Watercolor, Mindfulness, and My Sandwich / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

Last November I went to a retreat that was called “Day of Silence.” As a mom of three, I didn’t need to read any further than the title to know I was in.  A day of silence, mediation, yoga, and focus on mindfulness, was just what I needed. 

It was amazing.  The setting was beautiful, the instructor a peaceful presence guiding us through the day and keeping us focused on being unfocused, it was all great, but my biggest learning came from my sandwich. 

  Figure 1 : Watercolor in progress 2 inches by 2.5 inches. 

Figure 1: Watercolor in progress 2 inches by 2.5 inches. 

My sandwich was one that I love but don’t eat that often, because…again…mom of three…I’m usually eating a left-over mashup out of mysterious containers from the freezer, while standing up doing the dishes, addressing a battery of requests from the kids.  So I was looking forward to getting to eat something I picked out just for me, presumably while seated, and definitely in silence. 

The morning went by and I didn’t think about my beloved sandwich, or about much of anything. That’s kind of the point of the meditation, clearing your mind and all.  When the lunch bell rang I was out on the lawn with such a picturesque Northwest view that it seemed possible a bald eagle might at any moment land on my shoulder just to say "What's up?".  I was in a serene place, inside and out, as I headed in. 

It was at this point that I remembered that the sandwich comes wrapped in the most evil, endless cellophane that seems to morph as you try to discover an entry point.  Normally the only time I eat this sandwich is when I've somehow skipped a meal and happen to be at the grocery store.  Low blood sugar and this evil wrapping usually results in my wrestling the sandwich furiously, while cursing, sweating, and wishing I had an axe or a chainsaw. 

Walking to the lunchroom on retreat I started to panic a little. There is nothing serene or quiet about this lunch, I realized.  Seated at my table, I unpacked my sandwich and stared at my adversary.  I examined the packaging for weaknesses, I found none.  I started to tense up thinking of all the noise I would be making, amongst my silent retreat cohorts, as I tackled the package.

We had been instructed to eat with mindfulness so I took a deep breath and tried to relax my body.  I tried to pay close attention to every detail and I calmly began to unwrap my sandwich.  It took a while but I didn’t experience the frustration I usually do.  Slowing down and not charging ahead based on what I thought the wrapper should be doing gave me the opportunity to notice what it was actually doing and respond appropriately.      

Now you might be saying, this lady is crazy having just devoted 375 words to telling me about a sandwich, and you might be right, but I've always found that life’s lessons can come in small moments just as easily as in big ones. I’ve come to think about how I struggled with the package as symbolic and the gift in that moment on retreat was that I was able to see that struggle as a choice.  And I was able to choose something else.

How to be present in the art making experience is something that I’ve been working on this past year.  Being focused on each moment makes me a better artist but it doesn’t come naturally.  I’m not known as someone who likes to sit still.  

Sometimes I have trouble focusing on the current moment out of pure excitement, “I want to paint the tree because I love the tree so much! That was so fun! Oh wait, now I have to figure out how to get the sky between all those branches. Damn.”  Other times I'm so focused on a fear of some possible future failure that I can't even get started working on what I'm trying to do.

How much more stuff would I get done, and with what ease, if I took each task as it came? Didn't skip steps because I was excited?  Didn’t worry about the future outcome?  If I prepared and planned, and then let it all unfold?

  Figure 2:  Painting for my mother-in-law. Watercolor.  5x7

Figure 2: Painting for my mother-in-law. Watercolor.  5x7

Watercolor is the perfect medium to work with if you are trying to practice mindfulness, because it requires it.  Watercolor is a sensitive ecosystem of paint, paper, and water. It is an exercise in delicacy. The world's most subtle science experiment. Pay close attention and you can actually see the beautiful alchemy unfold as water and color combine.  

Brush strokes matter, paint density is crucial, and there is no room for error.  Because of the translucency, you can’t cover a mistake.  I have said that it is hard to hide in a sketch but it is impossible to hide in a watercolor. It requires you to be deliberate in each moment.

This year, as a Christmas gift for my mother-in-law I wanted to paint her a scene from her childhood home.  I considered many formats, sizes, and images. In the end, what I pictured, was a watercolor painting.  But I hadn’t used watercolors in almost 20 years.  I felt a little bit intimidated but I also knew watercolor was an area in which, as crazy as my teacher had been, I was well trainedSo, I knew what to do, but the question was could I slow down enough to actually do it? Did I have the patience?

When I sat down to work on it, I felt scattered and jittery.  There were too many things I wanted to do at once.  But as silly as this sounds, what saved me was I thought of the retreat and my sandwich. 

As I started the painting, I took a deep breath.  I broke down the steps in my mind.  Sketch.  Tape down the paper.  Transfer the Sketch.  Paint the sky.  Paint the grass.  Fill in the background.  Lay down layers of leaves.  The presence of the barn.  Work on the signs.  I felt calm.  I had a roadmap and no use for worry.

When I stopped worrying about what might happen four steps ahead of myself, things went just fine.  As I painted I caught myself before I made mistakes I would have commonly made otherwise.  When mistakes did come up, I dealt with them.  One moment at a time.

I wouldn't say that I am cured of jumping ahead either in excitement or out of fear but I got to experience a new calmness when approaching a difficult technique.  My process was so much better and I'd like to think the product came out better as a result.