If your 2020 calendar looked like mine, it was packed with paint-outs, workshops, and gallery openings, as well as family and social obligations. Part of that was, what I thought, a “healthy dose” of travel. I am a full-time painter who runs his own gallery. I am also the co-founder of a busy studio school. I had just started my tenure as President of Plein Air Painters of the Southeast. Besides the workshops I had planned to teach, I was regularly mentoring artists in my studio. All of that came to a screeching halt last March.
In the beginning it was, of course, really frightening… the fear of the unknown for our entire world. It was also very complicated from the standpoint of home logistics. At that time our kids were ages 4 and 1, and my wife worked full time. For almost five months all four of us were at home 24/7. My wife and I were taking shifts, both trying to squeeze in each of our 8-hour work days while being full time stay-at-home parents. This included trying our hand at being our son’s prekindergarten teacher. I was the P.E. coach, art teacher, cafeteria manager, and music instructor. Luckily, my wife could handle the math and reading. We had daily picnics and spent a great deal of time digging in the dirt.
Our story was the same as many other people in the world. Just trying to do the best with the situation in which we had found ourselves. We cooked a lot of beans and made our own bread. The hermit in me certainly had no issues staying put. Once we got in the groove, the staying home part became a blessing. One of the most unexpected gifts I gained was the clarity and focus that had been so elusive while in the weeds of daily life. Many of the obligations and distractions were gone. My wife and I talked about goals and how we would see this time as an opportunity.
I could not really leave the house to paint in the early days, but I had a lot of fun going through photos from past trips. Trips that I had all but forgotten I had taken. I do not know about you, but my current camera roll on my phone has more that 42,631 photos. I tend to take trip after trip getting great reference material that ends up being eclipsed by the demands of everyday life. I come home, play catch up and things get buried. Eventually, I take another trip and do it all over again. The pandemic gave me an opportunity to go back and see those trips with fresh eyes as the painter I am today (even for trips I took ten years ago). And even better: to actually use that reference material. Finally.
What grew out of revisiting those photos was a desire to PAINT. I once heard someone ask Françoise Gilot if she painted every day, and her reply was, “Well, I breathe, don’t I?” However, finding the time to paint was a huge challenge. There were not enough hours in the day between parenting and trying to figure out how to sell paintings. Were collectors even going to be buying paintings? The pandemic meant that everyone was online, which increased the number of emails and comments that needed replies. Not to mention, if I was going to keep teaching I had to master the technology of the virtual session. There were always the evenings, but once the kids were in bed, I was too drained to even think about painting. At that point it was just nice to have two hours of peace and quiet to sit and stare at the television with a bowl of ice cream in my lap. I knew the next year was going to be a marathon, but each day felt like its own sprint.
I got my start as a daily painter about 15 years ago. At one time, I remember reading that Carol Marine would paint during her children’s nap time. I stayed home with my children when they were newborns, and I applied Carol’s method. It was true that the only time I had energy to paint was during their naps. So, I painted something every day during nap time. I would have 60-90 minutes to make something happen, never knowing when the baby monitor would “call time” on my session. I worked small and fast. I started out using mostly oils outside in the spring and summer. When the colder months hit, I experimented with gouache and acrylics in the kitchen.
During the pandemic, I revisited the method of nap time painting. I had the luxury of getting away to my quiet studio and spending hours marinating in my process, taking breaks whenever I wanted. Besides revisiting photos from past trips, I also tried new techniques and challenged myself with new subject matter. This has not only been a great exercise, it has also become part of my process: many of these nap time paintings have turned into references for larger studio paintings once I could get back to the studio.
In August, my wife went back to work, the kids went back to school, and I went back to the studio. The gallery still is not open at its pre-pandemic frequency. My studio school partner and I have decided only to host two workshops later in 2021, as we continue to prioritize safety. Now that life is beginning to get back to “normal,” how do I keep these gifts that I have been given? Now I am more calm, centered and focused than I have been in a long time. I realize my kids will not be little forever, so I want to take advantage of these times when we can play tag in the yard and dig in the dirt. When my son returned to school we purposefully chose a half day program so that he could spend time with me in the afternoon. Nap time painting is a practice that continues to serve me, even as life has adjusted once again. And when our family of four is all home again for the weekends, I still try to accomplish two or three nap time paintings.
This year has given me a lot of time to think about what is important and to create a world where those things are protected. At the same time, when I really needed it, painting small each day made my world larger. The daily practice has become a habit and really given me some peace in a time of chaos. If you have been squeezed by the current conditions in this world, I hope you can find time to steal away and paint something, anything, even if its small.
I have a determination to keep distractions to a minimum. Before we know it, distractions will creep back in… like kudzu. Now, when opportunity comes knocking, I am being more thoughtful about what I accept and add to my calendar. I am keeping in mind that the most important opportunities I have are right under my roof. I have proven to myself that meaningful painting time does not have to be long to be fruitful, and inspiration is a mindset and not a destination.