I’ve always loved art — seeing it, learning about it, experiencing it, and creating it. My most serious art pursuit took place in Japan, where I studied during my junior year of college. I went to focus on economics and Japanese language, but took an elective Sumi-e painting class and fell in love. In retrospect, it both makes sense that this meditative, slow art form was so appealing to the type-A me that sprinted breathless through most of my life, and is equally puzzling.
I’ve dabbled with a tiny bit of abstract painting over the years, but when I say tiny I really mean it, maybe 10 paintings total. But I’ve always wanted to paint. Really paint, with oil, or watercolor, or acrylic, or anything else. It’s something that’s been calling to me for decades. Mostly, I ignored it.
Last year was a truly rough one, on most counts, and my 40th birthday was looming in close proximity. So this past summer, after much encouragement from a dear friend, I decided to take a journey I’ve had on my bucket list for a long time:
I went painting in Tuscany.
Putting the loop of negative self talk on the back burner as much as I could – “I feel guilty going on this trip all by myself! This is too expensive! I’m being so self-indulgent! Why do I deserve to do this?”— I undertook my own micro-version of Eat, Pray, Love, The Italy Portion.
The experience that ensued was so life-changing that it deserves its own book. But while spending two weeks in Tuscany was a dream, the gift I got there was the one I didn’t quite expect:
A passion for painting that burst out of me with a force I had not experienced in a long time.
After my Tuscan watercolor painting adventures – which I found inspiring and extremely challenging – I joined a friend for weekly art sessions she holds in her beautiful studio. There, I tried oils for the first time. It only took a few brush strokes to realize that I’ve met my favorite medium.
One of the first oil paintings I ever attempted was of a mandolin that my friend had set up as part of our composition. At first I found it less than inspiring, but as I played with color and saw it transform a blank canvas into one that spoke back to me, I got lost in trying to capture what I saw and felt. (My friend’s encouragement was a huge help, too.)
That night I was reminded about this beautiful state of flow, when you find yourself so immersed in something, so focused, so completely separated from any distracting thoughts, fully present in the moment of what you are doing. It’s an incredible feeling. And did you know that it activates the same pathways in our brain as love?
I’ve been trying to find small pockets of time to paint whenever I can. When I paint, my thoughts and the chatter in my head slow down. To be honest, it feels like a vacation. A few months ago I started a regular meditation practice. At one of the meditation workshops I attended, the Hindu monk leading it said something that has stayed with me: “The object of meditation is not to feel a certain way, but to feel how you feel.” I must admit I find it a lot easier to feel what I feel when I paint than when I sit on my meditation cushion.
For most of my life I ignored this calling I felt to paint because I considered it an “extra.” A luxury. My extremely narrow perspective went something like this: Since I am not going to make a profession out of this, I should not invest much time and energy into it.
I could not feel more differently now.
Doing something that I love, something that allows me to express myself, to explore my feelings, to be in the moment, to experience the world in a fundamentally different way than I do most of my time — it’s such a precious gift. I have zero doubt that making art a more core part of my life benefits not just my own well-being, but my family, friends, colleagues, clients, yoga class friends, people I run into at the store… all of whom benefit from a more vibrant, happy, and inspired me to have around.
We can only starve our souls for so long, feeling guilty to take time for ourselves, putting all other must-dos and to-dos at the top of the list. Whatever it is that helps you feel whole, in the flow, immersed in doing something you love, my hope for writing this post is to encourage you to make time for it. You don't need to do anything to deserve it and there isn't some perfect time that will come along later.
It's today, in this moment, right now.
I paint because I feel alive when I do it.
I paint because it feeds my soul.
I paint because it makes my body sing.
I paint because I can’t not paint.
(If you’d like to see some of my attempts at painting, I share some of my works on Instagram, where I’m natalykogan.)