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Intersection Column | Trust the Process

by Erin Bartels


How many times in your life have you tried something new—a new hobby, a new hair styling technique, a new exercise regimen—only to find it is so much harder than the person on YouTube made it seem? Why can’t we just get it right off the bat? Wouldn’t it be nice to be preternaturally gifted at something rather than having to work at it?


Intellectually, we know that every new skill takes time and practice to master. This concept is a given to us as children because everything we’re learning is new. But somehow as adults we forget that practice makes progress (never perfect) and that the process is as important as the product.


In 2022 I decided I wanted to put in the time to get better at something I had never tried because it seemed really hard: portrait painting. I did it partly because I like to challenge myself and partly because I was writing a novel (The Lady with the Dark Hair) about art and artists, and portraiture was a big part of the plot.


So I read up on it. And I watched YouTube tutorials. And I got all my supplies together. And—here’s the important part—I started. And—here’s the really important part—I kept working at it. And—here’s the really, really important part—I let myself be kind of bad at it. For months.


For the entirety of 2022, I painted one self-portrait a month, getting a little better at one or two things with each portrait. In January, I did a pretty good job with the hair. In March, I tried a three-quarter view. Not bad. In May, I managed an expression that looked like one I would make. Then in June, all of a sudden, the portrait looked like me. Even Google facial recognition said so. Fantastic! From here on out for the rest of the year, I would just get better, right?


Of course not. In July, I floundered badly, painting over the portrait multiple times as I tried to fix it to no avail. It was so disheartening. Things turned around a bit in August, then… I got the nose right in September, but wrong in October. I was getting worse, not better. Had I not set myself this public challenge (oh, did I forget to mention that I was sharing all of my successes and failures on my social media channels?) I might have quit.


And here’s the most really very important part. I didn’t quit.


In November, I made another leap in skill. That leap led to the first self-portrait I actually loved, and it would not have been possible without the ten months of work that preceded it.


Even as I painted this portrait, I had moments of doubt. Moments of frustration. Moments of ugh! Because every portrait is a process that starts with steps that look like either a child or a crazy person is performing them. A basic drawing. Blocking in lights and darks. Slowly adding values and details. While it’s in process, it’s always going to look like a bit of a mess.


In my newest novel, The Lady with the Dark Hair, the character Viviana is learning to paint. As she is discovering how to mix colors and control her medium, she’s also discovering how she wants to live her life, how she can be the person she wants to be, despite the expectations and restrictions imposed upon her.


Life itself is a work of art, and therefore we must accept that it too is a process. While it’s in process, it’s going to look like a bit of a mess. But if we continue to practice the necessary skills and we don’t quit, we may be able to look back on all of our earlier efforts, as imperfect as they were, with a bit more grace for ourselves. Because without those past failures, we would never reach today’s successes.


I’m not going to hang all of my self-portraits on the wall (I mean, I’m not that self-obsessed). But even those earlier ones that don’t quite look like me? I’m proud of them. Because they remind me to trust the process and to never give up—in art, in writing, or in life.


About the Author

Erin Bartels writes character-driven fiction for curious people. She is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried, The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water, Everything is Just Beginning, and The Lady with the Dark Hair. She lives in Michigan.


About the Book

Esther Markstrom and her artist mother have always been proud of their ancestor, painter Francisco Vella. But when Esther reconnects with her former art history professor, she finds her once-solid family history on shaky ground as questions arise about Vella's greatest work—a portrait entitled The Lady with the Dark Hair.


Did You Know?

According to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation, nearly half of the U.S. population does not participate in outside recreation. The results suggest “we are becoming an indoor nation.” When we find ourselves inside for hours on end, it may be time to go for a walk, plan a picnic or observe a sunset. Spending time in nature can do wonders for physical, mental and spiritual health.

  • Physical Health: Outdoor exercise improves health by decreasing muscle tension and demands on the heart and other organs. Consistent exercise helps keep weight in check or may encourage the loss of a few unwanted pounds. Getting some sunshine each day results in increased levels of Vitamin D which is important for our immune system, blood cells and bone health.

  • Mental Health: Being outdoors can decrease stress. This can calm our mood by lowering cortisol levels, resulting in better mental health. Taking a few minutes to watch a cloud float by or contemplate the beauty of a wildflower can reshape the way we see our situation and the world.

  • Spiritual Health: The natural world offers an opportunity to experience a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of God’s creation. Our minds are soothed, bringing us to a place of rest and thanksgiving.

Whether walking on a beach, hiking mountain trails or enjoying your own backyard, the benefits of being outdoors are great. So, head outsideyour body, mind and spirit will thank you.

-Cheryl Schuermann, Farmhouse Devotions: God’s Glory in the Ordinary


Why I LOVE My Local Christian Bookstore

“When I walk into a Christian bookstore, my heart skips a beat as I look around at the reading possibilities. I see heartwarming fiction, inspiring devotionals, challenging books on prayers and charming books for my grandchildren, all slated to grow my walk in Christ and nurture my grandchildren."


-Carol Grace Stratton, The Deep End of the Lake


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