Bolt or Trust? Art, Writing, Frustration, Learning – Part 2

My teacher gave me homework to do. “Make a color chart,” she said. While I practiced my strokes on my canvas, she meticulously cut painter’s tape and made a grid on a white board. She then labeled several paint colors and told me how to mix them to see how the colors blend. I was to move down the chart adding varying amounts of white and across the chart mixing each subsequent color with the first which was Sap Green. She squeezed out paint samples on a board, covered them in Saran Wrap, and sent me home to mix color.

A fews days later after dinner one night when I was too tired but didn’t realize it, I sat down to mix color. I worked diligently mixing each one with white and putting them into the squares on my chart. I then mixed each color with Sap Green, not realizing until I was almost finished the entire chart that I had been mixing cumulatively across the chart, so instead of Sap Green and Cad Yellow, then Sap Green with Lemon Yellow, then Sap Green with Barium Red, I had been mixing Sap Green with every color across the chart at the same time. No wonder I wasn’t finding a color I liked. Suddenly, it was late at night; my kitchen table was a big mess, I had deprived myself of sleep to do this and it was all for naught. I wanted to cry. I had done it all wrong.

I cleaned up and went to bed. My first waking thought the next morning was how I had messed up this whole chart that my teacher spent so much time making and used up all the paint she had given me and had done it completely wrong. I felt about five years old. Really. “I must not have listened to her directions well,” I chastised myself. Later in the day I sent her a picture and a text and told her what I had done. She was ever encouraging and told me to bring what I had to the next lesson, assuring me we could use it and all was not lost. I didn’t believe her. I’d looked at the colors again in the daylight and I didn’t like any of them. They weren’t real colors; they were mixtures of things that shouldn’t go together.

A day or two later I took myself to Hobby Lobby. I decided to buy a few tubes of paint and make my own chart before I went back. At first I got all excited being in the art supplies’ section, the way I used to feel in my parents’ office supply store picking out new school supplies at the beginning of a school year. I loved new notebooks, fresh paper, and new pens. Still do. But my excitement quickly faded and an anxious feeling set in. I didn’t know which paints to buy, or what kind of board to use. And there were so many different kinds of supplies, brushes, cleaners, canvases, tools —a whole new vocabulary to a hobby that I’d have to get acquainted with if I kept pursuing this art thing. Again, the “bolt” feeling came. I almost walked out without a single tube of paint. A voice in my head said, “Don’t start another new thing when you have so many things unfinished at home.” Visions of photographs yet to be put in books, music to practice, gardens to weed, and writing projects stalled in the drafting stage filled my head, along with lesson plans, laundry, dusting, and cleaning out closets.

Art won. Experimentation won. In the paint aisle at Hobby Lobby, I made a decision to continue my experiment in learning about process, to press into the newness and unknown field, to get comfortable with messes and failures as part of learning, to put myself in a practice of doing something out of my comfort zone. I bought the paint and I came home and started over.

My empathy for my students grows with every attempt at mixing color or putting it on canvas. What seems easy to me – putting words on paper- feels to some of them like my moment in Hobby Lobby. They’d rather just bolt from that blank page. Only they can’t because this is school and I am going to give them a grade. So despite feeling inadequate or overwhelmed or frustrated, they dig in and do what I ask and trust me that they can do it even when they don’t see it happening.

This is particularly impressive and inspiring to me as I think I should be the stronger and more capable among us. My art experiment is proving otherwise. I’ve had my canvas painted. At fifty-one years old, I have several layers of life’s color and texture by now. At seventeen, most of my students still have significant white space on their canvas. Whole swaths of their lives haven’t been experienced yet. So I’m learning from them, and their trust inspires me, and I’m going back for another art lesson.

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Art, Writing, Frustration, and Learning – an experiment: Part 1

I had the idea to take an art lesson. Just one. I thought maybe I could learn something about my writing practice and process by seeing how someone works in another discipline. I called a good friend who is a working artist and also teaches and she happily agreed for me to come to her studio the next day. It was a whim; I tell you.

I must have had some unconscious awareness of how much I was going to feel like a four-year-old as I took with me one of my husband’s old shirts as my ‘smock’. Consciously, I thought I would probably sketch with charcoal or paint with water colors for an hour or two, pick up a tidbit or two that parallels with writing, and come home and write about it. That is not how it is working out. Notice the verb tense there—My friend won’t let me quit with one lesson and be past tense; —it is present progressive; though I’m not sure how much I am progressing yet.

As soon as I got my smock on and sat down, my artist friend began talking about the picture I was going to paint in oil, but first we would practice on something smaller in acrylic. What? I’m just here for today, I reminded her. She was having none of it. She had a multi-step plan.

We looked through some photographs on my phone and chose a few pictures I liked. One was a landscape, a view of the lake from my back deck, and the other a desert flower from this summer’s vacation. The lake scene would become my oil painting, she said. The first thing she had me do was paint the entire canvas green.

We then turned our attention to a smaller piece of paper and the desert flower picture. She showed me how to put the shapes and lines in first. Then she painted the same image along with me and following her lead, step by step, I began to create my first painting. This smaller picture we were using as practice, to learn to stroke with the brush, not ‘feather’ as I kept tending toward, to learn how to mix the paint and to hold the palette knife. I kept wanting to use it like a spatula in cake icing. The technique is not the same, nor can you lick it clean. I kept forgetting steps in the mixing process and ending up with colors that didn’t even look like good dirt. I began to feel my ineptness. I didn’t expect myself to be good at mixing color or painting on the first day, but neither did I anticipate just how ignorant and awkward I would feel. I wanted to bolt a few times.

I tell my students all the time that frustration is the beginning of learning, that they must have a growth mindset; yet here I am again, encountering something new and foreign, feeling like a child who can’t quite hold her peas on her fork and getting frustrated and embarrassed. But I’d brought myself here of my own volition, and regardless of how bad I was at holding a palette knife, mixing color or making proper strokes with a brush, I mustered my determination to learn something about writing through my experiment with painting.

The flower picture was finally complete, and though one can tell what it is, I doubt it will ever make it to display, even on my refrigerator. My teacher praised my efforts and obviously sees something I don’t or just knows how to be an encouraging coach. Her kind words were water to me. She then had me turn back to my green canvas.

I then painted in the lines and shapes and values in brown. This is underpainting and it will be my guide, she said. Eventually no one will see it. But I will always know it’s there. I liked this idea. It reminds me of varied syntax and paragraphing; no one notices it until it’s absent. It also reminds me of the journeys we all make, teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, all of us traveling guided paths that we sometimes can’t see even as we are walking them.

I’m going back to another art lesson, trusting a teacher and her process and a path I can’t see, hoping my students will, in turn, trust me.