No early warning system for a successful image

I plopped myself onto the trail’s damp blackness. I wedged my butt between mud and tree root, backpack still attached. Sketchbook: new page. Pen: loose shapes. Watercolor palette and waterbrush: quick splashes. Suddenly it was there on a white background — the purple mushroom which had caught my eye. Ben’s voice floated back to me through the trees. I shoved a piece of waxy paper between the damp page and its partner. I scurried off with brush, pen, and palette still loose in hand.


The next morning, I claimed an hour to rework the mushroom on good paper. Maybe I fiddled with it a little more when I got home.


Now it’s on the cover of a book from Oxford University Press. “The editors just loved it,” gushed the book’s author, my father. Your parents have to love your work, of course, but editors? He’s utterly delighted in my image of Russula xerampelina as a testament to the process of life. Meanwhile, I marvel at the painting’s success.


I had no idea when I started this image that it would work for anyone else. Sure, a purple mushroom is eye candy in the uniformly green world of a northern rainforest. But so is an Amanita muscaria — red speckled with raised white globs — or the golden orange globes of Mycena strobilinoides. Yes, I used high quality cotton paper which makes the watercolor much more controllable — but I always do. And, no, the composition is hardly amazing: unintentionally, I put the mushroom in the boring center of the image, and I’m not satisfied with the light and shadow affects.


Other artists I admire have catchy mantras to encourage themselves and students. “Practice, not perfection” (Maria Coryell-Martin). “Exploration, not expectation” (Claire Giordiano). “Be prolific, not perfect” (James Richards). In other words, even if you shoot a lot of darts at the wall, you can easily keep missing the target. However, eventually, your skill develops and you hone in at the center.


But that still doesn’t explain what happens randomly in the space between brush and paper and the creative spirit. To find out, I guess I have to keep creating.


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