Art school in New York. Probably the most exciting experience in my life. In many ways, but first, a heads-up that this post may sound a little self-serving.
Being a young artist is exciting.
So is exploring a big city. Discovering the masters, making friends, having a mentor. My classmates and I were literally learning something new every day; the adrenaline often kept me up at night. Today, the sight of a student toting a giant sketchpad brings it back and makes me smile.
Fast-forward thirty years to a completely different lifestyle.
Living in the country, surrounded by nature, working in quiet solitude. I receive just one internet signal, my own. Exciting, in a different way.
Because I’m no longer learning something new every day; I’m learning the same thing on a slightly deeper level each day, which is:
The creation of art is an internal process.
My personal mantra and the theme for many of these posts.
Think about all that’s going on internally while you’re in the studio. You’re looking at your subject, watching the work in progress, trying to stay calm but alert, keeping your confidence up while being honest with yourself about what is and isn’t working.
And that’s just the first level.
The more complex level (and the part I love most) involves observing your observations, challenging them, while realizing that no one, not even a professional artist, sees the world quite right. We’re continually duped by “helpful illusions” that allow us to navigate our environment but stubbornly work against our attempts to draw or paint a picture.
So the all-important question for a painter then becomes, “Am I seeing this right?”, or “What might be getting between my vision and my subject?”
Maybe it’s your love of a favorite but intimidating masterpiece. Or a grade-school teacher who taught you to color inside the lines. Illusions are inherently crafty in that they don’t reveal themselves. You have to go out of your way to find them.
That visual bias living inside you loves to make mischief, usually at the most inconvenient time. It’s important to know it’s there, embrace it, and then learn the tricks to override it.
My own students like to jump in at this point, “Yes, but how do I do it?” Not with technique, I tell them. I know this because whenever I get stuck I tend to splash some fresh paint onto the canvas, push it around and expect something magical to happen. It doesn’t work.
And then there’s the tendency to overthink. You can’t figure everything out in advance by staring at a blank canvas.
So an over-simplification of this whole process might be: observe, throw some paint on, let it look awkward for a moment (very important), observe again, refine, repeat. A thousand times, and for God’s sake try to have a sense of humor throughout.
No such thoughts came up in my 20’s when I believed that the key to success in everything was to keep trying harder until I got it right.
Which brings me to the great lessons of mid-career and middle age:
Efficiency over effort, consistency over intensity.
The ability to pause, align and connect with the world rather than try and conquer it. Traits that I find every bit as valuable as the wonderful exuberance of youth.