breaking it down

A month ago, a friend messaged me to tell me she had won a free session at a painting class. She asked if I would like to come along, and we could split the cost of a second class.
I have wanted to do this for a long time, so I jumped at the opportunity. We put the class on our calendars, and the date finally rolled around last week. She had thoughtfully chosen a class with a painting she knew I would love. It was a full moon shining brightly against a dark sky at dusk. A barren tree wrapped its limbs around the moon.
When we arrived, we were among several dozen painters — many of whom seemed to be regulars at this place. We found our spots in front of our blank canvases. In the front of the room, the finished painting was displayed on a large flat digital screen.
It was intimidating to look at the beautiful piece of art that we were going to paint and try to imagine how we could possibly be talented enough to transform the large white canvas in front of us into the spooky fall scene. Should we begin with the tree or the swirling background? How would we make those craters on the moon? Look at all of those limbs! How would we possibly paint each one to look like the tree in the original?
My mind was racing to try to figure out what to do first, when thankfully, our instructor began the class. She gave us Step No. 1.
She told us to place a cup against the canvas and trace the opening with black paint. Next, we were to paint the entire canvas — minus our white circle — black.
For the next two hours, she gave us our instructions one at a time. After each step, we would try our best to copy her work. We would look at the original and then back at our own. We would glance at the paintings of the people next to us, hoping maybe they knew the “right” way to paint. Every so often, we would get up and stand back to look at our own painting from a distance. Even as we added layers of silver, gold and bronze, it was hard to believe that we were creating something that might compare with the beautiful piece of art in front of us.
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Eventually, we got to the hard part. We needed to paint the tree. Thankfully, our instructor pulled out a white board, and walked us through it. We started with the trunk and the major branches. We added more branches and smaller limbs. We filled in the tree to make it thicker.
Finally, we put the finishing touches on our tree. We added shimmering gold highlights on top of the black branches.
It was tempting to compare our own paintings with those of everyone around us. But then we realized that each one was beautiful and still unique. It was so interesting that we all followed the exact same instructions, and yet our end results were our own. More than that, it was amazing that just by breaking down something that seemed like an impossible feat, we were able to create our own masterpiece.
I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot the past few days. One of my strengths is actually the art of breaking things down. When I feel intimidated by a big assignment at work or a challenging situation at home, I often start by writing down every step it would take to get to the end result. Then, I work my way backward, giving myself deadlines for the last step, then the second to last step and so on, until I’ve reached my starting point. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I complete even one step along the path.
But I’ve realized recently that I have several big projects on my to-do list that feel like that finished painting to me. I’m so intimidated by the image of the end result that I can’t even get myself to begin. I put these projects on my mental to-do list, but it’s like I really have no intention of ever getting them done. I’ve realized that getting started is the hardest part. What is Step No. 1?
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking about how I could try to tackle one of these projects in a month, rather than a year or in some cases, a decade. That painting has really inspired me. With November right around the corner, what if I were to break it down? I could set aside 15 minutes each weekday to work on the first project. I’m excited to see how far I can get by the end of the month.
I’m going to hang up my painting as a visual reminder that I can do this. Just take it one step at a time.

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