Fill Your Canvas

In Life Is Short, Pep Talks, The Life Creative by David20 Comments

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My mother and I on safari this January. Photographs by Cynthia Haynes.

On Friday I re-posted Life is Short. The comments and the emails I’ve had since that original post have lit me on fire in a way I can’t describe, reminding me how deeply we can live when we get intentional about it. It also reminds me of the powerful voice of fear that whispers in all our ears. It’s likely that voice that has kept us from living intentionally and passionately. It’s that voice that says, “Yeah, but what if…?”

Yeah, but what if I get hurt? What will this cost me? What will they think? What if it’s hard and I fail?

Fear is a junk artist. It creates something of our lives that we never intended, molds us into the same mediocre shape as everyone else. And like any artist, it asks What if… with alarming frequency. But what if we didn’t abdicate our role as the artist of our lives? What if we listened to fear’s question and replied in kind: Sure, but what if I never try? What will that cost me? What if I succeed? What if I don’t, but the failure teaches me better lessons than the mediocrity ever could, and it makes me a different person, a stronger person, a person who one day takes flight instead of stumbling?

I don’t know how to put it into words. Each time I try I feel like I’m flailing. But I feel like I need to try, at least once more, to remind myself and anyone that’ll listen, that we are the artists of our own lives and like any art it is messy, and full of questions and uncertainty, but it is an act of intentionality. Who we are, what we do, who we become, is our art. Sure, it can be accidental, the life that looks like an absent-minded doodle, the life that became what it was while the artist, pen in hand, was busy talking on the phone. That’s one choice, or it’s a refusal to choose. Hell, maybe we never knew we had a choice. But it can also be intentional. A fiery act of passionate brush strokes made in wild reds and yellows across the canvas. We have no idea how large that canvas is, we could reach its edges before we ever imagined, but those colours are no less intense for being on a smaller canvas. And when the paint goes awry, we scrape it off and do it again. Or we leave it and let it slide over the edges, more beautiful for its passion and imperfection.

But God help us, born to this canvas and paint, if we do nothing with it, sign our name on its empty off-white surface and hang it on the wall, after a long succession of lookalike days leads us to our graves, content merely not to have made a mess of the canvas. Who will gaze on that unmarked rectangle on the wall, next to the million others, all of them differentiated only by the names scribbled in the corners, and do anything but sigh? Perfectly safe. Tragically wasted.

Like everyone, I am afraid, and probably afraid of so many of the same things. We share the same night terrors, you and I; I’m sure of it. But if fear’s an artist then I’ll learn from it, and when it whispers I’ll lean in and whisper back a reminder. I won’t be stopped by fear of things tangible, real, and undeniable, but trivial next to the fear of going to my grave safe, my canvas unmarked.

Fill your canvas. Let us hear your voice. Whatever the colour on your palette, however misshapen your stretcher bars. Fill it. If it’s been so long since you’ve used your brushes that the bristles are hard and paralyzed then throw them away and paint with your hands. But paint unhindered by your fear and when it’s voice gets loud again, lean in, and paint harder.


  1. Pingback: Photography Links: March 2014

  2. Your words are so inspirational. This post is such a reminder to not waste the preciousness that is the canvas of our life…to live purposefully. Fear sometimes tries to make me feel so small and insignificant that even I can’t see myself. You remind me in this post the truth that fear is just pointless breeze – a thing of no substance. I want my canvas to be so boldly colorful, and so crowded with strokes as to spill off the edges, drip down the wall and pool across the floor. Thank you for sharing your gift of writing as well as the gift of your art through the lens of your camera. And my prayers are with you through your recovery.

  3. Thank you for asking me to step back and look at the broad scope of my life beyond the day to day.

  4. You have written wonderful words on painting. My leading example in this space is my wife, which never thought of recording and producing her solo piano CD. Last year was a chance to have the recording equipment on place for some time. We picked up the result then 6 months later from the CD company.
    She had a lot of question and was not sure about the project, but finally the fear was smaller than the joy to do her work.

  5. As a guy who is struggling right now, wanting to make a huge leap, these last two posts have kicked me in the teeth. I’m not sure if my wax wings are ready to fly, but I’m really ready to leave the cage. Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. This is the first time, or at least the first time I’ve paid attention, I’ve heard someone say to talk back to the Fear inside us. Instead of ignoring it, you’re encouraging people to engage it in dialog and toss back the negative “What if’s” with positive ones. I can not ignore the Fear which wants to hold me back, but I can beat it at its own game.

  7. Somehow, you’ve popped up in my life several times at the most unexpected moments, and always very timely to what is going on in my life and in my head! The synchronicity is wonderful. Today, is was in a post that my friend Kim Manley Ort shared on Facebook. I really needed to read what you wrote here and in “Life is Short.” Thanks for taking the time and doing the work to share your insights with us. Appreciate it.

  8. Pingback: Fill Your Canvas | Anna Hergert, Art & Design

  9. David, what poignant words. Thanks for this post. I would like your permission to reblog this post.

  10. Two days in a row now you’ve moved me to tears of inspiration David. How did you know about my night terrors, by the way?!?!?

    You’ve inspired me to be brave enough to put this out there: I am truly trying to improve my craft and my art by breaking out of a rut. I would be honored if you’d read my post, “Breaking Out of the HDR Rut with Lightroom 5: Lightroom 5 vs. Photomatix Pro vs. HDR Pro.” I’d be so grateful if you’d comment to give me feedback on the four different photo processes I used.

    It is with no small amount of fear that I ask, because you are one of my greatest mentors, so much so that you often feel “out of my league” but your post today makes me feel brave enough to ask you!

    1. Thanks so much for the visit and your comments David! I am honored…

      This is a “copy & paste” of my reply to your comment on my blog today.

      To answer your question, actually, yes I am very glad I asked, because your answer was the best possible answer anyone could have given.

      I say this because you reminded me that it is what I think, as an artist, which matters the most, not “what clients want.” Yes, I do prefer that clients who match my vision are naturally drawn to me and my art, rather than shaping myself into what I think might be commercially successful.

      I especially LOVE your challenge not to view my post-processing as a way to take an image from boring to brilliant, but rather to start with brilliant, and go from there. I think that is what got me into the “HDR rut” in the first place; not finding a way to create something brilliant from the start…

      ALL SAGE WORDS, and I expected nothing less from you, which is why your input mattered so much to me that I specifically sought out your opinion.

      On my blog, my reply to your comment went on to explain who you are and what you do, to readers who might not know of you. No need to include that info here, since anyone here already knows why I follow you!

      Thanks again, and a speedy recovery to you!

      Janine Fugere

  11. I just want to thank you for sharing your insights, you prompted me to share that with others. Beautifully written and most importantly lived, by you. You have my respect and appreciation.

  12. It’s funny how I’ve spent so much time reading about, studying and practicing photographing intentionally and never made, what seems so obvious to me now, the comparison to living life intentionally. Thank you for the thoughtful post. Heal well and feel better soon!!

  13. Thanks again David.
    I wish you a speedy recovery to get back to living the life that you live so well. I certainly needed to read these posts and I will read them again and again…..and again until I stop sidestepping those fears and take them out – head on – with a smile. I certainly don’t want to be asking myself the same questions years from now and not having much better answers.

    Heal well. 🙂

  14. This is a timely follow-up – both welcome, and appreciated. I will try my best to answer the persistent voice of fear with a respectful, yet determined, “Piss off!”

  15. Another great post. I share these in my teachings as a high school ceramics teacher.
    Still looking forward to buying you a pint someday David!

  16. Hahaha, David, didn’t take too long to get your desire to write back!

    Good for you, I hope your physical healing proceeds in such a rapid maner!

    Your last post sure touched a lots of folks in a visceral manner. It’s one of your special talents. Making mom smiles seems to be another….

    Keep on truckin’!

    1. Author

      🙂 Not so much my desire, which is always there, but the lucidity to do so, and to dig deep enough to find something worth saying. I think that’s the hardest part. Sifting through the trivial to find something worth the effort. As always, Tom, thank you for the encouragement and for being part of the community of this blog. I’m grateful.

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