The Slow Process of Mastery

Woman Painting

2019 is the 30th year I’ve been painting. The first time I painted an oil painting was 1989, when a room I rented in London came furnished with a chair and a blank canvas. I was studying English in England, not art. I came home from school every night to the sad blank canvas, until one day I found myself in an art store, buying paint. I recall being afraid of the other people in the art store, the ones with nose rings, spiked hair and leather jackets. Could they tell I knew nothing about art? Being careful with my money, I picked out only six colors, three brushes and a small bottle of turpentine. So many years of flushing away money at the art store lay ahead, but I did not know that then. 

For the first ten or twenty years I painted, everything was a surprise. I bought lots of colors and mixed them in great quantities, with no plan. Who knew what color I would get when I mixed payne’s grey and naples yellow? Something delightful, that I could never reproduce, no doubt. Drawing was equally difficult. I never knew if I was going to draw something correctly the first time, or the tenth time. Slowly I learned that I drew things too big, always. About seven years after having that thought, I started drawing things smaller than I thought they should be.  

The first time I drew a house, I left no room around the windows for the trim or the sash. I was astonished to find the house had gutters that I have left out, and six stairs instead of the twenty I had drawn. Surprise! 

Each artist I encountered for the first twenty years told me a different way to paint. When I was pregnant and painted with only linseed oil medium, an artist told me my paintings would be brittle and crumble. I put some alkyd and OMS in to provide some tooth and another artist told me the whole painting would peel off one day. A toxicologist told me I probably had cobalt embedded in my kitchen table. A woman told me I could paint with olive oil. (Totally false!) After twenty years, when I was still painting and all those other people had given up, I saw that I could paint however I wanted.

Once I was in a fellow artist’s studio and I admired her beautiful color choices. She walked over to her desk and showed me at least 25 sheets where she had mixed colors in long rows to perfect her palette, before she even started one painting. For a moment, I entered an alternative universe, where art could be done scientifically. I looked from the sheets to her matching paintings and saw a vision of being a completely different person that the person I was. I wondered if I should try to be like my friend, and spend three weeks planning the exact colors to use. In the past, when I was young, I would have agonized for sometime over the revelation of someone with a superior technique. Because I had painted for twenty years by this time, though, I knew I should choose the method that I find pleasurable, not a possibly better one that seemed like a chore. I like to put all the paints out on the palette and admire their texture and heft, before trying random combinations.  The bliss of this method makes me return to it again and again, which leads, eventually to a kind of mastery.

The first time I came to understand that I had some expertise, is when a woman called to ask me to teach her. How could I teach anyone I wondered? I was still working full time as a software engineer, so how could I call myself an art teacher? When the woman arrived at the studio, I saw that her paintings needed some help in the composition department. I opened my mouth to explain the golden mean, and many years of painting knowledge poured out. When she nodded and started writing things down, I felt a shift in my understanding of art. What felt to me like many years of just trying to paint and maybe never going anywhere, had actually lead to a destination.

Somewhere in the last ten years of the thirty years since 1989, I stopped worrying about whether I would be able to draw or paint something correctly. Letting go of the worry turns out to be a key step in the artist’s journey to mastery. Being agitated or overwhelmed by something hard to draw causes one’s hand to clench and tighten, and one’s eyes to see blobs, not details. Most objects, it turns out, can be drawn by relaxing, pausing to look longer, and stepping back. This is just a thing that one learns in time. At some point, the act of drawing becomes an act of quiet meditation, not one of painful internal struggle. To any new artist who is frustrated with their painting, I would say “Don’t worry so much. Just paint for another 30 years.”   

self-portrait

Self-Portrait, 1989.