We are thrilled to share this candid essay from Laura Browning about why she walked away from painting and then returned years later after the birth of her son. I hope you all will enjoy this inspiring piece as much as I did. Thank you so much for sharing today, Laura! We're so happy you've returned and found your voice again, and we can't wait to see what happens for you next.
A few months ago I dusted off my paintbrushes for the first time in over 4 years. I was strangely nervous and I doubted that my hand would remember how to capture and express my ideas. I had thought a lot about what I would paint when I finally had “the time”. I had also become really good at collecting inspiration, even better at procrastinating my return to the studio. Finally, one day in April I was ready. I pulled out the smallest canvas I could find to do a test painting, which I was convinced would be a throw away piece. The smell of the oils and the positioning of my easel, all felt so natural… a return to something familiar and comfortable. I turned the music up, covered my palette with paint and I went for it. Surprisingly, after a couple of hours I was ready to call the piece finished, and I actually liked what I had done. I hadn’t lost it after all. My return to painting was lovely, and easy. Later that day while I was driving a road I’ve driven often before, the sky seemed brighter and the clouds more beautiful. It was just like a runner’s high… but from painting.
While I was growing up, all of my passions were centered around art. In college I majored in Fine Art, with a focus on drawing and painting. I was aware that it would be really tough to make a living as an artist, but that made me all the more determined. After graduating, I made it my goal to make my living and career directly within the world of art. I watched many college friends as they attempted to make it as artists, but eventually transitioned to unrelated fields in order to make ends meet. I knew that I would need to do something different. My focus on earning a living as a painter forced me to get creative. I had to be very open to everything that I could do and explore every option. As a result I ended up with some interesting jobs that took me down an unexpected career path.
One of my first art related jobs was with the education department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I created and taught art workshops based on exhibitions at the museum. I loved that work. There was always so much happening, so much for me to be exposed to and learn. While I was at LACMA, I was offered an internship at the Guggenheim museum in Venice, Italy. It was an exciting opportunity, so on a bit of a whim, I decided to move out of the country for a while. At the Guggenheim, I learned the ins and outs of daily operation and worked with people from all around the globe. Living in Venice was amazing and beyond inspiring every single day. I sketched and painted whenever and wherever I had the chance. Several months later, when I moved back to California I found a job in a studio for an art publisher. My job was to layer oil paint on top of canvas prints to make them appear more like original works. The process is referred to as “hand enhancing giclee reproductions.” This was a particularly educational job, as I had to learn to emulate another artist’s hand. I’m left handed and the artist I was working for is right handed. It was a challenge to figure out how to mimic the paint strokes and make them look authentic. I had to mix and apply colors the way that artist would; not the way that I would if it had been my own work. That really pushed my artistic skills. Also, it was the first time that the painting wasn’t about me and my personal perspective.
Working at the studio exposed me to the commercial side of the art world, which was fascinating and eye opening in its own right. Eventually, I was promoted to “ghost painter”. I created paintings from scratch in the style of another artist, directed by the artist and their publisher. Then the artist would add their own final touches and sign their name. I was so focused on continuing to work as an artist that I was willing to let my own work and voice go. Instead, I focused on learning as much as I could about the business side of art and becoming a more proficient painter. After I moved on from ghost painting, I started working as the manager of a decorative painting company. I learned how to run a team of artists, coordinate project schedules and manage client relationships. It was exciting and interesting work, and before long I realized that I wanted to start my own business. I launched my own decorative painting company in 2004, painting murals, faux finishes and custom canvases. I worked directly with homeowners and interior designers to create original works that complimented their home decor. I really loved merging my interest in business with my creative energy, and I made deep connections with clients that lasted for years.
When my husband and I decided to move from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in 2009, I was hesitant to walk away from all of my clients and the business I had built. I considered starting my company again after the move but it was a good transition point to start reconsidering my own body of work. I had always wanted to create and show in galleries but instead, I had kept myself busy with commissions and realizing the creative visions of others. Once we got settled into our new home I created a set of paintings. I participated in a few gallery shows in San Francisco, and received some painting commissions and sales. After several months, things weren’t moving as quickly as I had hoped. This was during the recession, and the art market had changed pretty dramatically. One day, in an attempt to create some momentum for my work, I decided to submit to a few art publishers (the same kind of places that I had done hand enhancing for, years earlier). Within a week I was signed with a publisher, and working on my first shipment of paintings. They had a specific vision for what they wanted me to create. It was similar to what I had done for years with my business. I was a bit torn about this because it meant creating for someone else’s vision yet again. It was, however, quite exciting to imagine my work being printed and sold in major stores; this time with my signature instead of another artist. I hoped that I could eventually merge the publishers style and my personal inspiration. I worked diligently with the publisher to create batches of paintings, cranking them out sometimes one every day. My paintings were mass produced and sold in chain stores like Bed Bath and Beyond and Target. It was exhilarating to get calls from friends who had spotted my painting in a store, but I still didn’t feel connected to the work. It just wasn’t the work that I wanted to be creating. It lacked my personal inspiration. I still had plans for developing my own body of paintings, but my name was being spread in connection this mass produced artwork. I decided to go by a pseudonym to protect my real name, which I wanted to build for myself as an artist. That was the moment that I started to turn away from the career I had built. Even though I had spent years working toward this, it was unsatisfying because it wasn’t truly my voice. After creating all of the published work, I didn’t have enough time or creative energy left to create my own work. When I finally did squeeze out a painting or two for myself, I found that I was stuck in the mass production style of painting that I become accustomed to. I really struggled with expressing my own voice.
Eventually, I decided to stop pursuing my career as an artist and started working with my husband’s design business as a visual and UI designer. I designed screens and interfaces for software and mobile apps. After 12 years of commercialized painting, I needed this change. I actually found it very refreshing. I took down my art website, and nearly everything else that spoke of me as an artist online. I was "done" with my art career and I was actually happy about it. My husband (who I met in art school and was by my side through this whole story) knew me better. He encouraged me to think of it as a break and not to give up on my art career entirely. He knew that I needed to keep my creative inspiration alive. Art magazines, that he had secretly ordered, would unexpectedly show up at the house. He would take me to dinner down the street from a gallery opening so we could coincidentally end up there afterward.
One day I received a hand written letter from an old client that I worked with on many commissions. She expressed her sadness that I was no longer painting. That shocked me. The idea that abandoning my work was affecting someone else hadn’t ever occurred to me. Her words would remain with me for a long time.
I was working hard at the design studio, and I became pregnant with our first child. I had lovely visions of working away at the computer and my baby cooing nearby, perhaps with some occasional help from a nanny. Oh the ignorance! Once our son was born, not only did I struggle with the deadlines and demands of our design studio, but my priorities had totally shifted towards motherhood. I stopped working entirely. I had truly wanted to have both the fulfilling role as new mother and career driven woman, so I fiercely resisted this change. I started to feel very off balance. The demands of motherhood were exhausting and I couldn’t work like I was used to. However, I realized that leaving my creative energy to sit dormant meant that it was festering away inside of me. My husband suggested I shift my career focus back to my art because I could do the work on my own schedule. I’m pretty sure I said no the first few times he mentioned it. Of course, I knew it made more sense because we had adjusted his studio to run without my participation, and I could fit painting in on my own schedule as I ramped up. Over the next few months, his suggestion percolated in my mind, and started to seem very appealing. I started letting myself daydream about what I would create and how I could find the time to make it happen.
This notion of painting in my own voice started like a whisper and got louder until I felt crazed with ideas and inspiration.
I spent months sketching, planning, thinking and procrastinating before the day that I finally dusted off my brushes got back into the studio. I posted a photo of my paint palette to Instagram and shortly afterward posted a photo of my first warm up piece. Positive feedback started to roll in, which instantly resulted in motivation to paint more. The hesitation that had existed a few hours earlier had been crushed and replaced with an intense need to realize my once abandoned dream. The more I posted about what I was working on the more my motivation grew. There is something magical about a community of support with real time feedback. It has driven me with an intensity I haven’t felt for years. I’ve started creating time to work in the cracks and crevices of life with my very active and engaged toddler. Recently there was a day where I had an hour and ten minutes that was free and clear - I rushed into the studio to work not wanting to waste a single minute. It’s funny… all those years I thought I didn’t have the time. Now I literally don’t have the time but I’m so focused that I will make it work with whatever time I can create. I’m painting what inspires me, and what I want see on my own walls.
I’m so grateful to be back here.
My current body of work is inspired by mid-century living, particularly the idyllic California lifestyle. We live in a beautiful and inspiring mid-century modern home that we have been renovating, doing lots of the work ourselves. I draw a lot of my inspiration directly from our living space and our lifestyle. (click on the link for a beautiful tour of Laura's home).