What would you say in a commencement speech?
I was once talking to someone about my art classes and how important I thought finding the right teacher was. He said: if you want to be a real artist, shouldn’t you get rid of the teacher altogether?
The myth that creativity springs fully formed from the artist is awfully pernicious. It means that people who try creative pursuits and aren’t immediately fantastic decide they just aren’t cut out for them. But these are skills like any other skills. They require practice and work and, yes, a teacher of some sort. I believe in teachers.
Lots of people can learn from books or tutorials or websites but if I can I like to have a flesh and blood teacher of some sort for anything I try to learn. I tend to seek them out in a lot of contexts, in informal and formal ways. My teachers have opened my eyes to so many things.
A few reasons I love and need my teachers:
1 – The ‘what on earth do I do now’ moments. Or more – the ‘what on earth do I do first’ moments. Like when I need to work on skin tone, as in my last post. I did get a starting idea from the internet, but my teacher gave me better guidance. And it’s a two way conversation. My painting teacher has a gift for pointing out the positive in everything I do before he ever starts to talk about what I might need to do next to improve my art. That interaction is priceless in helping me progress. You’ve got to know you did the last step right before you move on to the next.
2 – The ‘no way I can do that next step anyway’ moment. Like just about every time my trainer demonstrates a new exercise. Or tells me how much weight he is putting on a machine. And then reminds me that it’s his job to know what I can accomplish. Just for a moment I’m certain I can’t. But then I can.
3 – The ‘what on earth am I doing here at all’ moment. The doubting voices creep in. It happens like clockwork every time I work out: ‘This isn’t me. I’m not an athlete. I should just be at home curled up with a book.’ Pretty frequently when I am in the studio painting: ‘I’ll never get this right. I should leave the art to the artists.’ And yes, somehow every time I practice the guitar: ‘What are you thinking taking up the guitar at this point? After all this time if you haven’t got this then you never will.’
I talk back to the voices of self-doubt and but I haven’t found the way to keep them from showing up at all. Having accountability to my teachers is one of tools that helps me keep from giving in to them at all. At least, most of the time. And never for very long.
I figure if I want to learn I’ll need help. So I believe in teachers.
When I got to the studio this week I pulled up the photograph I have been working from, ready to start mixing paint and actually add color to canvas. My first thought was that there really isn’t much color to the photograph at all. My second thought was that my first logical step was going to be to work on the skin.
My teacher was busy with the beginning students. He generally comes around to the returning students to help with their projects after he has done a demo and given them an assignment. So I googled some tips on creating skin tone in oil paints, took a deep breath and dug in.
I don’t know why I need to learn this lesson so frequently: doing something new for the first time is never as hard as I anticipate. Skin tone can be made with the same colors everything else is made from – red, yellow and blue. Just the right red, yellow blue in the right proportions. I think I did alright for the first attempt. I’ll make more adjustments as I go.
My teacher said I could consider leaving it like this – a sort of contemporary take on the piece. I like it. And I like the idea of finishing a painting in just three sessions. But I want to keep going. I want to see what it can become. So I kept going and will keep working on it. We’ll see where it takes me.
Sometimes life and the world seem out of control. Strike that understatement. Life and the world are out of control. They just are – in the little ways that affect only me and in the big ways that make headlines and leave us all groping for words and meaning. For me the only way through is to make, move, fix, plant or create. Last night it was a window box full of herbs. Tonight’s insomnia will be treated with some time with my guitar. And tomorrow to the painting studio. I will sing in my car. I will hit the gym and move my newly strong body. I will run, I will swim, I will draw, I will bake. I will keep trying to help even though my help falls so short of the need. I will give what I can. I will create because I can. It won’t feel like enough. And yet it will suffice because that is all I have.
This time of year in the DC area the main topic of conversation is not the sequester, the budget, or anything else you might expect. It is the cherry blossoms. When will they peak? How crowded will it be? Have they peaked yet? Is it worth braving the sea of tourists? Did the Park Service get the peak prediction right?
Sunday morning early I met a group of friends to go see the blossoms. It was cold. Cold enough that I was grateful for my scarf and gloves and wishing I had included a hat. A couple of trees were in full bloom but by far most of the blossoms were still in waiting. Close, but in waiting. And all along the crowded walkways you could hear the lament – not in peak. We came at the wrong time. It’s too cold. Where are the trees that are in full bloom? When will it warm up? Should we come back later?
And yet…they were beautiful. Not for their potential or as a second best but beautiful on their own merit in that moment. So if visitors were prepared for the cold and willing to look, to open their eyes and see…then there ought to have been no disappointment at all that morning.
Is it a little crazy that I took the crowd’s displeasure personally on behalf of the emerging blooms?
Sometimes a combination of what I’m observing around me and what I’m observing in myself ends up synthesizing into a sort of lecture on a loop in my brain. It helps to get these things down in writing and pass them on. Like singing the song stuck in your head to someone else in hopes they’ll end up with the earworm and you’ll walk away having stilled the voices in your head….
Life sometimes seems like it’s just one learning curve after another, each more steep than the last. But really it’s a doing curve. There is no learning without doing. Just get up and do. Learning and progress come from striving. There are no shortcuts. There is no bypassing the pain and effort.
My second least favorite phrase to hear: I wish I could ______, or I wish I knew how to ______. Don’t wish. Do. Try. Fail. Try again. Remember that those who make what they do look easy work harder than you do to make it so. They weren’t born that way – dripping with skill and accomplishment. Wishing didn’t make them so and won’t make you so either.
Don’t wish. Do.
Own the consequences of your choices. Whatever you can or cannot do, whatever you do or do not understand, whoever you are or are not all come from what you have or have not done. You have become what you have chosen to become. If you think your end result does not reflect your desires then maybe what you thought were desires were merely wishes.
Don’t wish. Do.
You have limitations on what you can become or learn but you have not seen them. You have no idea what they are so you might as well forget they exist. You do know you can get a little better, do a little more, become more of what you desire to become. Even if it’s never what anyone else would call great, even if it seems negligible in comparison to your neighbors’ accomplishments, you can be more than who you are right now.
Don’t wish. Do.
In December I did some charcoal value studies for a new painting I’ve had in mind for a while. All that was left was to build the canvas and get started. I build the canvas in January but since it is 48″x16″ I had a tough time getting the tension taut enough. With the help of a strong friend and the use of come canvas pliers my canvas troubles were fixed a couple weeks ago. All that was left was to find a free hour, pull out my supplies and get started. This weekend I found myself with some free time, pulled out my supplies and found that they had not in fact been as safe as I thought – my bottle of liquin had dried up completely.
Luckily, the free time I had was long enough to accomodate both a trip to the store and finally, at long last, a beginning to this painting.
The subject? Clouds. Of course.
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