Imperfect Painting: How self empathy helped my creative process by Kirsten

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Picking up a paintbrush: it doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? And yet …

I’ve always loved art and studied art history, but only recently have I had the confidence to fully develop my passion for painting. Throughout my life, I have struggled with anxiety and perfectionism (more details on my strategies to cope with them in another blog coming soon!).

As a result, I often focused on meeting milestones I thought would prove my worth to others (like acing exams or achieving life goals at as young an age as possible). This strategy did bring me outward success, but frequently came at the expense of my personal peace of mind. I’ve worked hard during the past few years to develop a more honest way of living: accessing what I am interested in and what I care about, rather than simply waiting to hear the opinions and values of others.

With that in mind, a few months ago I set up my own shop called Glasgow Gallerina where I sell original watercolour and ink paintings with 10% of profits going to charity. From a blogger’s perspective, I decided to jot down the thoughts and anxieties that sometimes accompany my painting process: it turns out there are a lot of them and (just like brushstrokes) some are more productive than others!

For me, painting starts with excitement, but translating that excitement into action can take a little longer than I’d like ….

“Today’s the day! Now where did I leave my paints? Oh dear, they look a bit dusty! Did I really use some of these at school? Apparently I did … I’ve labelled them Property of Phoebe Buffay, not Monica. I thought I was so funny then!”

Before long, my train of thought has pulled in to procrastination station (if you’re also guilty, you might enjoy this TED talk on the psychology behind procrastinating: hey, there are worse ways to waste 15 minutes!).

“What does a great artist wear? All black of course! That’s it – my lucky black sweatshirt. If I just open this tube carefully … Dammit! Does watercolour wash out?”

Eventually, however, the waiting gets too much even for me, and I’m desperate to make a start with my painting. The quality of that start, however, is far from guaranteed …

“I’ll just follow my instincts … but do everyone’s instincts veer to the left? Forget instincts, I need inspiration.
Google images … Google images… Pinterest! Now you’re talking.”

Unfortunately, it is often at this point I hear the siren call of comparison. When we feel insecure, I think it’s natural to turn our attention towards those we’d like to emulate. Without all the information we need to contextualize their achievements, however, and without recognition of our own path and why it makes sense for us, comparison with others can quickly make us feel worse than ever.

Once, for instance, I came across a book of Sylvia Plath’s private drawings that had recently been published by her daughter. I ended up in tears because it seemed clear to me that, even as an amateur, her tree illustrations were ten times as good as my own. Oops!

Wuthering Heights Today, an illustration drawn by Sylvia Plath to accompany one of her poems. For the full book, see Sylvia Plath: Drawings by Frieda Hughes.

It’s far from easy, but I believe it is worth trying to recognise the value of what you are personally creating: not because it is perfect (or even close) but because the act of creating is an act of asserting yourself. And asserting ourselves is something women have not been encouraged to do, both historically and sadly also in many circumstances today. So with the fire of feminist fury now behind me, I continue my artwork…

“A little bit of this … And a little touch of that … Hey, this is getting fun! Time for the BIG BRUSH! Okay, turns out I wasn’t quite ready for the big brush.”

Oops, again. But it’s alright, by this point I can usually envisage things taking shape one way or another …

“I’m painting … and I’m painting … And I’m done! It even looks good upside down. Especially upside down, in fact …” Oops, mark three!

Of course, I can sometimes feel myself slipping into old patterns and self-attacking out of frustration. In those cases, the wisest strategy I have is to show empathy to that frustration. That leaves the door open for empathy for myself. And with empathy for myself, I can actually enjoy what art brings me and continue to make paintings with positivity.

The finished article! This painting was actually my first commission, created for a lovely couple who wanted an artwork inspired by an avenue of blossom trees near where they live. Thanks to them, I gained artistic confidence and raised a fantastic amount for charity!

I hope my imperfect painting process makes you smile, and that smile stays with you wherever your personal path of creativity leads. From painting to prose, poetry to philately (that’s the study of stamps, I just found out!) – whatever your passions are, to thine own self be true!


Kirsten MacQuarrie is a writer and artist who lives in Glasgow. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Vogue Young Talent award, and in November her poem ‘On Knowledge’ won the Glasgow Women’s Library 25th Anniversary prize. Her favourite things to do in her spare time include watching classic movies (hello Audrey Hepburn!), working on her first novel, and above all else hanging out with animals like her BFF Gypsy! Follow Kirsten on Instagram @glasgowgallerina.

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