Several years ago, my husband and I stood at easels in my dad’s studio, ready for a painting lesson. Phil chose an Idaho sunset photograph to work from. I picked a shadowy river with a deep orange sky, taken just after the sun had gone down. I could only see two colors: black and orange. Painting isn’t really my thing, but anyone can get it right with two colors.
Phil was raring to go. He sketched out the clouds and the mountains fairly effortlessly. He has natural skills. I kept plopping paint on my canvas until it rivaled the portfolio of an average blindfolded kindergartener. My dad went back to his easel and painted a masterpiece while he whistled a medley of ABBA songs.
At the end of the lesson, Phil’s sunset looked pretty good to me, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“Why don’t my clouds look like yours?” he muttered as he examined my dad’s creation and compared it to his own.
My dad didn’t stop whistling as he came over to Phil’s pallet and dabbed his brush into some yellow paint, mixing it with a little white. With a few flicks of the wrist, he brushed the golden magic onto the bottom of the clouds. Exactly three strokes. Boom. Clouds.
“Just put the color where the color goes,” he said.
Put the color where the color goes. Genius! Why didn’t someone mention this before? Put that on a t-shirt! So simple. With this trade secret, we were bound to become prodigies.
And it’s not just a visual art secret. It can apply to almost anything. Mozart put the notes where the notes go. Shakespeare put the words where the words go. Even Michael Jordan just knew how to put the ball where the ball goes.
But wait. One small problem. Some of us don’t automatically know where the color goes. Some of us can’t even play the notes where Mozart put them, let alone create our own symphony. For some of us, the creative process is blood, sweat, and tears. What does this mean for us?
The only possible answer is quit. Give up. You either have it or you don’t.
Or take a moment and listen to the music below. Judging by Beethoven’s manuscripts, he didn’t seem to know where the notes belonged. He wrote down what he thought, scratched it out, labored over it and then rewrote it. He might not have known where the notes went the first time around, but he kept working at it until he figured it out.
Please don’t miss Leonard Bernstein’s face at 2:42 (he looks like my grandpa) and the air violin/cello at 3:00.