A couple weeks ago I bought a paint-by-number. You can stop laughing now. I had a week off but couldn’t afford to go anywhere. I knew I had a goal to organize my garage that week, but that was something so NOT enjoyable that I would need frequent breaks doing something I DID enjoy to maintain my motivation. (Ok, I confess. I do enjoy organizing things and I have received many “What were you thinking?” looks or comments about spending my vacation having gone through 91 secretary boxes of stuff being stored while I’m renting a room at a friend’s house. I was tired of having to go through a dozen boxes every time I needed to find something, so I went through them each with a voice recorder next to me, speaking out what was in each box as I numbered them; then I went inside and wrote each number and list of items on an index card. Very satisfying when you are done, not so fun when you are in process.)
As I would take a break, I’d allow myself a half hour or so of time to work on the paint-by-number. It’s pretty large. An authorized copy of a much larger work by a recognizable artist. While it’s not in my preferred palette of colors it’s a beautiful Parisian street scene set in the 1940s. I found it enchanting….
and frustrating. As I began to work on it, I enjoyed not having to think about what I wanted to do or accomplish or did it look enough like what I wanted it to look like that people knew what it was…like I do when I do my own artwork. I focused on finding clusters of the number that corresponded to the tiny tub of paint in my hand. I ended up having to buy “cheaters” (reading glasses) from the local drugstore as I was going cross-eyed trying to read the small, detail patches. I became increasingly frustrated with being able to see the numbers through the paint. I became more frustrated by the way you had to try to lay the strokes of paint alongside each other perfectly, so the lines didn’t show and so the shape of the color didn’t overlap onto the territories meant for a different hue. I lost track of the times I mistakenly covered up the number for an adjacent space because the brush they gave me was too big, and the smallest one I had among my own supplies was still too big.
As I held the painting up close enough to read the numbers, all I saw was the mistakes. The bleed throughs, the overlaps, the ugly brushstrokes that had been forced into play by trying to cover up the numbers. My jaw was tensing up every time I sat down to work at it. About halfway through I was ready to quit, it just wasn’t turning out like I had hoped.
Then, one night, after a few days of ignoring the painting, I glimpsed it from across the room and realized it actually looked pretty good. The distance, both in time from my last sit down with it, and from across the room, made all those flaws imperceptible. All I could see is what the original artist had captured (-ish).
I had been caught up in all the tiny little details, frustrated by all the tiny little problems. I missed the intention of beauty. I literally missed the bigger picture.
I do this a lot. In life, especially when my emotions are swinging like a pendulum, I tend to let the little problems become big ones. They add up, one on top of the other, until something as small as dropping my pencil becomes the dam-breaker and I end up in tears, convinced that it was the worst day ever. It’s something I’ve always done, and likely will continue to have to keep in check the rest of my life.
But the bigger picture is that I’m getting better at it. Now, instead of a year of gloom and doom, trying to glimpse any ray of light at the end of the tunnel (and likely shooting it down as an oncoming train) within half an hour I am reminded of the bigger picture. I look for the truth of the matter, like that my focus is in the wrong place or that I’m looking for something where I shouldn’t. Once I recognize that truth, I am almost instantly comforted and at peace. Granted, this has been an exercise I’ve been working on for over 20 years now…I’m just glad that as I’m getting older, the battles in this war last far less time. I guess that proves that point. That I am improving. That I am becoming stronger, more adept at fighting lies and finding truth. At least I hope so. I know I still have far to go, but I’m getting there.