Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's not where you start, it's where you end up

I teach art to students of all ages and levels, and they often tell me, at least when I first start to work with them, “My painting stinks,” “I don’t have any talent,” “I’m not creative,” etc. (Yes, even graduate students tell me this.) Whenever I hear this, I threaten to bring my first-ever painting in to class to show them that it isn’t “talent” that’s important, but how you apply yourself to your development as an artist. NO ONE sits down and makes a beautiful painting.

As Twyla Tharp points out in her wonderful book “The Creative Habit,” even Mozart, who had the unique good fortune of hereditary natural ability and early opportunities to compose and perform, didn’t just sit down and write breath-taking music. A major part of what made him a genius was the hours, days, years of constant practicing, listening, comprehending, and allowing himself to create. Tharp says that, by his early 20s, Mozart’s hands were already deformed from having logged in countless hours of playing the keyboard.

So here it is … the first painting I ever made. (It’s in oil.)

It was made during my first semester of painting at the Art Institute of Boston in 1987, an experience that sounds similar to the kind of beginning in art that many of my students describe as having before they get to my class. That is, with 1 or 2 exceptions, the professors gave NO technical information whatsoever, just left me and my classmates on our own to try and figure out how to use the materials and make the image look three-dimensional.

It’s interesting to me, in looking at this painting, to note that the objects are huddled against the background, as if they are terrified. Because that is certainly the way I felt at the time! (The saying goes that all works of art are self-portraits …)

This professor gave no demonstrations or personal advice, but after several sessions with each still-life, she would line all of our paintings up against the wall and tell us which ones were “bad” and which ones were “good.” I guess a general critique of this sort might have been visual training in what worked and what didn’t, but I just remember being frightened and confused the whole time. (I was too young to be indignant that she was being paid for not doing her job!)

I see from this picture that I had some natural inclination of how to suggest value, render objects and use negative space. But I certainly had no idea how to mix colors, record details, or place my objects so as to tell a story. (All things which are relatively easy to learn, with decent instruction.) I didn’t even know how to tell if I was finished or not! Basically, I was lost.

Luckily my love for painting helped me determine to continue beyond this abysmal initial experience. Many students get stuck at this stage and abandon art altogether because they think they aren’t good at it. That isn’t the point: without instruction and practice, one can’t learn how to see and how to use the materials.

Lack of “talent” in drawing or painting is really just lack of experience. Anyone can learn to draw and paint by applying themselves to the task and persistently working at it. This painting, as a harbinger of my current artwork, is proof!

And once you learn the basics, then the real achievement can begin. You can play around with a range of styles and mediums, and finally learn to say what you and you alone can and want to say. What could be more rewarding and enjoyable?


Nancy Natale said...

Catherine, many good points in this post! I agree with you that diligence and persistence are what really make a good artist. Many people don't like that sensation of banging their heads against the wall like the ones who keep coming back to the painting to make it work, make it work, make it work. It's a long, slow process for most people, I think.

Was your first painting really that pink and purple? I actually like it. It has some qualities of a Morandi. It shows your unique perspecive on the set up.

My first experience in art school was similar to yours. I really don't understand why art professors couldn't start off with some basic info for their beginners. Would it kill them to talk about composition, perspective, mixing color and so on?

I'm glad you kept at it and beat the odds.

Catherine Carter said...

Thank you for the kind words on my humble beginnings, Nancy. And that is exactly my point: we all have something unique to say, and once we have mastered the materials and techniques, then we can say it. But without instruction, you can't just give up and say, "It's no good" or what the person is truly afraid of, "I'm no good."

So you had experience with "non-teachers," too, eh? They seem to be lurking everywhere. How do they get away with it?

Anonymous said...

I'm with the both of you. My first experience was with minimal instruction, nothing on value, shading, tones, no demonstrations. Critiques were done similarly and I don't understand how they were able to get away with it either. I see students now that are learning values and tones in drawing 2 or advanced drawing. If you're not working with the figure, what are you learning??
Mr. Maris at Westfield State used to have an expression for a critique, "First you throw a rose, then a stone"...I always liked that expression. It's funny though that so many are afraid to say that this might be better if you did this or that instead of "I really like it" so as not to hurt someone's feelings.
As usual Catherine, great article.

Catherine Carter said...

Thank you for reading, Bianka!