Art, Writing, Frustration, and Learning – An Experiment: Part 1


I had the idea to take an art lesson. Just one. I thought maybe I could learn something about my writing practice and process by seeing how someone works in another discipline. I called a good friend who is a working artist and also teaches and she happily agreed for me to come to her studio the next day. It was a whim; I tell you. 

I must have had some unconscious awareness of how much I was going to feel like a four-year-old as I took with me one of my husband’s old shirts as my ‘smock’. Consciously, I thought I would probably sketch with charcoal or paint with water colors for an hour or two, pick up a tidbit or two that parallels with writing, and come home and write about it. That is not how it is working out. Notice the verb tense there—My friend won’t let me quit with one lesson and be past tense; —it is present progressive; though I’m not sure how much I am progressing yet. 

As soon as I got my smock on and sat down, my artist friend began talking about the picture I was going to paint in oil, but first we would practice on something smaller in acrylic. What? I’m just here for today, I reminded her. She was having none of it. She had a multi-step plan. 

We looked through some photographs on my phone and chose a few pictures I liked. One was a landscape, a view of the lake from my back deck, and the other a desert flower from this summer’s vacation. The lake scene would become my oil painting, she said. The first thing she had me do was paint the entire canvas green. 

We then turned our attention to a smaller piece of paper and the desert flower picture. She showed me how to put the shapes and lines in first. Then she painted the same image along with me and following her lead, step by step, I began to create my first painting. This smaller picture we were using as practice, to learn to stroke with the brush, not ‘feather’ as I kept tending toward, to learn how to mix the paint and to hold the palette knife. I kept wanting to use it like a spatula in cake icing. The technique is not the same, nor can you lick it clean. I kept forgetting steps in the mixing process and ending up with colors that didn’t even look like good dirt. I began to feel my ineptness. I didn’t expect myself to be good at mixing color or painting on the first day, but neither did I anticipate just how ignorant and awkward I would feel. I wanted to bolt a few times. 

I tell my students all the time that frustration is the beginning of learning, that they must have a growth mindset; yet here I am again, encountering something new and foreign, feeling like a child who can’t quite hold her peas on her fork and getting frustrated and embarrassed. But I’d brought myself here of my own volition, and regardless of how bad I was at holding a palette knife, mixing color or making proper strokes with a brush, I mustered my determination to learn something about writing through my experiment with painting. 

The flower picture was finally complete, and though one can tell what it is, I doubt it will ever make it to display, even on my refrigerator. My teacher praised my efforts and obviously sees something I don’t or just knows how to be an encouraging coach. Her kind words were water to me. She then had me turn back to my green canvas. 

I then painted in the lines and shapes and values in brown. This is underpainting and it will be my guide, she said. Eventually no one will see it. But I will always know it’s there. I liked this idea. It reminds me of varied syntax and paragraphing; no one notices it until it’s absent. It also reminds me of the journeys we all make, teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, all of us traveling guided paths that we sometimes can’t see even as we are walking them. 

I’m going back to another art lesson, trusting a teacher and her process and a path I can’t see, hoping my students will, in turn, trust me.

Leah SlawsonComment