The British Diaries

If in doubt, paint.

I awoke this morning with a little less panic in my chest. God knows I have no business in feeling that way, but so it goes. Maybe it’s because I’ve given myself a chance to breathe. Or maybe my brain has dissociated from the things that I should be worried about.

“I don’t know what to start with,” I told my friend recently, after spluttering my worries to him in his kitchen. I never enjoy sharing my stresses to my friends. I hate the idea that they will associate negative emotion with me. I want their experience of my company to be bright and enjoyable. I want us to laugh and have fun. Not try and sort out my mid 30s crisis. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What is the one job you really want to do that will make you feel better?”

I frowned in thought, flickering over the various to-dos in my mind. They loomed forwards in a dizzying list and I blinked to free myself of them. “I want to get my paintings done,” I said.

“Then that’s what you need to do. Paint for the rest of the week, and then at the end of it, see what has occurred.” And then I got what I needed- a hug.

And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. As soon as I wake up, I stick the kettle on and sit at my desk, paintbrush in hand. And you know what? I’ve been loving it. I’ve been loving seeing what unfolds beneath my paintbrush. After so many years of painting, I’m still learning new things and different techniques all of the time.

After finishing a commission, I rewarded myself with a training exercise to paint more realistically- an exercise that turned into an entire day welded to my chair. It was a portrait of one of my favourite characters that I have ever written.

Maddox Black.

She emerged from the paper as soon as my paintbrush touched indigo, her eyes staring at me in accusation.

Where have you been? She seemed to demand.

Maddox Black in progress…

I knew what she meant. Her fourth instalment of her story was still being written and hadn’t been released. The last time I had mentioned her, she had just arrived at the Bone Isles with Wulfrik, the Hunter. She’s been impatiently waiting ever since.

She’s been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve been dying to plunge back into her story, but I’ve been reserving time for us both only when I’ve finished some work on the history book I’ve been writing.

“I can’t finish your book when I haven’t even finished the book that I’ve actually got a deal for,” I mumbled to her, slicing a flash of green in her eyes.

She knew I was lying. I had been dipping in and out of her story, adding what meat I could to her chapters, throwing in a major betrayal, attempted murder and leaving her half frozen to death in the snow. Even now as I’m typing, I’m dying to get back into her storyline. But first- I have other jobs to do.

And suddenly, it was 1:30am in the morning, her face full formed with a ship weathering a storm at the base of the picture. It was a forced movement to release my paintbrush, despite feeling wide awake. And I was still awake at past 2:30am, thinking of storylines, more illustrations and hungering for the day when I would have more time.

Painting Maddox had been a reward for being productive with my other commissions. I had just finished a father and daughter painting, and it had been my first realistic portrait in a long time. Nerves had made me twist my paintbrush over and over, unsure whether I could succeed in capturing what I wanted to capture. But somehow, but by bit, it revealed itself.

Recent father and daughter commission.

That’s the thing with watercolours. It demands patience and constant layering, building up in the lightest colours to then apply dark. It always looks worse before it looks better. And as soon as the image starts to trickle through, excitement catches you and it becomes so wholly addictive that you forget to eat. My diet has mostly consisted of tea and coffee these past few days. And I can say, I love this piece so much. The confidence I got from that painting, was what encouraged me to take that knowledge and apply it to something else.

It’s been good to focus on my painting whilst I bat the other worries at bay. They crawl closer sometimes, itching on my consciousness, listing all of the things I need to do until I freeze in place, unable to prioritise, unable to do anything at all.

There is so much I need to do.

And because of that, I find it really difficult to start.

I have a call with my publisher tomorrow to talk about the History of the Waterways book. We’ve had to push the deadline back, because not only has the research been increasingly difficult, but I’ve been juggling so much to keep everything going. Each discovery and fact takes a full day to uncover. I spent six hours the other day just to have a medieval woman’s name confirmed that took part in the restoration of one canal. There was no other context. No other information. Just the confirmation of her name.

Still, I suppose writing books and painting commissions has been a good distraction from the other things that have been on my mind. Maybe it’s because it’s so therapeutic. Or maybe it’s because it pays my bills, so each painting is a relief-inducing gift.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do in terms of moving onwards on Maggie or staying put at this mooring. I’m waiting for the answer to become more clear. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been existing week to week, waiting for that answer to show itself. But I’m taking my friend’s advice and sinking into my watercolours and hoping for the best.

Luckily, painting offers me a chance to push all of those worries aside and focus at the blank piece of paper in front of me. The way is always clear for me then. A collection of colours, movement and depth. The time between each layer to dry. The flourishes of gold, the discreet lines of white, black and brown. I know what to do. I know where I stand. And I am in control. Most of the time.

And by the time I have finished, not only have I created something special for someone else, but the achievement of doing something that I’m good at and what I love doing floods through my body.

I know that I want to do this forever. There have been times when I have become tired of painting. There have been times when the idea of picking up a paintbrush has made me want to throw myself out into the canal.

But then whenever I think of my perfect day, it always consists of painting in the day and writing in the night. No matter where I am in the world, whether on boat or land. So that must mean for something. If I didn’t have these skills, I have no idea what I would be doing or who I would be. I certainly wouldn’t be Elizabeth Earle. And I certainly wouldn’t be happy.

So maybe I need to fight harder for that.

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