You stare at the canvas blankly, the paintbrush dangling in your skilled fingers. You roll your eyes as you resituate yourself upon the backless, wooden stool. What happened to you? There was a time when you had a massive reservoir of ideas you wanted to express, landscapes you wanted to recreate, moments you wanted to capture on canvas. Your room used to be covered in your artwork from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. And then you made the worst mistake you could ever make; you graduated college as an art major.
Now the only thing hanging on your wall is the obnoxiously framed, lopsided diploma that was supposed to be your ticket to absolute creative freedom. But no one warned you of the implications. Someone should have knocked some sense into you when you babbled about the romanticized ideas of your future. They should have told you that you were never going to be paid to create anything and that your income would come from churning out products for customers.
But now is not the time to grumble about the things that have long been out of your control. No, today is your day. You can tap back into the old days when creativity oozed from your very pores. You can make whatever you want . . . whatever you want. What do you want? As if you know. It’s been so long since you’ve painted just for the sake of painting, that you hardly know where to start. What’s the intended message? Who’s the intended audience? All questions typically answered for you on a spreadsheet.
You have no guidelines, no rules; simply an empty canvas. You stare into nothingness, trying to dig back into that abyss of inspiration that had coaxed you to be an artist in the first place. Your eyes scan across your apartment for anything remotely interesting. There’s your bed, well mattress, on the floor in the corner. Beside it, an old bike leans against the wall. You smile faintly. You got it for free at a garage sale your junior year in High School when you had gotten into your “eat healthy and exercise” phase. It has fairly wide tires for a bike, with a busted banana seat that never goes down and those old-timey handlebars that curve and point back at you. The paint job is that old, pale, mint-green color that every housewife used to paint their kitchen walls in the ’30s. You absolutely detested the color and swore that you’d repaint it. But that all went to Hell once you started going to the not-so-local community college.
Something more pressing always came up; homework, a term paper, your job scrubbing cars at the local car wash, and for a little while, that flame you had for your biology lab partner. The color doesn’t bother you so much now, it adds a small sort of life to the room. Next to that is a three drawered wicker stand with chipping white paint where you keep the few articles of clothing you own. And atop that wicker stand, the cheap, $15 fishbowl you bought when your neighbor gifted you a fish last week. You could paint that, you think. Well of course you could; still-lifes are easy for you, always have been. But you don’t want easy, you want beautiful, you want inspired. You want something to hang on your wall to remind you what art really is, something that will make you love painting again. And that’s when the glimmer of red and yellow catches your attention.
Of course, you think the fish. Even in the dim light of early morning, its scales glimmer and refract against the water. Yup, that is what you’ll paint, this is what you will hang on your wall. You stand and place a heavy blanket over your only window and the room darkens before you. In the darkness, the fish illuminates a pale yellow with orange and red flecks and streaks. You reposition your easel and stool and get straight to work painting your background. You effortlessly mix the perfect ratio of black and green to create a color just a bit darker than seaweed green. Your canvas has transformed from a perfect white to a black that just hinted of green.
You sip on a freshly brewed cup of vanilla chai tea as you wait for the fabric to dry. You pace back and forth, the way you used to when you were so excited that you contemplated painting on the wet canvas because you could hardly contain yourself from spewing your every idea immediately into art. Now of course you are more experienced and know that patience is everything, but the fact that you feel antsy causes you to smile. It’s been quite some time since you waited for a layer of paint to dry without staring at your easel with pure disdain. As you finish off your cup you think that maybe, just maybe, you made the right life decision after all. Maybe your Mom was right when she told you to follow your dreams. Maybe your dad was wise when he brought you to the arts and crafts store and bought you the most expensive paints and brushes. Maybe they were right.
You brush your knuckle against the canvas. Dry as pith. The feel of freedom in your bush strokes exhilarates you, your heart pumping a mile a minute as your adrenaline heightens. You begin to make grand plans. You loved this feeling, you missed this feeling, and you refuse to allow yourself to lose it again. You will start a new sort of routine, you say, one far different from the monotonous life you’ve been living. You will paint a picture just for yourself every week. Every weekend you’ll take a day to create real art, the type you thought you’d be paid to make. Your walls will be filled with your art again. You will swell with excitement when given a project like you used to when the feeling of holding your diploma was a fresh memory in your mind.
You take a step back to admire your work. The outline is absolutely perfect. You attained the laterally composed body while still managing to keep the image 3- dimensional. But the scales just aren’t right; the color’s all wrong. You eye the fish through squinted lids as it swims back and forth and up and down. Your neighbor said it was from the Amazon. A Symphony, a Sympicodon, or something like that. You had been so enamored with its beauty that you hadn’t even bothered to ask him how he got it. You had taken it gladly, happy to have something beautiful in your home again. But now you regret taking the damn thing. It has absolutely no regard for your craft.
As it swims, its magnificent colors blur into streaks of yellow shredded by glimpses of red and orange. And then it stops. You lift your brush to lighten the specks of orange on its arcing fin and it speeds away. You wait. It stops. And again, just as you move to create on canvas what your eyes partake, it swims in those oddly sarcastic and taunting circles again.
After multiple times of falling for its bait, you toss your brush onto the ledge of your easel and move across the room to the fishbowl. When you arrive, the fish stops its dance and stares you right in the eye. You glare back at it, waiting for the moment it will turn and swim away. It doesn’t. “Don’t move,” you say and the fish remains in place, with a look that almost makes you think it understands. You return to your stool.
The fish remains in place.
You reach for your brush.
The fish remains in place.
You dip the brush into the blob of orange paint.
The fish remains in place.
You mix in some white, lift your brush, and the fish whirls from one side of the tank to the other. “Stop moving!” you yell and it complies, but only to study you it seems. It floats perfectly in the center of the bowl, laterally so that every strip, every dot, every fleck is in your field of vision. It watches you, but remain still. You glance at the clock. 9:45. The day’s all but gone. Your gaze meets its eye and you swear the fish smirks because just as you go to make a brushstroke, it turns its tail fin on you. “That’s it!” You cry and make your way over to the fish for the last time.
You snatch up the bowl and stomp into the kitchen ignoring the water that falls on your hands as it splashes over the edge of the glass. With one angry groan, you pour the water from the bowl until there is nothing left within but the fish and a few drops of water. Triumphantly you march back to your stool where you set the now still fish and paint away.
You don’t finish until two hours later. You finally put your brush down, wiping the sweat of excitement from your brow as you take a step back from your masterpiece. Oh no, you think, as you scrutinize your work. No. It’s still wrong, it’s still not right. You look down at the fish and notice how dull the colors have become. The fish is not at all beautiful or captivating or inspiring. It’s just a fish.