Becoming an Artist – Part 1

Watercolors, Circles and Coffee

Autodidact.

I’ve always wanted to claim that title for myself. To be self-taught has seemed to me to carry a sort of special authenticity. Being self-taught means that you are deeply curious, that you pursue the things that you love. You are a passionate observer. You ask and ask and ask, try and try and try. I’ve imagined an autodidact to be the sort of woman who slinks about in flowing skirts amid leather-bound tomes, brow furrowed, seeking, always seeking. She’s the sort of girl who knows the names of the flora and fauna that share her habitat. She knows where to find the green thing that will cure what ails you. She knows the secret ways of wild things. She’s well traveled and has a mind full of memorized poetry and mysterious music. She wakes with the sun and eats exotic fruit for breakfast whilst scribbling notes in her journal – her dreams, equations, latin phrases, diagrams and maps. She is a learner and a knower and a doer. You can see it in her eyes – the deep blue underwater caves of thought that lie inside her soul.

En Plein Air

I love her.

I love that maybe, sometimes, I resemble her just a little bit.

Somewhere along the way though, I think that I might possibly have  held her back – hemmed her in. I told her that in order to be really truly “self” taught, she had to rely on her own devices, books maybe, but other people? No. Definitely not. To learn from someone other than her own self would cloud her vision, quiet her voice, inhibit her style, limit her creativity. She would be diminished somehow, less  herself, tainted. And she would most certainly not be an autodidact.

Somehow, I developed this sort of mistrust of … not teachers, I love teachers… but the systems and structures and bureaucracies of institutionalized instruction. Without realizing it exactly, or putting it into so many words, I came to the conclusion that formal instruction was just about boiling what was once truth down to a nearly unrecognizable set of bullet points, stripped of all their beauty and wonder, and held up for memorization and regurgitation. Nine generations of Texan blood coursing through my veins railed against the idea. I will learn what I want, when I want, how I want. This is my journey to take. Don’t tell me what to know. Don’t tell me how to know it. I will figure it out myself, thank you very much.

My thoughts have been tempered greatly over the last several years though. I’ve come to know, first hand, that while seeking after knowledge one’s self, driving your own desire to know, is incredibly important, learning from a mentor, sitting at the feet of a master, can also save you a heap of meandering about in the dark.

With regard to art though, I think I held firm to my unspoken, and perhaps even unacknowledged, conviction that formal instruction was an impediment to authentic learning.  A true artist, I believed, created from scratch, without a teacher, a syllabus, or a preconceived set of parameters. A true artist arrived at both her skills and her body of work through trial and error, persistent effort, late nights, a heaping helping of luck and years of scratching away at her dreams, bit by bit.

I was wrong… or rather, I was not entirely correct.

And I’ll wager that I’m not the only one.

On the whole, I think most people are mistrustful, or at least ambivalent, about art instruction. Art classes are for elementary school students, possibly broody teenagers who don’t want to play sports or be in the band, retirees who want to learn to paint the sunsets  from their Florida condo balconies, and maybe, just maybe, a select few young 20 somethings who have already proven themselves extraordinarily gifted and therefore deserving of an elite design school education and a place in the art world.

For the most part, I think people have decided that artistic skill is something that you’re born with, not something that can be taught or learned.

watercolor blending techniques

Hogwash.

The desire to create is a seed inside all of us. Every. Single. One.

All of us loved to paint, color, draw, build, cut and paste as children.

And then we didn’t.

What happened?

Perhaps it’s just that we didn’t learn how to do what our hearts and minds and souls wanted to do, so it ceased to be fun. It was too hard.  And so? We put art away with the rest of the accoutrements of childhood. We left it behind with our dolls and matchbox cars and story books.

What if all we needed though was a little bit of nurturing? What if all along what was lacking was not inherent talent, but just someone to show us how?

And so here I am, in my flowing skirt, with a head full of poetry,   and flamenco pouring from Pandora. Here I am, 40 years old, with reams of drawing paper, great gobs of paint and innumerable pencils and sketchbooks in my wake, finally enrolling in my very first art class because I have meandered long enough to arrive at a truth  – That being a “self-taught” artist, a creator who passionately seeks to know what she doesn’t and make what she can,  might include finding an artist who is a bit further down the path, and following after her footsteps for a time.

There is much more to say, and I will soon, but in the meantime, if you think that you might like to resurrect that part of you that once enjoyed drawing and painting, perhaps you could start with the courses over at Creative Bug.

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All the little photos in this post are my own attempts with their Beginning Watercolor course. I also greatly enjoyed Lisa Congdon’s line drawing and sketchbook courses there. Although I am not strictly a beginner with either drawing or painting, I found them full of fresh inspiration and gentle encouragement.  Try it. Don’t let anyone, even yourself, tell you that you can’t paint or draw. You can. You are an artist.

You are.