I love teaching art. I really do.
And I love my students. But they don’t always love me. In fact, sometimes they hate me.
Not because I’m overly critical; I actually do my best to be kind and supportive. It’s something else entirely.
Many art teachers give demonstrations for their classes. Anyone who has been to one knows they can be wonderful to watch; the best of them are like great performances. The artist/teacher paints and the students watch as a blank canvas magically comes to life. There’s even a little applause at the end.
One reason I’ve never done a painting demo is that they frighten me to death. Having a roomful of eyes watching my every move makes it difficult to concentrate and impossible to do anything great.
The other reason is that painting is, for me, the most private of activities, so working in front of an audience feels about as natural as sleeping in front of one.
Your art is the biggest impediment to creating your art.
Over time, I arrived at a method that felt comfortable enough to do well and valuable to my students. They don’t passively watch while I paint.
I watch them.
The students perform and I’m the audience, discreetly circling the studio, making mental notes of their work, their body language, movements, focus and attention, even the way they breathe – which they sometimes forget to do.
Giving equal time to the subject that they should be looking at, but usually aren’t, at least not enough.
Which brings me to why I am so disliked.
It’s the maddening habit I have of resolving, with a single brushstroke or comment, a painting problem that they’ve struggled with for an hour. And making it look easy in the process.
No, I don’t claim to be better, smarter or more talented than anyone else.
Just observant, a little lazy, but mostly,
free from the distraction of an unfinished canvas.
Observing while painting is like listening while speaking.
How many great listeners do you know?
I happen to know just one.
Most people would rather speak than listen, as most artists would rather paint than observe. You can’t do both at the same time.
As I mentioned in an interview with Painting Perceptions, at least 50% of my studio time is spent in observation. Observation is like listening with your eyes, but you have to be quiet for a moment (stop working) and just look, the longer the better.
The problems creep in when the art consumes most of our attention.
The moment your gaze moves away from your subject and toward your art, you’re painting from memory. If the memory is a second or two old, that’s fine, but if it’s a minute or more, you’re just making stuff up.
So what’s wrong with visual memory? Nothing, but it’s bland.
The mind loves to smooth things over, straighten things out, making forms more perfect and symmetrical than they are. All of those wonderful little idiosyncrasies, the odd twists and turns that give things their character and visual truth are lost when we rely too much on memory.
What about technique? Good technique is essential. But while technique impresses, observation connects.
The difference between a great technician and a great eye is in the response, “Your work is beautiful”, vs. “I feel like I’m there!”
An artist’s vision is more like physical health than the ability to ride a bike; maintain it or it will decline, usually before you realize it.
Those seeing muscles must be worked and stretched constantly to be kept ahead of your technical skills. When the opposite happens and technique takes over, a problem that can haunt mid-career painters especially, vision weakens and the work starts to look artificial.
Creativity as Self-Creation
This advice will sound dry to anyone coming to art as a pathway to self-expression and creativity. It may even be a letdown. We don’t want medicine but a delicious meal.
But think of creativity as an act of self-creation rather than the production of anything tangible.
Use your imagination to find strange and exciting tools that increase your visual power.
The habit I acquired, as a student, of turning the painting to the wall, putting the brushes down and just looking for as long as I can, has made a world of difference in the work. So has trying to draw hundreds of perfect charcoal lines and circles, freehand on scrap paper, as an exercise in control. I still do both each day.
Logging in countless hours is nowhere as effective as shaking up your routine.
Forget about what everyone else is doing. Forget about the response to your work, whether it will sell and forget about your age if that’s a concern.
Just keep searching, be experimental and remember, your most important creation is the artist, who creates the art.