I’ve just come back from a weekend visiting my sister in D.C. and going to a painting workshop at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA, an incredible center for art. The class was on landscape and ran Saturday and Sunday from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.
The instructor, Patrick Kirwin, was excellent. He introduced me to Acrylic Glaze.
This stuff is similar to oil mediums for oil paint, except that it is of course for acrylics. It makes your paint transparent and gives acrylics the ability to blend like you would not believe. Props to Patrick for teaching me how to use this formerly mystifying substance, which now opens up worlds for my future art.
On the first day he had me working on a picture of a blue spruce tree. I don’t have the photo on hand, but here is the painting.
The tree itself took the majority of the class to finish, and I suppose it could be more detailed if I devoted some more time. Still, this is far more detail than I ever put into most of my paintings. I like to tell myself that staying more abstract and expressionistic adds a unique quality to my work, (which for the most part it really does. I never want to completely lose that side of my art), but really I don’t usually go into much detail because of a weakness I feel in myself to create details. I lacked artistic ability in general when I began painting at age 13. I promise I was awful. Here’s a picture of one of my early paintings.
There are worse ones that I’m too embarrassed to put onto the Internet for all to see.) I’ve always spotted a more general weakness in myself for all things that involve a close attention to detail such as math and science.
And the really funny thing about that is that when I was in elementary school and middle school, I was excellent at math and science and had no problem with using analytical skills. Even in high school I was still far more advanced at math and science than most of my peers, but as the math got harder and I found myself making more mistakes, I doubted my own abilities. I began to deeply fear the mistakes I felt I had no control over repeating over and over again, because I began to see them not as problems I could work toward reducing, but as innate flaws and a lack of ability within myself to achieve the perfection that people expected of me as a “gifted student”. I no longer felt worthy of my label as intelligent and since high school I’ve been constantly trying to prove to myself that I am worthy of my label. After all, what makes me so much smarter or more talented than anyone else? I still believe the answer is that I’m not. I suppose what I have on my side is luck and a lot of support.
I love to live in the world of wish-washy art, which requires me to develop skills and to analyze the world around me, but which need not be so exact and can’t be criticized as often for being incorrect. I’m not saying art which is not realistic or detailed is lesser than detailed art. I’m not saying that at all. I love the more abstract and energetic pieces. But what I am saying is that even though I’ve improved tremendously in the last few years in my ability to render life with my brushes, I haven’t made many serious attempts to make detailed work, believing that it is beyond my own capabilities.
On the first day of my class, I was so surprised when at the end Patrick told me that I had a great drawing ability. I appreciate his class so much, because he did not judge. He was kind and also persistent about getting me to paint what he wanted to see.
“Go back in with the darks.” “Go back in and shape the background. Don’t get lazy. They have to look like trees. Make them look more…treelike.”
For faithfully following his instructions, I was rewarded with a decent painting of a pine tree and the unforgettable compliment that I, in fact, have “a great drawing ability”. I was convinced for so long that I was deficient in talent for all things exact. I was so sure of it. After this first day, I was awakened. After so many years of feeling inadequate and talentless in multiple areas of my life, I became enough just the way I was. The chains of my own mind were broken. My limits were revealed as self imposed.
Day 2: After Patrick went through some pictures I brought with me, (and I’ll never forget that he called them tremendous photos), he picked out two for me to work on. The first picture I spent most of the day working on.
Today he really made me work for details and softness, encouraging me by saying that he was asking for more from me since I demonstrated such an “ability for detail” the day before. I’m proud of this piece:
The second photo, Patrick really liked, so he told me to park my easel next to his so we could paint it together. We spent the last hour of class painting it. The class watched for about the first ten minutes, (the first time I’ve really been observed painting for more than a few seconds). I found I couldn’t even sense the presence of anyone watching me paint, because I was so absorbed in doing what Patrick was doing.
Although I was only asked to make a painting alongside the instructor because he really liked my particular reference photo, it still made me feel special that I got to sit next to him. It gave the illusion that we were equals, at least just for that hour since his art degrees and experience clearly make him far above my level. But nonetheless there was almost a sacredness in this hour session, the master teaching and the pupil following: knowledge being transferred to a new generation.
At some point in the day, he asked me if I was an art major at school, and earlier another student also asked me the same question. I was flattered at the thought of this kind of question being posed to me. I previously didn’t see myself as having what it takes to be successful studying art formally.
I’ve come out of this experience much more alive and ready to become a better artist and also a better student in all areas. I know now that most limits really are imposed by the mind and are merely constructs, a lesson I wish I would have learned earlier. I’m still young though so I’m sure there’s lots of time left to take advantage of what I now know to be true.