My first drawing was of a man. His body was a big, round, wobbly circle and his limbs stuck out like the rays of the sun in all directions, with crooked circles for hands. He was smiling. I still have that drawing, and ever since then I have known I wanted to be an artist. I still have a faded sheet of paper with a list of questions I answered in a first grade quiz, one of them being, What do you want to be when you grow up? I wrote Artist. Fast forwarding many decades finds me still loving making art, as well as teaching it, selling it, and singing the praises of it. I have led a life of non-stop creativity, so I have plenty to say about it. A painting about it seemed impossible, but I gave it a shot.
I looked up ideas online for an animal that might represent creativity. When the spider repeatedly came up as a possibility, I was at first taken aback. Creativity is joyful and often associated with beauty. Spiders are mostly feared and squish-worthy in our culture. But immediately on the heels of my cultural prejudice was the obvious, unassailable, awe-inspiring, perfect fact that spiders make gorgeous art all the time. I was easily converted to a spider-lover. Out of all the fascinating types to chose from, I chose the jumping spider simply because it caught my eye. Ironically, the jumping spider makes no web, but does make a cozy little tent to hide in at night. Because my paintings veer far from reality on a regular basis, I saw no problem in setting my new friend on a web.
The background for the piece was inspired by art nouveau designs, a visually stunning period in Western history. This late 19thcentury movement saw influences from Japanese art that flooded into Europe on newly discovered trade routes. The Art Nouveau movement was focused on the fluid, sensual lines of the natural world, a rejection of the machine-and-speed-driven Industrial Revolution that had so rapidly changed everything, especially the making of objects. Spiders and other insects were popular subjects with artists at the time, especially in jewelry. As much as I have always been taken with the sensual, elegant lines of the aesthetic of this time, I’ve also related to the desire on the part of its artists to bring back a devotion to creativity. At that time the creative revolution was to make finely crafted objects of beauty in defiance of the new glut of low-quality, machine-made junk that was brought forth by factories at the time. This theme is close to my heart as this practice hasn’t stopped in 150 years.
In the spirit of art nouveau, my background emulates the forms of jewelry. The web form appears to be made from pearls, and the spider’s halo resembles a cloisonné necklace with each amulet representing an insect that might be on the spider’s menu. Just above the spider’s head is a spider brooch that would have been typical of the time. I had no specific symbolism in mind other than to enjoy playing with the forms and colors of such a spectacular time in art history. My commitment to simply revel in the joy of the piece was absolutely in keeping with its content. I wanted to celebrate.
The best way to express my thoughts on creativity will be to share some of the most important reminders that I give my students. As I teach my painting and drawing classes I chuckle inside when my technical art suggestions clearly relate to life on many different levels. Just as the spider painting was meant for my sheer enjoyment, this essay is another jubilant spree of honoring one of my greatest loves. I could write a whole book about each topic here, and maybe I just will someday.
The first “rule” of getting started with rendering is to Look at your Subject. Neither your canvas nor what’s in your head will tell you what the object in front of you looks like. Only by looking at it with great attention will you See. I’m really not teaching anyone to use their hands or brains in a fancy way. I’m teaching them to look and see. It takes practice. Our habit of not-seeing is exactly like all the ways in life in which we rely on our set patterns in our brain to guide our actions. Instead of being aware in the moment of what’s in front of us, we are blinded by old symbols in our heads that discolor and distort out view. We must practice awareness and be observers.
The next important reminder in the rendering process is called General to Specific. In painting, the first coat is done quickly and without care for details. This makes sure the overall layout is satisfactory, and that the basic elements are AOK before committing to laboring with more precision on things that might have to be changed later. If details are tended to right away, it’s hard to keep consistency throughout the piece. A subsequent coat adds more specifics, and only at the end of the piece is the minutia of the finer, more polished components addressed. I relate this idea to the simple but imperative reminders that insure sanity in everyday life, to put first things first and do them one at a time. I tell every student over and over that if it looks good on your first coat you’re not doing it right. The priority is to get an overall view before jumping in with little stuff that might not be useful. Stand back, get perspective, and make sure your foundation is strong. Good lord, I sound like my dad.
The third reminder that is probably pounded into students’ brains more than any other is to emphasize contrast. Without the dramatization of lights and darks everything looks flat. Rarely do students catch on quickly to this one. For whatever reason, they are afraid of the darks! It isn’t difficult to make a figurative comparison here. In life and painting, there will be no sense of reality without embracing both light and dark elements. Avoiding life’s shadows is trying to outrun reality, and it never works or pays. I love how clear and obvious this correlation is.
Probably more important than teaching technical skill is ever-reminding students of the mindset most conducive to enjoying the process, honing the craft, and expressing oneself. The first thing I impress on a new student is that they can do no wrong. No matter how goofy their products look in the beginning, it can be improved, fixed, or tossed out. As long as they keep coming, all mistakes will be subject to change or incorporated for the better. As a teacher I never see an error, only steps in the process. Students quickly see that I am not kidding, and soon relax into being patient with themselves.
I mean it when I tell students, No Thinking at Red Dot (my gallery/studio.) Out in the real world our society heavily leans toward using the left side of the brain, which performs tasks related to logic, mathematics, verbal skills, and time orientation. In art class, the tasks at hand require us to use the right side of the brain, which influences our intuition and emotion, spatial and visual relationships, and the imagination. When I see students staring in hesitation at their canvas I can sense them trying to wrap their left-brain thoughts around the task at hand, which are of no use to them. I say No Thinking, Just Paint, to remind them to trust themselves and to let their less-used other side of the brain get busy. It doesn’t feel like thinking as we know it. It feels like letting things happen. They follow their instincts, practice seeing, forget about time, and level out emotionally all without trying. The act of going forward allows these beautiful actions to unfold.
Don’t forget to breathe. I mostly tell myself that one. I get working on some tiny details and during the effort at concentration I hold my breath. I can tell by how a student is holding him or herself whether they are breathing or not. I don’t insist on a yoga studio focus on breathing, but you don’t have be a genius to understand that breath-holding hinders performance and prevents relaxation.
Many self-help books are quick to tell you not to take yourself too seriously. I’ve rarely said this one in class because it becomes pretty clear when someone shows up for lessons that we are not a pretentious, uptight bunch. I had no idea when I first started teaching that a relaxed social environment dotted with humor and filled with light encouragement could have an effect on how quickly a student picked up on skills. Without pressure, competition, or expectations of social status I see students stick with the endeavor longer, savor it more, be encouraged enough to put in more work on their own, and catch onto new techniques more rapidly. One might pop in on a class and see us sharing memories about our first record albums (or CDs) or rating a recent series on Netflix. We have long periods of “Zen Time” where everyone gets quiet for a while. Some classes have an informal book discussion. In one class 85-year-old Jack does a little stand-up comedy routine that he’s prepared. The point is, we are comfortable chit-chatting like friends lying on the grass in the backyard, and that’s good medicine.
I’ve only touched a tiny tip of this subject, but it was as fun as painting the spider. Creativity touches us lightly and deeply, in all the important ways. I think that all the scientific studies that prove creativity is good for you are as useful as the ones that prove broccoli is good for you. The proof blossoms in my head each day, and happens in my studio all week. My wish is that everyone would give creativity a try, in whichever form speaks to them. With a little effort to stick with it, obvious evidence of healing, upliftment, and untold surprises will come to pass.