A Short History of My Life as a Painter, With Special thanks to Mark Silvers
Watercolor, Risk Taking, and The Key to Life as an Artist
I've always had this wish to whip out a watercolor sketchbook and make a little painting on the spot that captures the spirit of a place. There is something awesome about having this power, and the result is always something very different from taking a picture. However, my past efforts had dissuaded me from continuing to try. Last fall, I attended a painting demo by Benjamin Bjorklund, and something about it re-awakened an interest in watercolor painting as a means to becoming a better oil painter. So, when I saw that Mark Silvers was offering a watercolor class this spring, I decided to enroll. As an artist (and also just as a person) I think it is vitally important to stretch oneself, keep taking risks, and keep exploring in life. For me, painting in watercolor is an enormous stretch, and it has been simultaneously difficult and rewarding. The feeling of being a beginner and having to re-approach painting has reminded me of the most important lessons I've learned about being an artist.
Golf Courses Gone Bad, or Why it is Easy to Stop Making Art
If you created art in late elementary school, and if you wanted to draw a realistic face that ended up looking contrived, overworked, and a little alien, or had eyelids made of armor, or looked unfortunately like a Chuckie doll, you will know what I mean when I say that it is easy to set down your pencil. I think there is an implication in play that says, if you cannot create this, you are not able to achieve your artistic vision. It is a profoundly discouraging experience.
For me the bad experience came not attached to drawing, but to painting. My aversion to watercolor set in after a particularly unfortunate painting experience at a place called the Mad Russian. I was in my late elementary school years, and at that time, I often accompanied my mom, a Realtor, on various outings. I had already clocked some quality time at the Mad Russian, and decided to paint landscapes of the golf course while I waited for her. These would be delightful to have now, but I do not know if my paintings survived my dislike of them. I had a beautiful set of *real* Niji brand watercolors, which came in tubes, and I set off to paint all the glories my eyes could behold. Only, my paintings turned out horrendously-- a word that, when related to art, needs some qualification. Horrendous just means something that departs from what you were hoping for, and which you cannot bring yourself to like later. I doubt I would find them as horrendous now, but at the time, I had no idea how to achieve my vision. I had no idea how to use watercolor, and what I ended up with was an loose conglomeration of daub-trees, over-green lawn slabs, and ugly red flags with thick black poles (with a bit of wobble in the thickness of the paint-line) marking the golf holes. I was so mad.
After what I thought were plenty of attempts (in reality, probably I should have taken my number of attempts and multiplied it by 20), I gave up on the whole enterprise.
It would be years before I rediscovered painting, but many more years before I had any interest in revisiting watercolor.
And oddly enough, the spark that reignited my life as a painter so many years ago, came from my current watercolor teacher.
Rediscovery: When You Realize You're an Artist
It is so easy to forget you are an artist, and so easy to give up in learning the language of your own work. Like learning any language, you start out sounding terrible. Your vocabulary is limited. People might make comments or make fun of you. You probably want to quit. ...Unless you are one of the people who can't quit. Or doesn't quit for whatever reason. If you find that the desire will not die, you are an artist.
Some years passed and I did not paint very much. In junior high I had an interest in animation and also in sculpture, and I would pause animated movies to draw the characters and get a sense of their look in three dimensional space. That is also where I first began to explore emotion in faces as well. Once, I created a three dimensional sculpture out of clay based on the studies I had made of the two-dimensional character. In that churning fire storm that is junior high, I didn't think very much about fine art.
When I was about fourteen, a friend of mine lent me a copy of My Name is Asher Lev, which belonged to his father, who was an artist.
The story, which is about a Jewish boy who is an artist, resonated with me at that time, and it felt like I had remembered something long forgotten: that I *was* an artist. Being an artist is a strange thing. It doesn't actually matter if you've been painting (or whatever is your art form of choice), but it means you must begin. Or in my case, begin again.
As it happens, the friend's father who was an artist is actually my current watercolor teacher. I may have only met him once at the time I read the book, and I had no idea then that I would be learning from him now.
The Lost Art of Being a Beginner
When I think of being a beginner, I think of enthusiasm: you are five and can't wait to do something and jump in double-fisted. But when you start adding digits in front of that five-- even at 15-- it becomes harder to begin and keep going without self judgement. Not everybody has this experience, but I think many of us do. Now when I think about being a beginner, there is a dose of humility that seems to be a prerequisite. You get to feel like you are five, because the things you make may in fact look about that accomplished. But, in that process also lies the path of discovery. That is the only road to finding new vistas.
The secret to life as an artist is to begin. And when necessary, begin again. And to keep going, no matter what.
The secret is to stretch and grow into the unknown. It's to embrace the feeling of being five, so that you can find the next vista, the next new territory.
I decided to take a class in watercolor to become a better painter, even though I knew the experience would put me back in my late-elementary school shoes with those awful Niji watercolors and those ugly golf-course poles. I also knew that an opportunity to learn watercolor from Mark Silvers was not one to be missed.
For me, watercolor is a new frontier, which will in turn affect the way I paint in oil. So expanding into new territory opens up vista upon vista. Who knows, you might see me out painting those off-the-cuff landscapes I've been dreaming of whipping up. And who knows, you might decide to join me.
You can check out Mark Silvers' watercolor work here: Mark Silvers Fine Art