Last week I conducted a short workshop with seven students on an antique boat amid spectacular West Coast scenery. Apart from the possible benefit to students, I like these encounters because they give me an opportunity to try to understand the varieties and machinations of the creative process.
Even with such a small group, there is a range of expectations and capabilities. Some folks are seasoned painters while others are just getting started. Some are anxious to learn, even desperate for progress, while others merely want to drop their anchors in a comfort zone and have a stimulating holiday. Needless to say, some arrive with significant formal art education and are primed with attitude and theory. Still others just want to find out how to make a handsome living.
Some students show immediate sensitivity to an environment that may be new to them. Some also immediately demonstrate sophisticated colour and sound compositions. One might say these are the talented ones, but they are often beginners whose sensibilities have not yet been overwritten. Like many instructors, I have often toyed with the idea of working with an open minded person who has never picked up a brush and turning her into a great painter in short order.
Art is a never-ending maze where wrong turns can hinder for decades. With the current democratization and the widespread triumph of individualism, many artists simply stay mired. So many choices, so many wrong turns — unless of course you are one of those believers who think there is no such thing as a wrong turn.
At workshops, floating or otherwise, the most progress is made by students who can simply see with fresh eyes. They are not so stuck with an inner vision whose planks may be riddled with past mistakes. For a few days at least, they are not so in love with their own treasured styles. These folks can pump out their gnarly bilges and look at things a bit differently. During the encounter they keep busy with a mildly competitive abandon. Fast learners, they find overhearing to be as good as hearing. Wise students filter what they need from the itinerant instructor, who may himself be mired in his own lifetime of wrong turns.
PS: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” (Robert Frost)
Esoterica: Royally fed and pampered, we worked for three days from before breakfast until last light. On the fantail, or by Zodiac to precious islets or quiet coves, we painted up a pile of small, mostly unfinished works. Most of us slept well, took no naps and simply kept going. We dried our acrylics around the ship’s cozy fire. There was no end to good cheer and a sense of blessedness. On the last day, after a prolonged silence, someone said, “I just love it.”
From the model’s perspective
by Bev Hanna, Midland, ON, Canada
Robert wrote, “Wise students filter what they need from the itinerant instructor.”
This is so true! I spent many years as an artist’s model, and in those classes, learned more than I ever did as a student in art school. I had so many “AHA!” moments, listening while a variety of instructors taught other pupils. I feel blessed to have had the chance to learn from some excellent teachers, and even be paid for the opportunity.
Change of scene
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Travel or at least a change of scene always stimulates the senses. How one approaches the opportunity is individual. I can’t imagine going on this trip and not picking the brain of every person aboard, including the captain and deck hand. If an artist can’t be inspired by these scenes there is no hope for them. That’s not a wrong turn; it’s a rut. Life is full of missteps, personally and professionally. The important thing is to recognize it, learn from it and regroup; then move on.
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Walking a tightrope
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
I don’t believe in wrong turns and certainly there is no time for regrets. I often have thought that being an artist is like walking a tightrope. If you do too much of the same thing, say landscapes, people wonder why you don’t do people or cities. If you diversify people wonder why you do so many different things.
The only solution is to please yourself in whatever you are doing at the moment and that changes come from inside as growth rather than intellectually from a search for something. Any one on that boat, anyone doing landscape is on the road less traveled. At least these days. I’ve been on it for 35 years. It gets lonely sometimes but it is the only road for me.
by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA
Personally, I do not believe there is a short cut, to becoming an artist of any depth, or ability. Sure, anyone can stumble on one or two fascinating creations but unless they understand the “why” or the “how” it will be a while before they can create anything else close to the energy of that “successful” innocent, naïve piece.
I think I would rather see the raw expression of a small painting, created by a “student” in search of some answer, than a painting by a seasoned painter, who is merely repeating what he has already discovered a thousand times before! I truly believe that the soul or heart of a painting is discovered on the journey to learning, on the path to trying to understand what or why something can work.
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Avoiding creative constipation
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Teaching can also be a way for an artist to avoid creative constipation. You are asked to devise ‘systems’ and to analyze your painting decisions and to use and explain approaches that other painters have used. I find that stimulating. My students ask me to work on their paintings to ‘show’ them what I mean. Like a good preacher, you have to lead by example not just give a good sermon. Having to ‘fix’ dozens of beginner paintings forces me to constantly question my ideas. In the process, new ideas are formulated and old ones tweaked and remodeled. Isn’t this just like the painting process? Teaching is an art form. Teaching adult beginners is very enjoyable. In a way they are very ‘childlike’ in their willingness to be shed the ego games and to be open to a new approach. Like rocks in a rushing stream, life has softened their hard edges and their need to be in absolute control. Most are able to ‘go with the flow’ and to accept their limitations. They are able to work hard and have fun. That is the key for both teacher and student.
Keeping it alive!
by Karen Baillard, Charlottetown, PEI, Canada
I used to live in BC for many years, and now live on the opposite coast, on Prince Edward Island; seeing the familiar rocky and pine filled scenery brought back gentle memories of my time on the West coast. My artistic side has been dormant and put on the side while I manage life as a single working parent, but it will awaken again when the moment is ripe, and these pictures certainly keep it alive inside!
Artistic learning center
by John D. Stevenson, Gatineau, QC, Canada
I am working out the details to start a Gallery/artistic learning center, one that uses seasoned artists who are willing and able to approach teaching art by allowing and encouraging the student to find their creative eye and bring it to the brush or palette knife. My plan is to teach the basic rules to the equipment and material they are using and let them play into their art that speaks to them. The process I feel should point out their wrong turns as they learn their tools and then the creative sparks should fly. I am using small 7-8 person classes at different times throughout the week allowing for times they are most relaxed and open to being creative; in other words building them into full time artists that paint every day in one way or another.
Artists don’t retire
by Deborah Sims, Winter Park, FL, USA
As a 61-year-old who has known since age 4 (according to my sainted mother) that I intended to be an artist “when I grow up” I have taken more than a few wrong turns or as I like to think of them, side trips. I completed a BA in Fine Arts with a teaching minor, found I didn’t really like teaching and went on to spend many years working to pay bills and doing my art as a side line. That never made me very happy, there was always that drive to create, to live my life as an artist. Now, having raised my family and being fortunate enough to not have to work I have time and resources to pursue my creative path. I have experimented with many different ways of making art over the years; silversmithing, art quilts, mixed media collage, altered books, watercolor, etc., and have had small successes with each and learned a lot and enjoyed the processes. I still find myself looking for my voice, trying to find that process that gives wings to all the ideas floating around in my head. Even with all my education and years of workshops and trying new things I still consider myself a beginner.
Each of these is a possibility. The only thing I know for sure is that art is part of breathing for me and I will continue to make my own and enjoy the art of others as long as I live. I recently had a friend ask me how I was enjoying retirement! I told her artists don’t retire, creating is just part of who we are.
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by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I never had a real choice but made one nevertheless. I grew up with a father of the ilk, ‘All artists are homosexual.’ ‘What the hell is that, what does it do?’ There was no art in the house but we hand hooked our rugs, built furniture, cooked creatively.
I became an engineer and naval officer; it got me FAR from home. I did PhD research in Spain, a culture where art is important. Then a few years later, with new doctorate I was, ‘Too expensive.’ Community Colleges, ‘Unemployable’ Business. So I started building very high end furniture/sculpture; I got press, I got awards but little money. Now I live in Europe, teach English and history and then I do art. I came make enough to live quite comfortably, I am building a collector base, I have had two one man shows and I now have my first art student. Teaching in an unrelated field lets you store the visual energy for yourself. Fortunately I need relatively little people contact and I seem to have a constitution to depend on for at least another decade. More fortunately I have a very supportive wife who can help with the marketing in Czech and the dealing with financial offices and she gives wonderful hugs when the black demon of depression knocks down the door.
I will never know if I made right choices. I fact, looking back, even with 72 years of life, I do not see too many optional roads I could have taken. (I probably should have been an industrial designer.) The only times I have been bored have been when I took a job, ‘To make money’ or when I had to be with random groups of people. Passion is a dangerous bitch, she will knock you down and kick you in the balls if she calls and you do not follow. (This is the male metaphor. Women are encouraged to develop their own version.)
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oil painting 40 x 40 inches
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