Learning to paint

My brother and me, hard at work making art

(I’m going to leave this up until he sees it and threatens me. Enjoy it while it lasts.)

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From time to time, people ask me where I learned to paint. Most recently, a friend in Chile asked when and how I developed my technique, and also how I found time to paint in a world that demands so much. This latter question is one my friend Imani recently wrote about as well on her blog. I have a lot to say about each of these issues, but for now I’ll stick to the first one….
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First things first: How did I learn to paint? By doing it.
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I have never taken an art class beyond the elementary and middle school courses we all took as kids. And while I’m sure there are nuances of form or technique that I lack — and in fact, I was once told I was “using watercolors wrong,” whatever that means — I suspect I’m better for not having bowed to other people’s prescriptions, following specific steps or emulating someone else’s style. Which is not to say that I don’t derive inspiration from others; I certainly do, but that’s a topic for another day….
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The point of me explaining that I have never taken an art lesson is to impress my point that you can do the same thing. Anybody, young or old or anywhere at all on the age continuum, can learn to create beautiful, meaningful, unique-to-them art if only they will pick up a brush and put down their self-doubt.
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I witnessed (not for the first time) proof of this recently when a friend and I went to stay with some of her old friends in Los Andes, Chile. We spent the night there, chatting away over wine and snacks, and the next morning I entertained the children by creating outlines of birds and butterflies that they then colored with great delight. One of the women there commented that she wished she could create art, and I told her that she could, then convinced her to give it a shot.
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Although she was hesitant at first, I eased her into it by modeling a drawing for her — we each had paper and a pen, and when I drew a line on my paper, she drew a similar line in a similar place on hers. This reassured her, and after seeing that she could in fact draw, she took independent initiative, adding lines and swirls and shapes as she saw fit, then filling it in with color. Soon she was on her way to completing a masterpiece of her own, and when we left she promised to finish the painting and then keep on creating. She was thoroughly, pleasantly, surprised that the painting she created was good — it was bold and bright and unique. And more than being a beautiful piece of art, it was a symbol of what she could do if only she chose to believe she could (or at least momentarily suspend her disbelief).
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Now, when did I learn to paint? I didn’t learn (past tense), so much as I am learning (present continuous). It’s a process. Learning is always a process. Since I was a toddler scribbling with crayons and mixing washable paints, I’ve been figuring out how to draw and paint… and I’m still figuring it out, as I will be for the rest of my life.
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Picasso famously said, “Every child is born an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I believe there is enormous truth in that. As far as I can see, the chief difference between me (or any artist) and someone who wants to create art but doesn’t, is that I never stopped being an artist, whereas somewhere along the way most others do stop. And that’s okay if you’re happy with it, but if you’re not then my question is, What are you going to do about it? Pick up a brush, put down your self-doubt, and create. And send me pictures if you do — I’d love to see what you come up with.

2 thoughts on “Learning to paint

  1. Awesome! It is so true that as we grow up we tend to lose our sense of adventure and doubt that we can still tap in to that untamed creativity we had as children.

    It’s funny. Although I wouldn’t say drawing is “my thing,” I do dabble in it from time to time. I like to draw people and scenery specifically, but I never thought I was “good” at it. I would never tell anybody that I could draw. However, my husband thinks I can. He thinks my child-like drawings are great (and trust me, he’s not the type to say something he doesn’t think is true).

    I think you just made me realize that there is some validity in works of art that do not strive to conform. So, maybe I can’t draw like the artists who have studied art or who just have that naturally recognizable talent, but perhaps I can learn to appreciate my artistry! 🙂

  2. Thanks for that, Imani 🙂

    I agree — too many people lose their sense of adventure; they become afraid to take risks, as if failure would cause them harm, whereas it seems to me “failure” more often brings gifts than lasting damage.

    I would love to see your drawings! It would be really interesting to see what art you might come up with to complement your poetry and other writing….

    Cheers to your artistry, and to nurturing creativity in all forms!

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