Sunday, July 12, 2015

On learning

I spent last week at my first painting retreat. I came home from Omega inspired and filled to capacity with new techniques in Chinese and American watercolor ("East Meets West" with Lian Zhen). My mantra all week: just remember three new things.

First, for the usual news: I haven't broken my record of being the slowest to learn. In a class of seventeen, three (including me) were novices. The two others blossomed (literally in spectacular flowers, fish, frogs, underwater fauna, lily pads, so much more). I was awed. Instead of wasting time in the land of compare and despair, I took photos of everyone's work for creative inspiration. To the right: flower paintings out to dry, before next step of filling in details.

Day one began with learning to paint with Chinese ink and colors. Below are my fish in progress: 

During this process I felt clumsy, over my head, and certain this class wasn't meant for beginners. Each day proceeded the same. (My inner voice--not for beginners. But alas, I carried on.) Fish swimming in a sea of coral (not my fish...but 16 others), frogs on a landscape of lily pads (photo to come), and flowers, where I did my best (photo, upper right). We blew on paint, dropped paint, poured paint, finger painted, and, for the hell of it, used brushes.

The thing about Omega is that there is so much there to feast upon. Lush vistas, a cute cafe (with wifi!), dance, plain old relaxation). At times, it was hard to sit in a class for six (!!) hours. Tiring, overstimulating, and yet, when I came home I felt that I want to take this course again. I felt on my way to discovering if talent can be acquired.

This week, one result of class, I'm putting myself on a color diet. I'm going to use only blue, red and yellow to create everything else.   

Sunday, June 28, 2015

On process (again)

I continue to tell people, I have no painting talent. They think I'm being modest or putting myself down. But it's neither. When I say I've taken up watercolors, I want it known it simply feels good to be immersed in process--for fun, for therapy, for mindless mindfulness.

This morning I played with YUPO paper, the slippery texture that my art peers say, does the work on its own. Not true. While copying a friend's painting (Jane Atlas on top), mine flat-out refused to do it itself. But what it did do wasn't bad. I then tried to copy mine on Arches paper. I was so discouraged with the results, I rubbed them out: Note blurs.

In a few days, summer school ends. The mixed blessing of endless time stretches before me. It's so easy to give in to laziness, especially when nothing is expected of me in this painting world. When I return to class on Thursday, after a five-week break, no one will check to see if I've improved. I'll set up my easel, palette and do something.

Now, I'm torn between wanting to begin a story (yes, writing a bit again), four more student papers to grade, and fixing the painting. A Lifetime movie tempts me with a story of twins separated at birth. It's so easy and pleasurable to take a TV timeout. Sometimes I wonder how I get anything done.  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On letting go

When I took up knitting in the 1980s my stitches were loose and uneven. I prided myself on not fretting over dropped stitches; mistakes were part of my unique patterns. Instead of attempting designer perfection I went for what felt right in my fingers. I didn't even know what my mind was thinking. Perhaps because I had a natural ability, I never felt the need (or desire) to control my work. Not so with painting.

I'm not a natural. Thus, I hold my brush tight aiming to replicate images of work done by others. In class, my peers tell me to paint from a photograph, not someone else's rendering of a scene. The idea is that I'll learn to see on my own. But I like following the dots of someone else's gaze. I like being told what to do. I don't yet know my painterly style the way I immediately knew my knitting style and even more so, my writing style. And so I present two paintings that began painfully studied and then I let the water take control. Or more aptly, when the water took over, something interesting emerged.

If you're wondering what is happening in the left photo, those are trees.

Several hours later: I bought YUPO paper (slippery and unpredictable).The painting on the left is sprinkled with sea salt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On seeing

Since I started painting, the world comes to me in moments. I ride the #7 to Flushing and delight in being above ground, witness to the swish of trees and low-level houses. The multi-shades of green leaves are suddenly so obvious;  how could I have not noticed before springtime leaves have orange and yellow hues? Blues, too, tucked deep inside.

In real-life at my painter's table, I compulsively practice my trees. Wet on wet. Wet on dry. Flick my brush forward and back on a dry sheet. Mess it up with a spray of water. Try again with a loose wrist, dabbing my brush on a wet sheet. Sap green. Cadmium yellow. Ultramarine blue. Let it all dry. Dab some more. Trees are hard. This week I abandoned my lessons and had a breakthrough. My fingers leaked joy (even though the tree above looks a teensy bit like a broccoli floret).

While on my trek on the #7, clouds float by and I wonder, who painted them so perfectly? I try memorizing their wanton shapes, long and sinewy, puffy and proud, layer upon layer like a snowman's belly. Ah...clouds. They are my painterly undoing, now that I am getting the rhythm of trees.

The nuances of life. Yesterday afternoon two women practiced yoga in the courtyard outside my window. I wanted to run out my door and join them, as if I were eight about to play A My Name. I didn't go, but still, I felt a swell of happiness. Creativity is everywhere, including the muffin batter I prepared this a.m., filled with  bananas, raspberries, a little of this, a lot of that. Soon I will pack a tote bag and head for the Bronx; it's a working day of scoring essay exams. I'll carry with me a Mecca of goods--chicken and avocado sandwich, the memoir Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriquez, i-pad for obsessive and incredibly satisfying email checking.

A day in preparation. A day to bear witness.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On trees

For the longest time, I didn't get the expression, "You can't see the forest for the trees." I'd close my eyes and picture trees, forests, and wonder, what am I not seeing? Should it be, can't see the trees for the forest? In fact, it would take me a long time to understand the tree/forest puzzle, and never with a clarity that allowed me to back away from said trees to see the big picture. This past week, though, I am in the forest.

After struggling to paint trees--my ongoing watercolor saga--I've decided to not throw away my paints, brushes and dreams of landscapes. A tree is just a tree. I didn't feel this way last Thursday during painting class. I was self conscious in front of a substitute teacher; he hadn't been indoctrinated to my seriously beginner status. Self-consciousness led to shame which led to gratefully allowing a superior painter to fix my trees (under the guise of teaching me), and showing the sub the painting I had not really done. When I got home, I tore up and threw away the day's work, which led to feeling bad about the entire experience.  .

Ah...being a beginner takes a lot of self-love, self-compassion, self-respect. Today, I begin again. To the left "Three Trees." Above, painting practice just for fun.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On flow

Last week's art assignment was to paint a color wheel. It was the perfect assignment because it took me back a few notches. My want is to paint landscapes and still lifes that are as ooo and ahh worthy as my studio-mates. My need is to put myself in beginner mind. In my six-week course for beginners, I painted stormy skies, cherry blossoms, clay flower pots cracked just so. But on my own, I was painterly-challenged. Putting myself back into the category of beginner opened me to the joy of creativity. I made four color wheels, completely lost in moment after moment. I think they call this flow.

Many years ago I entered the world of knitting. I was blown away by color and texture, and my ability to make things. Patterns accumulated in my fingers, in much the way words do, even when I'm not writing. I cast stitches onto my needles with a semblance of an idea and then watched them become a sweater. Knitting since I was seven, the process was organic. In my addiction, sweaters seemed to fall off my needles. I loved every second, although I don't quite remember them. I was in the flow before knowing the concept.

Writing overtook me in much the same way. Little thought, no concern as to where I was headed, and, most important, where I landed on the skill-level scale. I knew I was good at essays, not-so-much fiction, and had an affinity for poetry but no patience to learn structure. I took the time to practice fictive techniques and I got better; poetry, no dice. With painting, I don't see any choice, but to dive into the dreaded S for Structure. If I want to make progress, painting begs of me to stop and learn. It requires I go backward to go forward (sorry for the cliche).

Learning to mix colors asks for a lot of left brain analytical stuff. When painting my color wheels I discovered I love that left brain activity. The science of mixing primaries to make secondaries was meditative, soothing, and once again I was feeling the flow.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On being terrible

I've been thinking about the negative words I use to describe my artwork, or rather my skill. "This is terrible," I often say, or, "I'm terrible at this. I should give it up." In fact, last week when I painted at a studio--one that my teacher goes to--I said to her, "One day you're going to say, 'Sandy, this just isn't your thing.'" She shook her head. "Practice," she said. I wondered, what is she really thinking? 

When I began my writing life, words simply flowed. There was no thought, no need to tell myself to practice. I had to pry myself from the keyboard to go out and make a living, eat lunch, wash my face. I went from bed to desk and wrote until I realized at some point, I should get dressed. I was Creativity, one-hundred percent, whether writing, thinking, walking, sleeping. Stories consumed me. Things happened on the page that came from me, but until reading the emotions, the memories, I hadn't known they were mine. I never said, I'm terrible. I cried. I laughed. I revised like mad. I lived to write.

On a whim last summer I decided to take a watercolor class. I love Cezanne and gravitate to his work the few times I go to the Met (along with Chagall, not watercolor, but touches me viscerally). I signed up at the Art Student's League for a class ok'd for beginners. I bought all my supplies in advance and showed up like a girl in first grade with a new backpack and shiny cheeks. I set myself up at the table and waited for the fruit bowl, the vase with flowers, the other tentative beginners. Instead, there was a nude model, a full class of painters, most of whom knew stuff. I didn't know how to mix water with paint. No one showed me. For the four weeks I attended, my work was terrible. But I wasn't because I kept showing up. My work and I. We are not the same. Even when writing. But that's another story.

Lately I've been stuck on roses. My inexperienced self started by swishing my brush around, swirling cadmium red, then dropping in quin rose, then using a watercolor pencil.Then I recalled a student I'd observed who "painted" roses by crushing a tissue, making it damp, then placing it atop moistened red paint, right into the palette. He then stamped his roses. I did that (on the left, with touches of lemon yellow), but felt like I was cheating. Below left, swirly flowers ( copied from a Trader Joe's card (artist: Amber Alexander). Bottom is my first thought-out, painted rose.