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Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Why are breakthroughs so often preceded by breakdowns? And why, after having experienced this cycle before, do I continue to push back and try to push through rather than letting go, going away and embracing the chaos that will no doubt lead to some new, exciting place?

This time, like other times, started with a lack of enthusiasm. I was still in the studio but not overly inspired. Most of my work was tweaking, rather than starting anything new, and my thoughts were getting duller and darker. You probably wouldn’t have noticed it—it wasn’t a scary 'Call 911' situation. It was more like when you notice your goldfish looking a little more bug-eyed than normal and you realize it’s time to clean the tank. Without noticing it, the water in my tank had been getting cloudier, and my gills started having to work overtime just to get through the day. New painting ideas began to elude me, and I found many excuses to leave the studio.

Maybe Steve noticed my listing, floating to the top of the goldfish bowl, gasping for inspiration—or maybe it was his own wanderlust—but he came to the rescue! He suggested a trip to Ricketts Glen State Park in PA that he thought might revive me, and we could visit some old family friends on our way. Four days, three nights—why not?

Holy cow! More than 20 waterfalls in a 3-mile loop! Each one unique, spectacular and surrounded by lush, brilliant, green forest and moss-covered rocks. Water was ever present, whether falling in curtains of deafening billows or glistening threads of beaded silver slipping down walls of fern and moss. Sap Green, what we call in a painting the “mother color,” mixed with everything, pulling it all together, with the occasional red jewel of a berry shining out from under a leaf. The noise was deafening, in a head-clearing way, and so was the silence when the falls receded. It was heaven.

The first amazing falls were visible within minutes of leaving the parking lot, and there was never more than 10 minutes without another waterfall to take in. The best part was figuring out that I could sketch with my iPad while Steve was taking photos. Normally, when he pulls out his tripod I’ve got 15-30 minutes to chillax and soak up the scene. It’s not enough time to set up a plein air painting session (besides, hiking up and down with the extra gear would have probably killed me), but since I’d brought along my iPad, I pulled it out and started sketching.

I also discovered that this kind of easy sketching freed me in a way that working with paint doesn’t allow. When I have a brush in hand, even when I tell myself it’s only a study, a sketch, an experiment, I can still tighten up, especially when I’m feeling emotionally fragile. With the iPad, there was no such concern, and I could focus on composition and value shapes and in doing so also notice the little things I might have missed if I had simply snapped a photo and moved on.

Here are a few of the sketches I did in 10-20 minutes each...

The best part of all this is that I came back full of energy, ideas and inspiration. Picture a goldfish smiling.

What did all this teach me? That when the going gets tough, sometimes the smart thing to do is to get out of town. It’s not escape. Well, OK, it kind of is, but it’s also therapy—a way to clean the aquarium and get some fresh air into those gills.

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