Dealing with our harshest critic…
My grandmother was one of those archetypal little old English ladies who think they are Miss Marple, Maggie Thatcher and Mrs Beeton all shoe-horned into a single twinset and pearls. She had views on everything imaginable, but if there was one thing she knew how to do better than anyone else in creation it was how to drive a car. Which is odd, as she never once got behind the wheel in her life and never had a lesson let alone a driving test! It’s funny how some people who are the least qualified to tell us what to do can seem to have the loudest voice.
When it comes to learning to paint, my students have often opened the conversation on the first day of tuition with the words ‘of course, I won’t be any good, you know…’ or something very similar. Like my experiences of being on a long car journey with my old grandad enduring the infinite ‘wisdom’ of my gran (oh yes they were long journeys… did I say they were long…?) there was a loud voice in their head telling them that however they would approach painting and drawing, surely “that’s not the way to do it”.
I learned in the end that what people were trying to do was to protect themselves (and me) from feeling let down by their results. My gran’s real motive was fear. Fear that the car would crash, or that she would arrive late, or that they would get lost. Of course, these things were far more likely to happen just because my grandad only had 10% of his attention on the road-the other 90% was taken up trying to fend off the swooping vultures of criticism from the passenger seat! My students had the expectation that other people can paint and draw, but not them. Somehow the world was, for them, divided into the ‘gifted’ and the ‘rest’, and they were one of ‘the rest’. The motto seemed to be “avoid disappointment-aim low”.
Aiming low is no way to approach painting. But it is no good just telling people they can paint. I had to show them. So I did… One lovely little older lady arrived in trepidation that she would never be able to paint and she had only come along for a lesson as a friend had paid for it as a birthday present. An hour and a half later she almost floated out of my studio like someone who had suddenly discovered they could fly. It was such a privilege to see.
Many of the students had a common set of experiences. They had seen my paintings and wanted to learn the ‘secrets’ of how to paint. They had often had a go at painting or drawing years before, and been discouraged that the Mona Lisa had not magically coalesced before their eyes. Others had thought about it but had not felt brave enough to carry it through and pick up a paintbrush.
Not a brilliant starting point. So what to do?
Can you write your name?
Simples. I asked them if they could write their name. “Yes” came the baffled reply. To which I responded “well, you can already draw invisible sounds, which is amazing when you stop and think about it. Just how good do you think you need to be to be an artist?”.
Fact is, writing is complex drawing. Think about it. Take a look at some Russian, Greek or Arabic writing, maybe some Hebrew, or Chinese. To most of us it’s inaccessible because we haven’t learned to associate those symbols with sounds. Now think about a drawing of an apple. I could expres the idea of the apple by drawing a circle, which defines, in our understanding, the shape of the fruit. But if you picked up the apple, and examined it, no matter how hard or long you look you will never find that line on it. It’s not there. It’s a device we use to express a three dimensional reality in a two dimensional language.
This exactly the same as the way we express sound in written form. When I say “apple” a letter ‘a’ doesn’t physically come out of my mouth, but I can draw a letter ‘a’ and everyone knows what it is. Its a short-cut to express something complex in a simplified way. That’s called a drawing.
So, if you can read these words, and write them, you can draw sounds. Drawing an apple should be a piece of cake then, shouldn’t it?
Now as for drawing a cake….