I took an oil painting class in college. It was a required course for my BFA in studio arts and I dreaded every moment of it. Mostly because two dimensional art is not my strength, but also because my professor was vague and I needed structure. The first few classes focused on mixing paint on our palettes and I liked that part. I got good enough at the process that soon every attempt at mixing a new color didn’t result in various amorphous blobs of brown paint. Then the painting part began in earnest.

We focused on self-portraits which was a bad plan. Try painting a portrait of yourself, you spend a lot of time staring into a mirror and realizing your nostrils are two different sizes and one eye squints more than the other and that cluster of freckles around your nose looks like a smudge of dirt.

I decided to paint my self portrait using only shades of purple and yellow and it was as awful as you might imagine. I was struggling with shading, sure, but also no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many different types of brushes I employed, the portrait looked nothing like me. A flat composition of holes and smudges and a few shapes that might be mistaken for eyes and a nose if you squinted just right and cocked your head to the side.

My professor was making the rounds and I tried to shrink down so she wouldn’t see me or my canvas covered in blotches of purples and yellows, my face a weird bruise staring back at me. It didn’t work. She stood behind me for a while, breathing, shifting her weight. The silence was too much and I interrupted her reverie to ask what to do. She chewed her lip for a moment and then said: Scumble.

I’m sorry? What did you say? She started walking away as she said, Scumble your brush, across the canvas. She waved her hand as if she were practicing a royal wave and wandered over to my classmate’s easel to admire his cubist inspired portrait, wedges and triangles of bright colors and crisp black lines that somehow managed to capture his essence, his broken nose, his thick brown hair. I resisted the urge to slap my palette onto my canvas paint side down and smear it across the surface.

I did all the assignments, they were all terrible and at no point did I think, you know, I’ve really got a knack for this! The voice inside my head said: You are a terrible painter and I nodded in agreement and said, you got that right. Seriously awful.

The voice inside my head thinks I stink at everything. Cooking, running, swimming, drawing, writing, listening, calling home, walking, breathing, eating, sleeping, math. Some of these are true. Some are not. These days I can’t tell when my voice is lying. I must be good at something, but I also know I am not that great at plenty of things. When I see other people doing amazing things I wonder how they knew they were good, do they know? Does the voice inside their head tell them they’re just awful and they ignore it?


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