My First Painting
8″x10″ Oil on canvas board, 1954
Heads up – this is a 2100 word posting (longer than my average). My editor suggested breaking it into five short postings, but I couldn’t figure how to make the story flow so I put up the whole thing. I would appreciate any comments to the article, both about length and content, or if this type posting is worth your reading time.
1-Paint on purpose
She was old and frail and beautiful. She was fussy and gentle, regal and talented. Even though she was frail she was magnificently strong in being there. I was eleven years old and barely 5 feet tall and she was only an inch taller; she assured me she used to be tall and I would be one day (I’m still waiting). She was Mrs. R, my first and only real art instructor.
Born in the late 1800s, Mrs. R. was a picture out of a story book. Simply magnificent. Always fully dressed in “going to town” attire, always ready with a story of meaning, never wasting hers or my time with trivia, yet always aware of the smallest of life’s tiny elements. Her father, an older father than normal, served in the first world war, died many decades ago, she informed me of this at our first meeting. He had been an architect and with failing eyesight he would ask her to sit at his drawing board and read off the calculations to assure accuracy. She would say this as if it were his excuse to have her visit with him. “Subtleties,” she would say, “Are what make a picture, a story, and a life worth observing.”
There she was, sitting by my side, checking my accuracies and telling me about this. Of this and other things, she would mix the instruction on a palette of colors and words. “To paint a picture is not so important as to see it, and if you don’t feel anything it is because you’re not seeing,” and to see it before you paint it.
“Rendering will always leave you disappointed because no one can paint as well as they perceive.” I would ponder this for years. “To discover your painting as you go is for amateurs,” she would say, “Not that you shouldn’t lean into happy mistakes or events, but to paint on purpose and arrive at that, well, that is being an artist, To paint and discover, that is being creative but cowardly,” she would say. “It fools the viewer but not the great art spirit.”
I realize now that I would rather say “This is what I envisioned,” instead of “This is what I discovered,” and most of us will never tell you which is which. She would say “Paint on purpose or don’t paint.”
My next question was about doodling, of which I am a lifelong super fan. “Oh, doodling is the best way to stay pure,” she would say. “That is how you get all that discovery stuff out of the way.” So I doodle a lot, I just don’t over-claim it as a vision or insight; it is a discovery process. So Paint on Purpose!
2-Look from your heart
Mrs. R would tell this eleven year old, “LOOK, don’t copy, LOOK,” she imparted that to see is to understand. Look and understand what you are seeing, trust that what you feel about it, that is what others will understand. She made it clear that one must copy to learn, but do not learn to copy. You must trace to find true edges, but you will have no edge of your own if you trace.
I don’t remember every exact word she spoke to me almost sixty years ago, but I remember her exact self; she painted it into my memory with truths and caring and patience and love.
My father owned a steam laundry, was not really a fan of art, loved sports and hunting and expected me to be like my older brother (captain-quarterback of the high school football team), and to walk in his shadow. I was born an artist. He agreed only to let me have art lessons at age 11 if I paid for them myself. Perhaps he thought that would be the end of it.
But every week, I would beg a ride with the laundry truck driver (Floyd), to Mrs. R’s neighborhood, five miles away. My lessons were scheduled by his delivery route, so he would drop me off. She would greet me warmly, and set me up on her three season porch, there to pay my five dollars a week earned from working in the laundry after school and weekends. 65 cents an hour was a fortune to an eleven year old and in those days it was not unusual for a child to be working. Do the math, hour and a half after school and seven hours on Saturday: $9.45. My previous agreement with my parents was to save half of what I earned for school clothes, roughly $4.75, so I always traded with my sister for a couple of her work hours.
So I was working or in school or doing homework and chores all the time, but I was getting art instructions from a real professional artist born in a different century, wow! In those days, that was held in high regard, and some of my happiest days. I felt like a young man. After all these many years, those times are what taught me to “see.” Not the light drenched vista in front of me, but that within it is a story, a vision others, too, will recognize as a part of their life, their delights, or struggles, and of such pictures are made. It isn’t just looking out through your eyes, but looking out through your joy and pain and experiences, then knowing that by seeing others you have seen yourself, too. Paint what your heart sees, and the eyes of others will recognize it on some level. So look with your whole self, then paint!
3-Time is more important to a picture than paint
Even back then, as an elderly woman sitting by my side, Mrs. R would teach me art as she knew it. The image is made of canvas, a grounding coat, and a pigment mixed in a medium and all that mixed with time. “See the russet brown at the very edge of the leaves; use burnt sienna, it is there to under-pin the ocher and the hansa yellow. It is the sign of the mid season of fall.”
She was in the winter of her life; I would learn that the fall is made of summertime being pressed into a dessert to munch on until winter could unfold its real beauty. I did not yet understand this as an eleven year old or much at all then, not of depth anyway, but something unseen had made me insist on art lessons, something made me retain most of what she was saying for later understanding. She would say things like, “Stop rushing the painting, slow down, it is doing that is joy, not having done.” I didn’t understand but knew I wanted this.
It is today that I ponder how useful all the instruction has been. It is today that I think how patient she was, sitting there with all her experience waiting for me to make a useful brushstroke. She was still observing, still composing, still tasting the dessert from her seasons of life. Teaching an eleven year old the proper use of materials, the placement of concept into perspective, the impact of tiny implications in brushstrokes. Time taken to understand materials, processes, and looking. It is the act of engaging human spirit into individually filtered communications that the artist may choose to employ. This takes time to render, this takes time to see. She gave me this; it was worth more than I was paying for. Now I know why she gave lessons, she was having her dessert.
Time taken to experience and recall, to know others who look upon images you may create, well they are also seeking deserts of the mind and spirit to munch on as they too await arriving beauty of their own seasons. Time must be taken to carefully create this response and let others belong to that feeling as well.
Use time to make art, use time to share what we learn, and to have the courage to put it out there. Discovery of your true self can be seen in the simplest of images if you take time to put it there. Paint pigment mixed with a medium and time will make art. Don’t get in a hurry.
4-Your work is yours – if you really made it.
Mrs. R would not show me on my canvas what she meant with her instructions. Other people did – they would grab my pencil or brush and demonstrate their thoughts on my work, but not Mrs. R. I would beg her, “Show me what you mean.” She would then paint some example on her own canvas, but never on mine; the example she would use never matched what I was trying to paint. “If I touch your work, when will you know that it is really yours? Will you lie and say you painted it, how will that feel?” She would say that whatever I painted, well that is what it is.
She would show examples of great color treatments, or how things might respond, how to use the slightest thing for the greatest effect, but never put her tools in my paint or on my canvas. She said personal integrity is more important than success. You will always be able to say “I painted that,” or “That was my idea.”
To this day I do not paint on someone’s canvas; I have taught and demonstrated on sketches and others’ drawings with tracing paper layed over, then removed, but how will they know when the drawing is theirs? The sooner one discovers what is theirs, the sooner they improve. Most of us can see after we have made a mistake, that we did, that is called learning. Don’t copy and call it yours, don’t trace and say that it is yours and don’t let someone “improve” your work; it not only ruins your work, it destroys that secret inside that is really your trying to get out and be an artist.
This is not to say that inspiration cannot come from trying on styles and techniques or taking good examples and research to build good images. Photos, sketches by others, ideas of others can all inspire our own work, but unless we keep our integrity as clean as our painting surface, we will lose creative self respect, and that shows up in the images.
5-Art is currency.
Art has value, and over time it has more value. Styles emerge, trends and fads and pop culture comes and goes, building a mountain of untold amounts of images. My art teacher, Mrs. R, spoke to me almost 60 years ago, “Being an artist, doing art, and being lucky enough to have talent is currency.”
Most of us fall prey to being commercial; this out of necessity, as I have done. We sell our work, we sell our time and talent in exchange for the currency of the realm. When Mrs. R talked about commercial art she said, “It comes and goes in passing through your life but, being an artist is timeless; what you make is currency – it is timeless, when you sell it, well, that is commerce.”
When you look upon a piece of real art, do you not know that it has something of substance that transcends time, language, nationality or opinion? The contributions, participations, even the musings of multitudes of artists expressing themselves somehow coelesce into an ongoing conversation that is felt over time by everyone. Does the bottom grain of sand in an anthill do more or less work than a grain on the top? It is an anthill; as a collective pile the hill has a separate identity from each grain of sand. To the ants, it is the whole world. The artwork of our societies creates a mountain of work and understanding in the arts. The images from long ago only stand out if they have been kept as a visible outer shell of the overall effort, but the inward hidden art or art near the bottom, done by the unknown obscure artists of long ago, helps support the mound of images, too. Art is a collective human endeavor, and it is an individual performance.
The most important thing here is to understand that it is art and artists are currency, the act of “artisting” produces value.
Being an artist, doing art or having art is understood in every language, every nation and can be converted to the currency of any local society, because it is its own currency. If people want to buy it from you, well that is commerce. No fixed value, just the perception of currency that is worth more than the coin of the realm, an exchange of currencies so to speak.
Mrs.R. said, “Good art is never merchandise, it is always currency.”
We should always see ourself and our work as currency, not as product or labor.”