Two Hands

GARDEN RAIN, acrylic on canvas, 24×18

I MANGLED MY LEFT HAND on Labor Day (I am left-handed), and I had surgery the next day for a dislocated finger. My hand was then immobilized for six weeks.

The second splint is off now and the hand is getting better by the day. But for several weeks I could only paint with my right hand, which was difficult and awkward. I still can’t grip a brush with my left hand, but I have enough motion back in my fingers to control the brush’s movements — at least more reliably than with my right.

These paintings show three stages of recovery. I painted the base coat of “Garden Rain” with my left hand before the injury and completed it with my right in its aftermath. “Aftershock” was painted entirely with my right hand. The base of “Crash Landing” was the last time I had to depend on my right hand; I completed it with my left.

THE BASE COAT supplies a painting’s emotion and atmosphere. Starting a painting is a volatile and unpredictable process, guided by instinct. It begins, though, with a series of decisions: choosing canvas size and orientation; deciding between sensual oil or faster-drying acrylic paint; whether to have music on and something to drink; and finally, colors and brushes. 

The colors create a mood, or rather they clear the way for one to emerge through the shapes and brushstrokes that follow: the painting’s inspiration, an electric, enigmatic transfer of energy to canvas. 

Once dry, I emphasize the base’s strengths while analyzing color and design, painting over parts and giving greater definition to others until eventually a narrative or theme appears like a photo in developer.

Once I grasp its meaning, I can finish the painting. Usually.

AFTERSHOCK, acrylic on canvas, 24×18

Occasionally a painting’s color scheme and design hang together, but its relevance is obscure. “Aftershock” was like that, confounding me with its bright, gaudy colors. Seeing in the painting the many farm roads that crisscross the land amid the long furrows of potatoes along the Connecticut, though, I initially titled it, “Paths to the River.”

Now that I’ve painted “Crash Landing,” I see the painting in a new light, emblematic of a stage in my recovery, the fragmented memory and lingering discomfort of the accident reverberating three weeks out, a still-loud “Aftershock.”

When I started “Crash Landing” using my right hand, I didn’t see this. I merely spread around gobs of white, orange, yellow, teal, and emerald-green paint energetically without thought of the end product, making sure to coat every surface.

With my left hand, I began adding color and form to the baseline brushstrokes and shapes. I could see a thick tuft of grass emerging — a familiar, if unexciting, theme. But then I flipped the painting over, and I immediately saw my hand at the moment of impact. The shock is cushioned — not through rosy-colored glasses but a surreal glow: the bright colors reflecting the warm, sunny day, begun with friends, in the clearing of a forest.

The optimistic hues come from my aftercare, too: a deeper appreciation of the intricacy of the hand, the excellent medical care I received, the support of friends, the resiliency of the body. This temporary inconvenience is a reminder of just how fortunate I have been. I am humbled, grateful, and eager to give back.

CRASH LANDING, acrylic on canvas, 18×24

14 Replies to “Two Hands”

  1. This is so intriguing, how the crash becomes a sprouting up. Crash landing has impact, (!) but also relief, and is curiously inviting. You are up to “good trouble” as they say!

    1. Thank you, Jonathan. Painting is always a bit of a mystery, and the injury has forced me to forge ahead in new directions and discovery. What will come next?!?

  2. I’d say, “ break a leg,” as the loss, briefly, of one hand has opened up all sorts of new pathways. But that probably wouldn’t be as invigorating. Love the new work.

    1. Russell, I commented on your painting “Aftershock” before I read this post. So sorry about your hand setback. My recent injury (mentioned in previous post) has rendered my left hand partially useless. I am also left-handed. I am inspired by your ingenuity in working with your right as well as your left hand as much as possible. It has given me renewed hope. I am wearing a brace but fingers are somewhat workable though I have not painted since my accident two weeks ago. Such is life and the coincidences we share. Synchronicity is everywhere.

      1. Good morning, Jan. Thanks for the feedback. So sorry about your hand–obviously I can empathize! Two weeks is not such a long time for healing; hang in there. Perhaps the break from painting will result in new insights and inspiration when you are well enough to resume.

  3. I can see a progression of conscious control that certainly mirrors your recovery. Yet I find the first painting, where you presumably exercised the least control, the most intriguing. The layering effects you achieved in this work I think are very exciting, reminiscent to me of Joan Mitchell. I find I get better results if I try to avoid conscious control. It can be a struggle though, especially when the painting begins to “speak,” I.e. you begin to formulate a conscious idea of what the final painting is going to look like. I hope that makes some kind of sense. Hope to see you at my open studio nov. 13 or 14 th.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Arch! I tend to agree with you, but I have come to believe that to be fully integrated the painting must marry the subconscious with the conscious, preserving the spontaneity (where the painting begins) with intention (so the final work is more purposeful and speaks to me). This feels like the beginning of a longer, deeper discussion. I look forward to it! And I hope to see you at your open studio.

    1. Thank you, Christine. I’m unsure of the question. Where does the garden lead? Many places. Where does this painting lead? To be determined!

  4. Russ, these are gorgeous! And to hear the scary story of your hand injury and how these came about make them extra intriguing.

    So glad you’re better,
    all the best,

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