The fine art of noticing the little things in life that can make a big difference
The outline of a water lily eventually appeared. What was just a smudge of white in the distance — it could have been a bird or even a piece of waterlogged paper — eventually emerged to reveal what it was. Here’s the peculiar truth: The more time you spend paying attention to the very smallest details, the more you learn about everything else.
I‘ve spent three to five hours every Saturday for the past few months in an outdoor painting class — en plein air. Wikipedia describes this as a phrase borrowed from the French, equivalent in meaning to “open in full air.”
The class itself was three hours long, but sometimes I stayed put for a few more hours, long after the instructor and some of my colleagues had packed up and headed home. I stayed because I had not gotten the clouds just right or the reflection of the bridge on the water or the texture of the pebbled path.
Now that October is here, when it is still comfortably warm and not cold, I am itching to venture out on my own and capture the shift in seasons on canvas with just the right color paints.
At the behest of our artist instructor, Laura, each week of class we arrived at a different public park, each with exquisite surroundings — the lake front, the river, a lily pond, a beach. We stood at our easels and painted a scene. Each week, a handful of us converged from different suburbs lugging our supplies, our hopes, and often our humility.
At the same site, each of us chose a wildly different point of view, but struggled with questions that at times were the same. Is this the correct blue for the water, or is it more green? The lines in those leaves have a pinkish tone, and the brightness of the windows is luminescent. Perhaps if you use a smaller brush, with the finest point, you can make that distinction.
And it would always happen — standing in the same spot sometimes for hours, trying to capture in oil and determination what it feels like to be there, observing the same vista, the same trees, the same bushes, the same sandy shore. Then, as if by magic, something completely new would appear. That brown shadow is not a rock, but a tree trunk. Beyond those yellow daisies are long grasses that seem browned in spots, and, yes, over there is a small ornament carved in the cement wall.
And of course, each detail had been there all along.
The significance is not lost on me. I know that I miss the details of most every other part of my life. The shyness of a friend, the rush to anger of a child, the strength of a colleague. They are not at first what they seem. Wait, watch and listen long enough and what is really there will come into view. My rushes to judgment, my impatience, rob me of what is possible.
Having time to paint is a privilege. These past several weeks amounted to the first time I painted in oils in almost 30 years. Work, family, more work — all have earned my full time and attention. So many smaller details were lost out of the necessity to keep moving forward.
But for now I made my own creativity a priority — and one that was not connected to a paycheck. For now, I was devoting a good chunk of time pursuing something that would earn me or my career nothing more than an ear-to-ear smile.
Yes, I complained. It was all too much trouble — not to mention a major inconvenience on Saturdays when I already have so much to catch up on after a busy work week. I have to go the grocery store, weed the garden, do the laundry, clean, pay bills, catch up on everything I put on hold since Monday. I need to exercise, I need to rest, I need to clean my closets.
And then of course, there was the baggage of self-doubt. I am not as good as any of the other painters in the class. I will make a fool of myself. I am not a professional artist.
But I painted anyway.
I turned off the cell phone in my purse and gave all of my mind and my heart to the details of what was in front of me. I listened to the instructor’s directions on how to improve the smallest piece of the painting. What I learned is not just how to give water a sense of movement with a swipe of lighter blue. I learned that I can pay this close attention to every person and every task and every event and instance of my existence.
When I pay attention, I earn a new life.Edit Module