The following vignette is from my creativity coaching practice.
Jack worked in grays. His skies were gray; his fields were gray; everything he did felt like a dark day in winter. Clouds hanging low, a storm coming … his paintings made you want to turn up the heat and put on a pot of tea. I sat, waiting. He couldn’t quite explain why he had come to see me. In his first email he’d said, “I’d love some coaching on my issues.” That hadn’t told me much! When I asked him to preview those issues, he didn’t reply until the morning of our appointment, and then only to say, “I’m running late today—I’ll tell you in person.” Now we were in person—and he was still having trouble beginning.
“I’m not exactly sure why I’m here,” he said.
“My wife’s read some of your books. She suggested I see you.”
I laughed. “Not a good sign! It’s better when my clients actually want to see me!”
“No, no,” he said quickly, “I do want to see you. It’s just … I can’t find a way into my own issues. I don’t know what’s bothering me. I love to go to the studio. I don’t mind my day job—I do consulting work and it isn’t very taxing. And it pays well. I’ve set up my life pretty well for an artist. My wife and I are good—our children are good …” He trailed off.
“Your life sounds very nice, very pleasant. Not very passionate—but quite pleasant.”
He glanced at me. “I think you’re saying something.”
I shrugged. “I’ve looked at your paintings on your website. I can see them in a nice English country house, a horse-and-hound kind of estate, with roaring fires and your all-gray paintings as part of the pleasantries …”
“I spent two years in England, painting,” he said. “I lived not far from Kenwood House, in Hampstead. I went there every few days – the Rembrandts, the early Turners–”
“Before Turner was Turner,” I said.
That woke him up. “Before Turner was Turner?”
“I’ve seen those Turners. Conventional, dark, old-Master-ish, like Van Gogh’s early work, that Dutch palette, that darkness, that moodiness, as if color hadn’t been invented yet.”
“That’s what I’ve always aspired to being. An ‘old master.’”
“Not a bad thing, I’m sure.” I paused. “Or is it?”
“I’ve never thought that feeling was such a good thing. My parents were dramatic and explosive. I wanted … calmness. My paintings are intentionally quiet.”
“That’s worked for me.”
“But there’s a line to walk between calmness and … death. To insure my sanity, I’ve probably become a little dead.”
I nodded. “Let me ask you a question?”
“Do you love any one color more than the other colors?”
He replied instantly. “Yes! I love red. Cadmium red. Soutine’s red.”
“And you’re prohibited from using it because of your safety needs? It feels too dangerous to use cadmium red?”
He thought about that and grew agitated. “I don’t know what I would paint if I started using color. Not circle paintings! Not stripe paintings! There are a million things that don’t interest me. Not a photo-realist red lollipop, not grotesque torsos …”
I smiled. “You don’t respect anything in the last 150 years of paintings?”
“No, of course I do. It’s just …”
I waited before continuing: “The orderliness of formal art matched your desire for orderliness. I’ll bet you a nickel that you like things in order. I bet your paints and your socks are in perfect order. But there’s a cost to managing your anxiety that way. It may be a cost that you are entirely willing to pay. The cost is that you’ve prevented yourself from using color. You’ve made a deal with yourself—or with the devil—no passion, no problems.”
He made no reply. Downcast, he said, “Of course that applies to everything.”
“To everything! To the way I feel uncomfortable if I pour myself more than four ounces of wine …”
“Yes. You’ve done a gorgeous job of being careful, really a beautiful job. It might be a big mistake to upset that apple cart. You might get some red paintings out of it—but who knows what else might happen?”
He thought about that for a long time. Finally, he spoke. “It’s all well-and-good to say to yourself, ‘Take a risk.’ But if it’s a real risk, then it’s risky! There was a weekend in Amsterdam … I almost threw over my whole life just because I met a woman and it was Amsterdam and … and I could see exactly how it would play out, the passion part and the abyss. Fortunately, nothing happened. It would have been a mistake.”
“Red would be that kind of mistake?”
He shook his head speculatively. “I don’t know.”
We sat in silence. Taking a risk is not the answer to every problem. Sometimes the life we’ve constructed, even if it falls short of the ideal, suits us better than some riskier alternative. Jack mulled the matter over.
“What if I put a little red in my landscapes?” he finally said.
I laughed. “A careful solution! Do you think that might work?”
“I think that I’d rather try that than throw over my painting style and my subject matter for the sake of some idealized notion of passion. I’d really rather not create tempests and dramas. Just a little red–”
“Just a little red but a lot of passion?” I said.
He thought about that. “I can feel how that might work. ‘A little red but a lot of passion.’ That has a ring to it.”
I smiled. “Be careful about opening that door a crack. You might move all the way from ‘Potato Eaters’ to ‘Sunflowers’!”
“Careful is my middle name,” Jack replied. “I suspect you won’t even be able to see the red!”
“To begin with.”
“Yes, well, to begin with,” he agreed. “I guess we’ll have to see how dangerous a little cadmium red really is.”