By Heidi Farr
Art has always seemed unattainable to me; my drawing ability stalled out at the stick figure and the square house with the triangle roof, my painting ability went no further than eight little puddles of Crayola watercolors, and my high school pottery class (grade: B-) was highlighted by a lopsided pentagonal slab pot that I still use to hold mail. Art was, I decided, for people who were good at it, whose idea of time well-spent included things like sketch-books, gesso and decoupage. These artists could look at a pile of craft supplies and pull out of their brain an amazing and creative use for all of them at once. They could, when asked by their five-year-old, draw a dog that actually looked like a dog. In short, they could interpret the world around them in a creative, non-verbal manner that so far surpassed my stick figures. I figured art (and the ability to communicate without the medium of words) was a lost cause for me. I know I’m not the only non-artist to feel this way. I’ve heard countless people express this same thing: “I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.” “I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since second grade.” “I’m terrible at art.”
To these people, I say: I have found the answer! It’s not that we’re bad at art, it’s just that those artists have practiced more! While we were playing video games and reading novels, they were practicing drawing dogs: sketch one, assess what isn’t quite right, and try again. Do it again. And again. And again. So when their kid asks for a dog drawing, they can just do it. For myself, I’ve discovered that the key to getting more comfortable with expressing myself through art is practice and to not view failure as an invitation to quit. I typically get frustrated when my effort doesn’t yield the expected results on the first attempt, but painting has taught me that by broadening my expectations and seeing my initial effort as groundwork instead of masterpiece, even a “non-artist” can have a satisfying and meaningful creative experience.
I have connected with people with more art background than myself and watching their processes of creating has confirmed a key point: artists rarely create anything purely from their own imagination; virtually all art is produced by copying, sometimes over and over again, an image or technique or texture. Obviously this is something of a blanket statement that doesn’t always apply, but generally I think this is the case. When I initially had this revelation and shared it with my artist friends, they mostly rolled their eyes and said, “Of course that’s how it is.” Even the great artists – Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, to name a few – trained under other artists, and the influences show through in their work.
My experience has been that somewhere along the way this idea of art as a process of repetition and copying – which goes a long way toward demystifying art – got lost in the shuffle of art education. Instead of encouraging failure and experimentation, the art classes I took in school emphasized getting techniques “right” and held up the work of the masters (many of whom had to their advantage patrons, lots of time to practice, and a lifetime of anonymity) as examples of “true art”. Thankfully, organizations like Think 360 Arts are involved in changing this approach to art, especially for children. Sure, technical skill is a necessary part of artistic training, but art teaches much more foundational lessons: it’s okay to try something and fail, to copy something you like, to allow your heart to be in charge, and to take the long view when it comes to process and success. When art education engages with these concepts, it teaches more than how to get beyond stick figures – it teaches us how to live inspired lives.
Heidi Farr is a wife, mother, runner, knitter, homeschooler, and reader. She taught for two and a half years at Sipping and Painting Hampden, but has recently relocated temporarily for her husband’s job to Mumbai, India, where she enjoys monsoon season and the hunt for the perfect samosa. She blogs at Uninventing the Wheel.