Finishing Touches

My mom used to tell me that the hardest thing about painting a painting was knowing when to put the brush down. “When is it finished?” she would ask rhetorically. Then she’d answer herself: “Well, you never really know for sure.”

By the time she was of retirement age, my mom had risen to the position of Vice President of my northern New Jersey hometown’s one and only bank. She was a banker by day but an artist on her own time. She loved her evening art classes, where, she told me repeatedly, she would “completely lose track of time.” Always a big believer in my hidden abilities, she encouraged me to take art classes too. “You’d be so good at it, Bon!” she enthused.

I nodded, then added “Take painting classes” at the bottom of my then-long bucket list. “Some day, Mom,” I assured her. I was too busy.

She got to be really good. At her memorial service, where there was standing room only in the large hall because everyone in town banked at the local bank and appreciated her indefatigable help, my sisters and I put her many paintings on easels and positioned them around the room — the first and only show of her artwork. I sometimes think if she had been an attendee at this memorable event, instead of the person being eulogized, she would have been impressed by all the beautiful oil paintings on display.

That was more than thirty years ago. Over those years, of course, my long bucket list has gotten shorter and shorter. You might say I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches on it lately. This year I reached the “Take painting classes” entry and was able to check that one off at last.

In October I took a three-day watercolor workshop here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with a superb art teacher, Donna Dickson. I learned things. I now have a handle on the step-by-step of it. But only my mother (who was, frankly, biased) could say I’m any good. My efforts have an “undercooked,” unfinished quality about them. They look like first drafts.

I used to tell my writing students in Taos, New Mexico: “First drafts are fine! We all make them. But we shouldn’t serve them up to anyone, ever – not even our own mother — because they’re not fully cooked. It would be like serving undercooked chicken to your dinner guests – an absolute no-no. So continue ‘cooking’ until the draft is ‘just right,’ which means as good as it can be.”

“And when, exactly, is that?” my students would ask.

Then, unhelpfully, I would echo my mom: “Well, you never really know for sure.”


What I know now is that, like beginning writers, I need more patience and stick-to-it-iveness for my watercolor painting. I need hours and hours of practice (or, roughly, 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of mastery in his book Outliers). I should stop putting my brush down – as I’ve been doing so far – too soon.

I’m pretty good at finding a paintable scene and taking a photo of it for future copying. (In this beautiful old colonial city in the central mountains of Mexico one would have to be seriously visually impaired NOT to find countless paintable scenes on every daily walk.) I can sketch that scene in pencil on my watercolor paper, and mix the paints to resemble the true, vibrant colors here. I can make my painting into a pale, rough copy of the original scene. But that’s where it ends. I let it dry as I walk away.

When I look at it again later, I see a childlike effort, dull and flat, devoid of texture, nuance, contrast. Clearly, I need to learn how to apply the finishing touches – the darkness and shadows that will allow the lighter colors to pop.

And clearly, to me, when I dig deeper into myself, I find a fundamental fear of shadowy darkness. I’m afraid the gray-black paint will bleed into the rest and turn my pretty picture muddy. I’d prefer my paintings (and all of life?) to be all bright colors and glowing light. I know I must strive in the New Year ahead to embrace contrasts and not be afraid of the dark. Still so much to learn.

My painting from a photo of my friend Iris approaching her front door -- still needing finishing touches
My painting from a photo of my friend Iris approaching her front door — still needing finishing touches

Feliz año nuevo a todos. Happy 2017 to all.

~ ~ ~

(One last 2016 note: My first book, Somewhere Child, first published in hardback by Viking Press in 1981, has just been reissued in eBook form. To read a bit about it and get a link to the eBook, please see the Home page of my website:


14 thoughts on “Finishing Touches”

  1. You have the composition and the perspective right. That is a big deal.

    My father painted. I assumed everyone’s home smelled of turpentine. Using the GI Bill he took all the studio art classes at Columbia [unlike his brother who went to Columbia and got a PhD and became a professor]. My father remained a welder [and a musician, etc.]. But, he also encouraged me and I took painting classes all over NYC. Haven’t done a thing for years now but it is still in the back of my mind. Maybe if I move? Too many hats and scarves in here now.

    But my thought for you is that you try something more forgiving than water color which once you put it down, it is there. Oil and acrylic on the other hand allow you to mix colors on the canvas, or scrap things off, or paint over them, etc. A lot more freedom to make mistakes.

    Take more classes. Each teacher has something to offer, even if you discard it later.

    Mostly, enjoy the process and don’t use it as another way to make yourself crazy.

    I gave up on painting realistically. I’m never going to get it as wonderfully as Nature did. So I moved on to playing with shapes and colors. [Feedback from a teacher at the Instituto who said what I was really interested in was color relationships as he turned my city scrape upside down and it still worked as a painting] I was much happier then.

    My dos centavos. <3

  2. Bonnie – I love your posts so much – they’re so vivid and wise, so you!
    I love keeping in touch with you this way, in this time when we’re so far apart. I hope 2017 brings you much joy. Congrats on the reissue of your memoir – it deserves a new audience. Xxjane

    1. Dear Jane — Thanks SO much for this. I think of you every week when I write a post: I think of our reunion at the AWP conference in Denver some years ago, when you told me you feel most happy to be alive when you’re writing. These short blog posts make me feel the same — purposeful. … Last night I finished reading Trevor Noah’s wonderful memoir, BORN A CRIME, which is a tribute to his mom; so I felt inspired today to write this tribute to mine. … Yes, I, too, hope that SOMEWHERE CHILD finds a new audience as an eBook. We shall see…– Mucho love from MX, BB xx

  3. Thank you Bonnie I am glad I was there for your first art classes. So fun. Your mom would have enjoyed seeing you paint I’m sure.
    Just remember with bright colors they need something to play off of. You don’t want every color to take the lead roll…Have a couple of main players and the rest harmonize with and show subtle tones of your main colors. If every color is blaring out you have a cacophony. Also load those darks up with color you don’t want a wishy washy dark make it rich with color, but dark. Your bright saturated colors will glow.
    I love your cooking analogies “undercooked” that’s a good one. Feliz Ano Nuevo ,Donna
    I’ll be back teaching in San Miguel in March 2017.

    1. Dear Donna — How nice to receive your continued excellent instruction! Thank you for sharing this. I’d love to return to your workshop here in SMA in March — and I hope other WOW readers will join too.

      1. Feliz Ano Nuevo Bonnie, hope you are able to hook up with the workshop in Mar. It’s Mar. 3rd to the 6th 2017 If not it would be great to see you anyways , take care Donna

        1. Thank you, Donna. Feliz Ano Nuevo to you, too! I hope to make it to the March workshop. But if the budget won’t allow it, I hope I’ll be able to see you when you’re in SMA.

  4. Bonnie….the shadows and the dark places are within us and are so hard to dispel. Whether it is painting, writing…or (what I worry about)….putting the “final touches” on my own personal development….I think the dark fears and worries and insecurities keep us from feeling that our work, whatever it is, is “done”. …but we are probably a little better at what we are doing than we think we are…and that goes for your painting, too.

    1. Ah, my friend P. (P for philosopher! 🙂 — thank you for this. Only you (and my mother, who’s now painting with the angels) could think my paintings are any good. — xx

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