Somewhere along the line, in my development as an artist, I got the idea that precision was wrong.
I always had a facility for drawing tight details, which I developed throughout high school with carefully rendered fashion illustrations. I continued to work this way as I went on to earn a diploma in fashion design, creating drawings like the one below, with each fleck of the tweed a tap of the marker tip on the page. These drawings took hours and hours, even days, and I loved making them.
Perhaps the trouble started when I decided I wanted to study fine art. I still remember the horrified look on the admissions counselor’s face at the Art Institute of Boston when she saw my fashion drawings. (That was what I included in the application for my interview, since I had just graduated from fashion school and had worked very hard on my portfolio.) I think she thought I was drawing in that style because I didn’t know how to draw realistic figures, rather than the truth, which was that I had been intentionally aiming for a stylized “fashion figure.”
“You won’t be able to transfer any credits,” she said gravely as she continued to flip through my portfolio and shake her head.
Being young and impressionable, I absorbed her opinion that there must be something non-artistic, not valid about these drawings. Rather than question her, I decided that this program was just what I needed, and threw myself into my fine art studies.
As I went through art school, I tried very hard never to work tightly and with detail in my artwork. I figured that had to be “wrong.” What was “right” was working loosely, intuitively, with flowing gestures and generalized shapes. And since working this way seemed to come as naturally to me as working in tight detail had, I just went with it.
I was further steered in the “fine art and illustration don’t mix” direction when I had this interview after graduate school.
But I had an epiphany when I was making a demonstration painting a few weeks ago for one of my watercolor classes. I had been teaching watercolor for years, and always approached it with my art school “loose is good” training. I got frustrated when doing demonstrations for my students because my watercolors always lacked finesse; in fact, they just looked like a mess. I figured I just wasn’t a good watercolorist.
For this recent class, though, I wanted my students to learn to follow intricate nooks and crannies, so I had each of them paint a closeup of a spinach leaf. Since it was a new project idea and I didn’t have an example to show the students, I worked on the project along with them during class.
I instinctively grabbed a tiny pointed brush -- the kind I would have avoided like the plague in art school -- and proceeded to go back in time to reconnect with that ability to describe fine detail that had been my forte since high school. And I came up with this wonderful painting, the best watercolor I’d ever done.
I am happy to say that this acceptance of detail has spilled over into my “real” painting in my studio. I have been able to combine the loose, flowing quality I’ve been working with since graduate school, with the tiny brush details I’ve recently rediscovered. The contrast of loose and tight has made for a new and exciting direction for me, as evidenced in my newest artworks (like the one below, just completed).
I have to say, growing older is turning out to be a wonderful experience for me. As each day and month and year passes, I throw away more and more of the assumptions of my youth, the misconceptions I gleaned from others, either their wrong-thinking or my misinterpretation of what they meant. Either way, it’s very freeing, and is revealing the true me, what I honestly believe and what I am capable of.