Lessons from a Student Painter

Recently I have realized a few things that I do that contribute to my artwork’s “student-y” look.  These are things in addition to the general tendency for artists to be their own worst critics. I don’t think any artist is ever cured of these things, but it is my hope that a commitment to mindfulness will lead me to more satisfying work over time.  This is generally written in the first person but my reason for writing it is to hopefully provide interesting and helpful insights to other over-thinking students.

1.       I have first realized what I call “a habit of constraint”. I have noticed a tendency to force forms into shorter or smaller expression than they actually are. I am constantly making things too small – spheres, ellipses, angles. I constantly have to “grow them” as I work to the point that it becomes a distraction or I miss the form all together and when the work is complete it just has that off look. This has everything to do with seeing, with perception. I believe I see what I want to see instead of seeing the actual form and its actual relationships. Instead of just observing the bowl in front of me, I complete the bowl based on my experience of the form of “a” bowl . I come up with all sorts of my own ideas about the bowl that has very little to do with the actual bowl in front of me. In the end, the drawing of the bowl ends up small because I am fitting it into a form, fitting it into an idea instead of observing and interacting with the actual form.  Another aspect of this constraint comes from lack of experience and confidence, a shyness of sorts when estimating shapes. This is quite related to “growing the form” where you start of too small and the form grows out of control as you over-correct while you are working. Circles and spheres are  very prone to moving out of control in this way.  I have found if I go into the drawing of a form with this limitation in mind I can actually feel the tendency towards constraint and have to make a conscious decision to make the form larger, let the form breath, give it its actual space in the composition. When I do this, I achieve a much more satisfying result.

2.       A second area that requires my strong vigilance is the impatience that moves the evolution of an image along too fast. It is almost an “un-contained excitement”. Often things feel like they are spinning out of control. I have heard that seasoned artists often feel that they are just on the verge of losing control when they are really in the flow or breaking through. This is not that feeling. This is in fact a loss of control. First let me say that some of the best exercises I have done as a student have been free form expression where the point is to lose control, to let go. There is a time and a place for losing control. When your goal is to do an accurate representation of some fruit and a pitcher and your heart is set on it – you want to have some control.  This impatience comes from various sources and there are a number of types of impatience. Each type results in the tendency to complete the form too early. This happens often in more complex areas of a work where I am really stretching my ability. It has also been the result of fatigue from not taking breaks or breathing properly (I know a lot of folks that hold their breath when they work). For instance, when rendering the complex folds of drapery there comes a moment when this impatience leads me to stop seeing the actual shapes of the cloth and start completing the shapes based on patterns in my imagination. I can even be looking at the form and still not seeing what is there because I am moving too quickly to notice that I am zoning out.  Other forms of impatience such as the impatience to be done with a difficult task in the work, impatience caused by the excitement to see a completed form or impatience caused by fatigue each leads the observer down a false path and you don’t even know you’re going down it.  You are not in control of the marks you are making. Then you finally stop, stand back from your work and it just doesn’t look right and it is a puzzle as to why.  The work then becomes a tense struggle to discover the correct forms, redraw and re-do. If I keep my mind clear and mindful of this tendency towards impatience I have a much better chance of my marks being true and having some control over the expression.

 3.       A third area that continually has a strong influence on me is the struggle with the “conservation of energy” or lack-there-of. Think of an object being pulled by a magnet. In the same way, often after completing some very successful marks or an entire form, when things are really going well and are at a natural resting place – I am compelled to continue, to make another mark, to continue the conversation.  Simply put, I don’t know when to stop. It is almost impossible for a young artist to know when a work is done.  Early work embodies so many lessons that “if to stop” and “when to stop” become blurred and in that blur you just keep making marks, one more highlight, another shadow– and on and on until you undo what might be very encouraging good work. I have gone from feeling confident and proud to becoming discouraged quickly for this very reason. I believe in part this energy stems from the sheer excitement of doing the work. It is exciting to discover that you can in fact create, you can manifest. You make a series of marks and if you get them just right, my God, you have created a beautiful thing.  An artist is continually discovering this indeed, but for the student working on their first pieces it is akin to falling in love. In fact, we are falling in love. That is when it begins for each artist.

(To be continued no doubt…)

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