Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Faking It

Eighteen years ago I took an old wooden stool my mom had given me, stripped some pretty horrible avocado green paint from it, and decided to try something. I wanted to paint objects on seat in such a way that they looked real. This technique is called trompe l'oeil, and I thought it would be fun. If it worked it would be a kind of visual joke, to fool someone into thinking for just a second that there was stuff sitting on top of the stool.

At the time I didn't really know what I was doing; I figured I'd simply try. I took one of my dishtowels, an orange, a pear, a rose, and my wedding rings, and arranged them into a still life on the floor. Then I painted what I saw onto the top of the stool.

Obviously the results weren't fabulous. I thought the towel came out okay, but the fruit looked flat and the rose was just wrong. My rings looked especially silly; nothing like the real deal. I was about to scrub off the entire painting when my guy stepped in and whisked the stool away from me. He thought it was beautiful (even back then the man needed glasses) and he wouldn't let me erase what was to me a failure. No, he slapped a couple coats of varnish on it to preserve it. Miffed, I left the stool in his custody and eventually forgot about it.

The other night I couldn't find the folding chair I always use to sit in the garage with my guy (I think one of the kids borrowed it) so I grabbed this stool -- my old ridiculous-looking painted stool -- and dusted it off. It surprised me, to see how vivid the colors still were, and how neat the towel looked. My fruit was still flat, and my rose and rings were still lame, but they were also kind of charming. I'd tried so hard to get it right; I'd even added all the little dimples on the rind of the orange.

Those tiny details fascinated me, and reminded me of who I was eighteen years ago. At that point in my life I'd just started diving into things like quilting and painting and writing. Not because I thought I could be wonderful at any of them, but because not trying meant not knowing, and I wanted to find out what I could do.

I'm still trying to find out what I can do. I'll never be a great painter, but I've learned to be a bit more patient with myself. I'm also more forgiving, and more inclined to keep trying, because in the years since I painted that stool I've learned that I don't suck at everything. I've also discovered that just trying to paint or quilt or write what I see in my head is enough to make it worth it. If something decent comes out of it, that's a bonus. What I thought of as faking it was always an act of courage as well as creation. The delights keep bringing me back to the easel, or the sewing machine, or the keyboard -- and yet, so do the disappointments.

I'm glad my guy didn't let me destroy my failed attempt at trompe l'oeil. I can see now that it wasn't a failure. It was one of countless stops along the journey of living a creative life. If I'd given up there, maybe I wouldn't be where I am now.

Everything you do contributes to who you become. It's okay to get discouraged, to feel inadequate, to want to make your failures go away; it's part of learning. It's when you stop trying that you steal from your future self. So go ahead, try it. Fake it if you have to. Whatever the results, it will probably be one of the most real things you ever do.


  1. I like it! The towel is very good. Your fruit isn't nearly as flat as you think, especially the orange. Bravo to your guy for hanging on to this.

  2. See? This is why I love writing. I get to rewrite as many times as I want to until the story on the page matches the story in my mind.

    Then, with any luck, the reader gets that same story in her mind.

    How cool is that?

  3. I love that chair - and I can't paint. ;-) But, I found that I am really good with crafts - cross-stitch, sewing, and crocheting, which is quite a surprise.

    But besides my writing, I am prouder of my shooting. My husband would load a rifle, set up a small target (300-500 yards), and I would hit it. He would spot. I am a surprisingly good shot. ;-)

    Since I have astigmatism and other eye problems it makes that feat really impressive.


    BTW the targets were smaller than a beer can. I didn't realize how good the shot was until I watched Top Shot. lol

  4. I think that stool is lovely! And you're right, if you don't ever try, you won't ever know and wouldn't life be a nothing then?

  5. I've just discovered your blog and enjoyed this post. It reminded me of some advice I got in a beginning knitting class. The instructor, a woman who taught with great patience and good humor, encouraged us to think of mistakes as "design elements" that gave our creations character, rather than as flaws. I think that can be a useful for perspective for many creative endeavors!

  6. Oh, I needed this. I feel so inadequate with painting, quilting, and some days with writing still.


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