Painting as a Metaphor for Life

Transcendence #4 - Small Japanese Buddha Painting 8x8 acrylic on gallery canvas $120

The background on this painting was a complete accident – the darker brown around the head was unplanned but turned out beautiful!

Over the last seven days, I’ve started a new large painting and as I am about mid-way through the thoughts and feelings occurred to me again how painting a piece of artwork is like a metaphor for life. You have an idea for what you want it to look like, you sketch it out, lay the foundations of your idea on canvas, and then paint it, only to discover that what is turning up is not exactly what you envisioned.

Painting takes me on similar unexpected emotional twists and turns as reality unfolds before me moment to moment. How I choose to respond changes the outcome entirely. Exactly the same thing that happens in life.

What happens if I use purple? (What happens if I go back to school?) Yuck, this color didn’t turn out well at all. (This relationship was not meant to be, I’m better off staying single.) What can I do to alter this mistake and turn it into something beautiful? (I messed up with a customer, how can I make it up and satisfy them again?)

I mean we as artists ask ourselves the same questions and give ourselves the same feedback that we all do in life situations that I used as examples in the parenthesis.

A photo posted by Amy Tanathorn (@amytanathorn) on

Planning it all out – sometimes

Just like in life, you have an idea where you want to go with your painting. And sometimes you don’t, you just start painting on your canvas and you see where it takes you.

For a very long time in my 20’s I had no clue what I wanted to do as a career. All work options sounded so boring because I didn’t know what my choices were. Even after taking a career development class I was still uninspired. No wonder it took me until I was 26 to get my bachelor’s degree!

And then upon graduation, I still had no clue, but I did know I wanted to get out of my town and move to San Francisco. So that’s what my best friend and I did. We had that part planned.

Overall, my life has been more like putting the paint on the canvas and seeing what happens. Life has been more like an abstract piece of art. Which is fine, if abstract is what you’re after. However, if you want something with more structure, you’re going to have to make a plan.

In art, I sketch and practice drawing the figure I’ve never done before I paint it. The Buddha sketch above, I’d never drawn a seated statue before – ever – and I knew that to be more confident on the large canvas and get an idea of the spacing, between the window and the other objects, I needed to practice. If only I could have given myself that same advice in my 20s about LIFE. I’m a late learner.  

 Dealing with mistakes

I’m going along with my painting, happily putting down colors that look great, trying out techniques here and there, some that I’ve done before, some that I haven’t done before.

Then oops, that technique botched up the whole thing! It looks awful! What can I do to turn this around? It requires all my attention and focus because if I can’t fix this mistake, it will ruin the whole painting.

Ever gotten car problems? Hmm… yeah, same thing. It always comes right out of nowhere, and you end up having to put your entire focus on solving that problem until you’ve got your car back. Sometimes it’s just changing a flat or charging your battery again. Sometimes your car problem can really break your bank account and it’s an extremely stressful situation if you don’t have the emergency funds to get it taken care of right away.

Most of my painting problems are more equivalent to the dead battery or flat tire, fortunately.


A photo posted by Amy Tanathorn (@amytanathorn) on

 Not what you’d envisioned

I’ve planned my painting, sketched it out on paper and canvas and am putting down the first layers of color. As a painter, I work in layers of color to give the painting depth and interest. But I tell you, it is HARD to keep the vision of the finished piece when it still looks nothing like what you want to to be.

Combine that with mistakes and you’re like a sailor trying to stay on course, navigating through the wind.

It can get discouraging. If you’re starting your own business and you have a vision for what it will look like once you’ve “made it” seeing it for what it is right now is nowhere near your end goals.

In my current painting I’m working on above, the moss looked awful. It was flat and looked like a snake coiling around the bottom half of the canvas. Buddha and the lantern look a little off to me, tilted a little bit too much. I worry that my painting is too dark. But I have many layers and details yet to do. What you see here is not what the finished piece is going to look like, and I have to keep reminding myself of that as I continue my work.

Step by step, when you have your vision, even the actions you take send you sideways, as they always do, you have that picture in your mind of the end result. The very act of writing this blog post today is for my overall vision of building value toward a large audience for both my artwork and inspiring communication.

A Quiet Place: Japanese Garden Painting by Amy Tanathorn 30x40 acrylic on gallery canvas

The finished piece looks great!

The painting above went through all the steps I’ve outlined above. It’s got some mistakes, like the fern I’d never done before could look better, as could the clump of grass. But I’m really pleased with the stone lantern. That is the first time I’d ever painted one before. I’d never done bushes before and the effect with the willow tree and tea paper rectangles looks great together.

While the colors are a little more muted than I expected and some of the shapes at the base of the statue could be better, I’m overall quite pleased with how this painting turned out.

Just like in life, you have your vision and you take the twists and turns as the journey unfolds. You reach your goal and more often than not, the end result is MOSTLY what you envisioned, though not exactly. Sometimes your result can be even BETTER!

My best friend had a job interview with Pixar and was hoping with ever fiber of her being that she would get the position. Who wouldn’t right? What a COOL place to work! Her ultimate goal – her vision-  was to get a job in a tech-related field in the entertainment industry. Right up her alley. At that time, she’d been working for an upscale cooking and lifestyle company and it paid the bills in the interim.

She didn’t get the job at Pixar.

However, a few months later, she interviewed with a smaller, lesser known company that does story apps and is growing fast. Lots of her former colleagues from a different well-known entertainment company work there as well. It’s creative, innovative, challenging and FUN.

She got the job!

And she could not be happier.

So life gives you unexpected detours, mistakes and unexpected consequences that fall into your lap along the way. How do you deal with it? And then when you reach your goal, more often than not it looks a little bit different than how you imagined it, but you love it dearly.

And this is how my experiences with painting is a metaphor for life.

3 Responses to Painting as a Metaphor for Life

  1. Melanie March 11, 2015 at 4:30 am #

    I like the saying “If a door does not open, then it’s not YOUR door.”

    I love your paintings because they are created by you, embody your unique Life-force, and they are genuinely beautiful pieces both in technique and subject.

    • Amy Tanathorn March 11, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

      I like that saying you shared, Melanie. Isn’t that the truth!

      Also, you know me personally and very well. My intention with this blog is to bring a sense of that to readers who do not personally know me to get to know me and if there is a connection, they will like me. And then they will like my art, too! 🙂

  2. Bianca December 23, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    Good post. I’m going through many of these issues as well..

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