The Limits of Choice

Art making continually satisfies something deep inside us and, at the same time, places us beyond ourselves. Cathy Malchiodi, The Soul's Palette

Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.

W.H. Auden

For the last couple of weeks, I've been on a strict 1 color diet. Yes. You read that right; not a 1 calorie diet but a 1 color one.

Color is something I use lavishly in my work, a substance that I immerse myself in and then splash around like a duck.

It's also something in which I easily get lost.

While dipping my brush in color, thinking about the confluence of hues, tints and shades, I lose track of how much paint is loaded on my brush and what color is flowing where.

This came to a head one Friday morning during a watercolor class. Stacey, my instructor, put her hand firmly on the table and said, "O.K., I want you to use just one color for the time being. It doesn't matter what color it is, but you can't mix two together and you can't even mix black." (yes, that indescribably subtle blend of cobalt blue and raw umber...)

OI!, it was already Passover; a week of the matzoh mile and now this: I'm  supposed to restrict myself to one color?

It's been two weeks now and I'm getting used to this diet. Heck, at times, I even like it.

At the very least, it keeps things simple. While writing this post, my eyes lighted on a short interview with researcher, Sheena Iyengar, who wrote The Art of Choosing.  "When did you first have an inkling that choice has limits?" asked the interviewer. Sheena  answered that it happened while studying the effect that choice had on a group of 3-year-olds.

"Half the children were permitted to play with any of the toys in the room, while the other half were told what they could play with. I assumed that the kids with the most freedom to choose would have more fun, right? Wrong. I observed the exact opposite. The assigned group played happily; the free choice group was disengaged and listless."

How about that? Adapting to one color has made me anything but disengaged and listless. And there are other payoffs. The first time I get the leaf-to-bud balance just right, the flower in front of me comes alive on the paper.

Despite my kvetching, I'm proud that I am keeping my commitment to a 'year of watercolor'  and grateful for Stacey's steady hand as a teacher and artist.  I may just stay on this new diet for a while...