Living Color (Natalie Goldberg)

book cover
  Twenty years ago, I was teaching part-time at an alternative elementary school in Taos. I borrowed one of those inexpensive boxes of kids' watercolors--an oblong case that snapped open, with six cakes of primary color and a ridiculous paintbrush with the bristles so awry they looked like cat's whiskers. I got a cheap sketch pad at the drugstore and I began to paint.

In those years, because I had little money and writing was my conscious love, it never occurred to me to buy a better brush or paints. I worked for two years with only the six basic colors (I kept borrowing kids' watercolor sets from the art teacher). This turned out to be a great advantage: I learned color, how red looked next to orange, how it mixed terribly with green, how purple so often disappointed me and how to make turquoise out of blue and yellow.

I took my paints and the fountain pen I used for writing and I sat in front of my friend Gini's funky adobe higher up on the hill. I first drew that house with my pen and then colored the drawing in with my paints. I found out that the pen ink ran with the watercolors. I liked that. I thought it looked "artistic."
My idea of "artistic" came from New Yorker covers and from the cartoon drawings inside. My family didn't subscribe to the magazine, but I must have read it in dentists' and orthodontists' reception rooms. I was an inordinate eater of Hershey bars and Hydrox sandwich cookies and eventually had a cavity in every molar and bicuspid in my mouth. And my two front teeth were so buck I could shoot bubblegum through them. I spent a lot of time in dentists' offices, and as I waited for my turn to sit in the horrific chair, I paged through the magazines with the best pictures on the covers. Art was a whimsy of line and character; art was black contours, a wash of color and shade.

  Blue House
Cerillos Church   In those early Taos years, I developed a commitment that once I began a drawing, no matter how bad it was, I had to finish it. This understanding of commitment came from writing. Quitting in the middle of a writing exercise reinforced my internal critic, who said that I couldn't do it, or it was boring, or I was lost. But continuing to write--finishing--weakened my fear, my doubt, my disbelief in myself. Now with writing, this was all conscious. I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world and paid a lot of attention to it. I unconsciously carried this habit over to my painting. When I painted, I heard a voice calling from some far distant place: Finish that painting, even though you're certain it doesn't look like what's in front of you. Do it now. No whining. And I submitted. I continued to fill in detail as I sat in front of Gini's house, my back baking in the sun.

And as I worked, I realized I wasn't a great judge of my pictures anyway. There wasn't any real good or bad. I simply merged with line and color. I stayed with what was and stayed away from evaluation. If there were four windowpanes on a house, I drew four. If Gini's dog, Jazz, walked by in front of me, I drew him in.
I noticed that the blue of my paints wasn't blue enough to get the intensity of that New Mexico sky. I painted the sky red instead. I painted Jazz yellow. He was a brown dog, but yellow expressed him better. Color became fluid.

Leaves did not have to be green because I saw them that way. I added turquoise to them, then mixed blue with black and splashed on navy, which added a touch of melancholy--after all, it was the end of the summer.
  Racing Towards Santa Fe  
El Rito, New Mexico   I was delighted one day to paint an adobe house blue. Stepping through the belief that I must paint mud brown, I experienced an explosion of energy and freedom. It was as though blue paint were a sword slashing through illusion, bringing me into direct connection with the house's essence. Objects began to dance unhinged from their proper pigment. That man is green, those sheep are maroon, that horse is scarlet, I suddenly wanted to shout with a new-found freedom as I gazed around me from the hilltop where I had drawn the blue house.  
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Excerpted from Living Color by Natalie Goldberg. Copyright © 1997 by Natalie Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.