people gather, grandeur never appears. There are no parties honoring it, no organizations devoted to it, no lobbyists buttonholing members of Congress and whispering, “Support the grandeur bill and we’ll make it worth your while!”

I remember sitting in a sterile coffee-break room in a suite of offices, writing by hand before the class I taught began. In a corner of the room were some boxes of computer parts. There was a soda machine, a microwave, a copy machine, a fire extinguisher, a sink, a wastepaper basket, and a metal cabinet for office supplies. The walls were a dull blue-gray, the round table at which I sat was the same dull blue-gray, and so were the chairs and the floor.

But on the wall across from me was a poster of a Manuel Neri oil-on-paper called Alberica No. 1. It portrayed a woman with a blue face, a yellow torso, and burgundy legs. The top half of the background was a brilliant yellow and the bottom half was a striking blue. If I hadn’t had it or something like it on the wall to look at, I would surely have died of grandeur deprivation in a room like that.

Think about your own life. What last stirred feelings of grandeur in you? Was it something you saw on the commute to your day job, some reality show episode, or something you experienced at a meeting? Probably not. My hunch is that you were last inspired by music, a film, a passage in a book or a piece of art. You stopped, listened to the music, and said to yourself “How beautiful!” or “How powerful!” or “This is good stuff!” You were transported. In the back of your mind you whispered “I should be creating and doing work this strong.” You said to yourself, but maybe not in such a way that you could hear the message clearly, “Without this beauty I would die.”

Without a Neri on the wall or Mozart in the air or Tolstoy in our hands we would wither away, no matter how good our benefits and stock options at our day job. We need grandeur to survive. As everyday creative people and as artists, it is up to us to supply it for ourselves and for others. But we tend to forget our possibilities and our responsibilities. We forget that we are grand creatures who have it in us to create. We forget that grandeur is available and that we can create it ourselves.

One way to prove the exception as an artist is to remember the reality and the importance of grandeur. Demand grandeur from your own work. I’m certainly not talking about subject matter choices: we are centuries beyond presuming that an image of a royal gala or a religious scene is grander than an image of a potato or an abstraction. I am talking about things that arise from our heart, our head, and our hands with the power to move our fellow human beings. I am talking about the intention we hold, to create—choose a word that you like—something powerful, beautiful, admirable, meaningful, resonant, or grand. Maybe there is no right word: but you know what I mean.

Next: Approach the Canvas with Intent →

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