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06/02/2006 Archived Entry: "Baby steps in artwork"

ONE THING I'M DOING DURING MY YEAR OF SILENCE: trying to recapture old, lost art skills. It's frustrating. I've been embarrassed by my baby steps. Baby steps. At my age. Gnrrr. More times than I care to admit, I've almost given it up as a bad job.

A couple miles from Cabin Sweet Cabin, there's this ancient tree stump, probably 12 feet tall and nearly as wide. Bleached gray with age, partially rotted away, its root structure exposed, it's a fantasyland of gnarls, cracks, whorls, knots, and hollows. Yesterday I promised myself I'd draw a portion of it. And I tried. And tried some more.

Once again, I nearly decided that the only thing I'm good for is slapping words around.

On my third try, working mostly with gray pastels and a handful of colors, something emerged. I know it's amateur work. But I must admit I'm outlandishly proud of this particular baby step. Hey, maybe I've even made it to toddler, at last.

It's the first thing I've thought good enough to share. Enjoy (I hope).

TreeStumpPastel_0601060002 (54k image)

I wouldn't have even gotten this far without The Artist's Way. And Vincent van Gogh.

I always think my work should be wonderful, right off the bat. I've unconsciously shared a cultural assumption -- that art is a matter mainly of talent -- that technique can be learned, but the real skill is inborn. In other words, if you've "got it," it'll show the moment you pick up a pencil or a paint brush. If you pick up that implement of creation and your first work sucks, then forget it. Go become a software engineer. Or a garbage collector. Or a word weaver.

In The Artist's Way, that extremely helpful book, Julia Cameron keeps telling blocked creatives, "You've got to let yourself be bad if you're ever going to get good." I only sort of believed that. I wanted to believe that. I still really believed that good artists are good all the time.

Then a couple weeks ago, I picked up a biography of Vincent van Gogh. Years ago, I was privileged to see an exhibit of van Gogh's work. To say I was blown away is like saying an a-bomb produces a modest blast. I made my way around the exhibition, which was in chronological order from the dark, dreary, early Dutch drawings and paintings to the glorious, half-mad, totally mad outbursts of color van Gogh produced in his final two years.

The paintings became more vivid as viewers progressed through the galleries. I stood before "Crows Over a Wheat Field," (which legend says is the last thing he painted before committing suicide) and I could hardly take it in. If you've seen those late van Gogh paintings in books, trust me, you haven't really seen them. You have to stand in front of them. And even then, eyes simply weren't made to take in so much. I staggered out of that museum, wiped out.

What I didn't know, but what I saw in the biography, was that when van Gogh decided, at age 27, that he was going to be an artist, he couldn't draw or paint at all.

He did come from an artistic family. A couple of his childhood drawings show so much skill that he surely copied them or perhaps is credited with work his talented mother actually did. Because at 27, his drawings were about as good as a modestly skilled 12-year-old's. They sucked. I'd have advised him to follow a career in sanitation engineering. Ten years later ... sheer &^%$#@ing, mind-blowing genius.

I'll never be a genius. Because unlike van Gogh, I'm not a fanatic. He spent the next 10 years of his life begging money from his devoted brother Theo so that he could paint, paint, paint, and do nothing else. When he had to choose between buying food and buying paint, he chose paint. In his final months of suicidal madness, he tried to eat paint and drink his artist's turpentine. Uh ... not behaviors I'd want to emulate, thank you.

Nope. No genius for me. But I've made it from baby-falling-on-its-ass steps to two-year-old-brat stage with my little boxes of pastels. And that's farther than I believed I'd get, even as late as yesterday morning when I was making those awful feeble starts.

Now ... is there anything you've been wanting to do that you fear to tackle because it might be risky or you might not be good enough?

Think on it while I work my way into kindergarten.

Oh yeah, you notice that one odd, very light branch/root/erosional remnant (whatever it is) off to the left? That's the reason I chose to draw this section of the stump. It looked like a dog, standing up and begging, holding a ball in its mouth. :-)

Posted by Claire @ 11:30 AM CST

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