Glimpsing the Palette

In many different dimensions of my life right now, I feel that I’m stepping back from a painting I’ve long studied, having spent years trying to understand the composition, the colors, the brush strokes, and the movement, only to accidentally catch a glimpse of something else. Something outside the painting, but integral to its creation.

I notice a brush, and that brush, its bristles derived from sable and slightly worn, helps me understand the application of the paint on the canvas. How that brush is held, its size and the length of the handle, the stains and bruises it bears from use, all speak volumes about both the implement and the person using it.

The brush leads me back to the palette, and suddenly I realize just how much I was missing.

The colors I had been studying? They started out as something else.

Trace those aquamarines backward, and you find a mixture of primary colors, tinted with white, augmented by thickening oil and imbued with a hint of residual colors accidentally left on the brush, or retained as flecks from the color-dappled glass jar in which the brush dries after use. The palette contains colors that haven’t been utilized yet, and still others that are mid-blend, those new colors mixed further with other colors and substances, changing its texture and viscosity, becoming something unrecognizable by the time it arrives on the canvas; a platform I assumed was the key to understanding the whole, but which in actuality was merely the most visible part of the process, and several steps removed from the ingredients that birthed it.

This context also extends in the other direction.

The artist’s palette tells me a great deal about what underpins the final work and how it came to be. But the subject matter of what’s being portrayed in the work itself tells yet another part of the story. What will all of this pigment and effort lead to? What does the artist wish it to represent, and why? What will the final work say, if anything, to those who view it? What significance will it have to each individual viewer through the years, and how will its eventual placement—in an attic, covered by butcher paper, or on a gallery wall, surrounded by other works—alter that significance?

I’ve had several conversations over the last few weeks about meaning and purpose. About why we’re doing what we’re doing. About how we might be better prepared for major shifts, whether those shifts take place within culture, politics, religion, technology, economics, or our interpersonal relationships.

A lot of the people I spoke with are, like me, attempting to spend more time learning about the palette, rather than fixating exclusively on the paint on the canvas.

I don’t have many, if any, answers in this regard, nor do the people to whom I’ve been speaking.

I don’t know that there are absolute answers to have.

I do think that an increased focus on the bigger picture—the subject of the painting, the paint on the canvas, the brush and palette, the painter, the room, and so on—is valuable context, and that by better understanding as much of it, top to bottom, as possible, we stand a far better chance of making positive choices in the moment, rather than making decisions that seem beneficial in the micro, but not the macro. Or vice versa.

We’re living through a moment in history in which we each have the opportunity to see as much of this bigger picture as we choose. We can either stay focused on one small bit and do the best we possibly can within that scale, or we can zoom out, take a look around, and attempt to figure out how our sense of right and wrong, and our sense of how the world works, translates to that much larger, more complex, interconnected picture.

It’s a challenge. It’s confusing. It’s often frustrating and scary and disheartening.

But it’s also something we can understand. It’s a complex mechanism that, even though it may not seem like it sometimes, we can, and hopefully will, continue improving upon.