Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An art history lesson

I've read that the act of creation can have real empathetic roots. I think that's because we have to think about who we are creating something for, and what they would want. Perhaps we're trying to give them what they want. Perhaps we're trying to do the exact opposite.


I was very lucky growing up - I was able to attend a specialized high school for the arts. I was a visual arts major - which meant that each year I took at least two classes alongside my regular academics. I would come in to school and paint, draw, sculpt, glue, sew or otherwise try to represent the things placed in front of me.

One year I took oil painting. We had a routine - first set up your station, pour the turpentine, squeeze out your paints on your palette, pick your subject (or use a subject already set up from the previous class) and paint. I loved the process of painting. I would squint at each form and shadow and see colors that I didn't see before - yellow in the reds, blue in the browns, and lots and lots of greens. As I moved my brush I moved my colors around the picture like I was decorating a cake; I wanted each bite to have a bit of purple, a taste of orange. I wanted the viewer's eyes to follow the trails of hue around the image.

One day, the teacher came over and said to me, "What is that, that spot of blue there?" I said, "It's right there, in the shadow of the apple, see?" She looked at the apple, then at me. She said, "You can't make stuff up - that's not what this class is about. You have to paint what you see. You are training your eyes and hands. Learn how to paint what you see first." She walked away.

I remember feeling mad. I was going to paint WHAT I wanted - and if she didn't like what I painted because she couldn't see the colors I could see, then I would just have to paint something she couldn't see. For my next subject, I looked out the window. While everyone else painted the still life on the table (an arrangement of plastic fruit, broken instruments and drapery) I painted the cars on the sidewalk four stories below. While everyone else painted a lamp, I painted the forest and highway a few miles away across the river. The next time she came around and asked me what I was painting, I told her. She just looked and nodded and walked away.

I wonder if creativity for me is not so much about empathy - and more about stubbornness. :)

Have you created anything lately?



Earthshine said...

It sounds as if your process was full of empathy -- thinking about the viewer following lines and experiencing blends of color.

I think the only disconnect was what you wanted out of the class (true creativity) and what the teacher did (to convey technique). The teacher could've found ways to enable both, perhaps, but wasn't able to do so.

SL said...

You were right, the teacher is wrong. It's not stubborn if you are right.

Janet said...

Hi SL and Earthshine, thanks for your comments. I agree that in general, art can be about encouraging creativity. However, part of what I was trying to learn there was also the skill sets - things like eye to hand coordination. So I think perhaps the teacher may have taken that directive a bit too far. Regardless I love the work I did.