Last April, I attended a Flora Bowley painting workshop in Portland, Oregon. I have zero training in art, but have been wanting to paint for a long time. Flora Bowley teaches an approach called Intuitive Painting. This pretty much means that you start with a blank canvas, keep adding layers and layers of paint in a big, messy exploration.
You’re not painting a still life but being open to what emerges. Intuitive painting invited us to be brave, to take risks, to experiment, and most of all, to be willing to let go of our attachment to outcome. Let’s just say it’s a great spiritual practice for being open to Holy Surprises.
We worked on two very large canvases at once. Moving back and forth between the canvases gave time for the acrylic paint to dry before adding more layers. The first layer was warm colors: reds, and oranges and yellows; the second cool colors of blues and greens. We experimented with mark making with brushes and different tools, including our hands. At one point Flora had us paint blindfolded. Talk about letting go! THEN she asked us paint on each other’s canvases, taking the risks that come with collaboration.
After we had spent the day working on our two canvases, interesting things began to emerge in our paintings. At that was the point Flora said: “I want you to give one of your canvases away.” We each let go of one of our works-in-progress. Who knew I could be so attached to the mess that was emerging on the canvas? (Flora!) Each of us had to make someone else’s underpainting into our own.
More layers of paint followed. Flora challenged us to turn our canvases around as we painted, getting new perspectives. She encouraged us to ask: “What color am I craving?” She kept saying: “Just take the next step, you don’t have to know what the outcome will be, just trust the process.” “There are no mistakes, just keep exploring and adding.” Just when we felt we were warming up to the idea of risk taking, Flora introduced us to the 80/20 rule, one of her many encouragements to make a bold move. If you were feeling stuck, you mixed up some neutral paint, gray perhaps, and painted over 80 of what you had on the canvas. Keeping about 20% was working, letting go of the rest. “Just keep painting,” Flora said. “Stay open. Be authentic. Take risks. Let go of judgments and explore.”
We painted this way for four days, pushing through our fear, inhibitions, and uncertainty. We opened ourselves up to curiosity, joy, and surprise. The layers gave our canvases a rich narrative, each one a chapter in the backstory of the painting. The risks opened us up to new and unexpected possibilities, every layer, every brush stroke was a new learning. We discovered new skills, cultivated bravery as we “learned to find ease in risk.” For each of us, surprises had emerged on our canvases. At our “art show” we went around and marveled at the paintings. They were amazingly beautiful. I still feel astonishment every time I look at mine.
The workshop in April was an exercise in putting on what Carol Dweck calls “growth mindset.” Embracing the beginner’s mind of what we do not know, turning down the volume of the inner critic, and learning from exploration were values that opened us up to new possibilities. Where are you taking risks and practicing growth mindset? What Holy Surprises are emerging for you?