The phrase “blank canvas” gets used a lot in everyday speech. It evokes an image of a blank white surface, waiting for the first mark, the first touch of paint.
It’s pristine, unblemished, expectant. It’s intimidating. It calls to mind Gene Fowler’s description of writing: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
But in fact this isn’t how you go about creating at all. No one in their right mind starts with an utterly blank canvas or blank sheet of paper. They’d just end up staring at it helplessly. Creativity doesn’t work like that.
No, first you go off by yourself, nowhere near a canvas. You think, you muse, you ponder.
You look around, go for a hike, take in a movie, riffle through your sketchbook, look at art books, magazines, photos. Ideas bubble to the surface, inspired by what you’re looking at, or maybe jarred loose by thinking about something utterly unrelated.
You scribble, sketch, jot down notes, make an outline. You play with colors, messing with paints or pastels or crayons or colored pencil. There’s no pressure at this stage. No finished product is expected. You might use scratch paper, or a scruffy sketchbook, or a private journal. There’s freedom to erase, redo, scratch out, throw away.
At some point, after all this messing about, you’ve got an idea cooking. That’s when you pull out the paper or canvas.
You start writing down the names of your novel’s main characters. You outline the main plot points. You rough in the main masses of your painting, lights and darks, basic shapes. You make sure that it looks like it’s going to work, then you proceed to refine, adding color, texture, details.
Before you know it, you’re painting or writing and that blank canvas wasn’t a hurdle at all. Quite the opposite: it was a natural part of the creative process.
Anyway, for me a blank canvas isn’t white. It’s red.
I don’t paint a canvas red until I know exactly what I’m going to do with it. Bigger ones like this one (which I just finished painting red) take longer to prepare. This delays the gratification of jumping into the actual painting process, but I think the delay is good for me. The anticipation builds my enthusiasm for the task ahead.