How I Fell in Love
I feel like I have been painting for a lifetime, even though its only been four years professionally. I used to be deathly afraid of painting. My high school art teacher would implore me to try and communicate my ideas with paint. I refused, “I only work in black and white,” and then it slowly developed into, “I only work in colored pencil, pastels, and graphite.”
I hated the idea of paint, I couldn’t control it. It wanted to bleed off the paper or not stay in my neat detailed area. It was messy. Ok, I will admit I was quite messy with graphite, especially being a lefty my whole arm would be covered in gray pencil. When I was forced to paint for specific assignments, it turned into a disaster. None of my painted works had the same skill level as my drawn ones. I was frustrated and refused to pick up a paint brush.
Years passed, and in my 3rd year in college I still clung to my pencils. I needed to take an Intro to Oil Painting class for my newly declared art major. I was curious. But also dreading the frustration of a whole semester of just paint. On the first day the professor introduced himself, went over the course syllabus, what we would be working on that semester, the very basics of the materials we would be using, gave us our material lists, and dismissed us to gather our supplies.
If I remember correctly it was a Monday-Wednesday class, so I was back in two days. The professor had a still life of brown cardboard boxes in the center of the room. He gave a brief chat about how to get started, then set us free to work, Yikes! After my drawing was set I started on a light wash, but was not pleased with the way it was going. As the professor walked by I gave him a nervous glance, he gave a funny twisted smile, and said “keep working at it.” I did. I swallowed my fears and committed to the painting.
Well, somehow I survived my first painting, and by the end of my second still life, colored paper bags, I was head over heels for oil paints. I wanted to learn all about them. I was only able to take one other painting class in college, and that was where I really became connected with the medium. I never wanted to leave that studio, and stole time away when I could to develop my skills.
I continue to evolve as a painter. I wonder at times if I really chose painting, or if painting chose me? Maybe what I have to say is best articulated through my brushes and paints that I love so much. Maybe what I have to say I worth hearing. I am glad I stopped working against myself and allowed my art to evolve for the better.
Colored Paper Bags, 2007
Why I don’t like the phrase “self-taught artist”
The self-taught artist has been a large movement in recent art history. The self-taught artist is one who has no formal training in the fine arts; so anyone who taught themselves how to create art. This phrase always made me a bit squeamish, and it wasn’t until recently I discovered why. We all begin as artists, creating and recreating the world around us, in our own way. Sure, lots of kids do the same yellow sun in the corner of the paper and a horizon line across the middle/lower page. I never said they were good, and far from being professional.
But what is an artist? My definition: Someone who reflects the world they experience in a different medium that it originated. This is not the same as a professional artist, one who devotes oneself to said definition and gets paid for it. Both a “taught” artist and a self-taught artist can be professional of course. The introduction of self-taught artists into galleries and museums have enriched the art community by offering a broader perspective of the world to be reflected in these outlets. I understand the need for a term for the self-taught group of artists, it helps describe their distinct journey. However, when we label an artist “self-taught” it takes a little away from the “taught” artists, at least by my definition of an artist.
Let me explain why: In art school no one really “taught” me how to create, keep in mind I did not go to an Art College, but state university with a modest art department, so maybe my experience was different. My professors introduced new ways to channel my creativity into different mediums by teaching how to use them as ways to express yourself. College was where I was first introduced to oil paints, but I’ll save that story for another time. They did not teach me to make certain brush strokes, or how to move my hand while holding graphite to paper. These things I taught myself through practice and experimentation.
I paid my school to teach me about new mediums, how to have a proper critique, the history of art, color theory, etc. But no one ever taught me to be “creative,” or to have certain ideas, or how to draw a person/tree/etc. I think the biggest plus on going to art school was being around other creatives, it was a place to thrive, exchange ideas, let your weird show and be shown up by someone weirder.
Being an artist means you are constantly evolving, growing, experimenting. Well after college I am constantly evolving; just as life is one big learning experience, art is too. I am glad that the art world has become more diverse, and I am not proposing that we drop the term self-taught artist. I just want fellow artists and art enthusiasts to understand that no matter where you stand on the spectrum, we are one community. All artists are on an individual journey, us “formally” instructed folks were able to and chose to invest our time and money into school. But our hearts and minds remain the true masters of our art, just like yours.
Little Black Sketchbook
Thank you teachers, you might never know when you change a student’s life, but believe me when I say you do if your heart is in it.
At the end of the school year, my thoughtful 8th grade Art teacher took me quietly aside and handed me a plain black sketchbook. She told me to never stop drawing. I smiled, and didn't realize till years later how much that influenced my relationship with art. That special acknowledgement for one little odd duck made all the difference.
I still have that plain black sketchbook; it’s a lot thinner then when I first received it. I came into the habit of ripping out the pages that weren't good enough, embarrassing, and unworthy. I lacked the foresight to realize I needed the bad drawings as much as the good, to learn from them. I'm saddened by the thought that I can't go back and study where I went wrong, or tossed out an idea that was actually quite good, I just didn't see it yet. Step by step, we learn our paths, even if we stumble from time to time. Embrace the bad pages, they make us who we are.
My Abbreviated Artistic Journey
When I was little, I was taught I could be anything I wanted to be. I was so fortunate to have the support of my family and teachers. But what did I want to achieve? I always wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world. But how?
Could I be a doctor? A lawyer? A firefighter? Well, I never had a knack for science, or speaking in front of large crowds, and my physique isn’t quite right to do the intense job of fighting fires. How then, could I make my contribution to the world?
I’ve always loved art, loved creating, but that was one thing I never imagined I could actually do when I grew up. Art is something one does for fun, you can’t actually make a living doing that!
My soul would not let it go, in college I tried to be a history, Spanish, even a physic
s major. Nothing stuck. I had no passion for these subjects, maybe interest but my heart was not in it. Art called me. After my bachelors in Studio Art, I dabbled in more commercial paintings, but it didn't seem to be working out the way I wanted.
After some trivial success I decided I was out of my mind! What was I doing, I can’t make it as an artist, no one is an “artist” when they grow up. I decided to go back to school for a landscape design certificate. Maybe this was the way for me, a practical approach to art/design, a way to bring beauty into the world but also with function. No art for art’s sake.
I aced my way through the Landscape Design program, but I never could get on board with plants. I love nature, but as I looked at my peers, they would have conversations with excitement about a new sapling they acquired and how it was doing. Their eyes would light up. I really, really, tried to be a plant person. It just wasn’t who I was though.
I realized that my eyes lit up when I spoke about art; I needed to stop pretending to be something I wasn’t, and go all in.
So after a move and lots of life changes, I am all in. I am ready to devote myself to my mission to make a difference with my art. And although I may not have it all figured out, I am on my way. And I am honored to call myself, Artist. Thanks for reading, let the journey continue!