The learning process is a subtle thing. Sometimes it is an even flow of increasing skills, and then other times it is an epiphany. The epiphany happens when you are doing something and all of a sudden, it all makes sense. It is a WOW moment. However, most of the time it is the daily grind that gets us to where we want to go. The epiphanies are a nice, fulfilling experience, but I think the daily drudge is what really counts-and I suspect it is the drudge that brings those epiphanies on.
I don't spend much time thinking about "my" skill and creativity. They are what they are-better than some, less than others. But I do think about learning, and what is happening in my brain when I learn. Learning is a slow process, and it doesn't happen overnight. It happens a little bit at a time and is almost imperceptible. But it does happen. The trick is to understand that it is happening-to understand that we have grown as artists-because if we can't understand that, our artist life is not much fun.
Many years ago, I ran marathons-I still run some miles, but I'm more sane about it these days. When I was involved in that training, the folks that knew something about that deal said that we went from one plateau to another. We would train and get better, but then we would hit a plateau-and stay there for some time period. But eventually, we would get past that plateau-and jump a notch. But it only happened if we kept working hard.
I think art is like that. We work hard, we struggle, we fight, and we seem to improve a little, and then one day we get off of that plateau. We make the jump to a new level. How did that happen? Well, it happened because we had been doing the daily drudge-trying to make the best of our art. We were diligent-we worked when things weren't always going our way. All those efforts added up to that jump.
Learning is like that-and I think that creativity is like that. "Creativity" seems to have developed this mystical persona. Too bad, because creativity isn't mystical--it is concrete, and it comes with learning. It has to build and grow. Creativity without information is a chimera-you can't be creative unless you know something-unless you have some experience. You cannot be creative without context. There is a lot written about creative ability, but I would posit that it would be impossible to be creative unless we had learned (the daily drudge) at some level. No one is born and can do art without some level of education and culture. There are natural abilities, but unless those natural abilities are acted upon at some level, they will come to naught.
So, it really comes down to the fight to learn-to interact with our culture, to understand and master technique. Some of us have lesser natural abilities, but are willing to work hard. Others have great natural ability, but don't have that work ethic. Who knows what combination each of us has, but we should think about it. Who are we-are we high naturals, medium naturals, low naturals. Are we hard workers, medium workers, or low workers? I don't suppose we can do a lot about our natural ability, but I think we can do something about how hard we are willing to work.
We should understand the nature of learning. It isn't a magic thing-it is a matter of doing. If we do something and do it often enough, we will learn and get better. We may not be great artists-and then again we may-but what are we willing to do to find out? Learning is about doing-doing, and doing more. You have to be willing to invest in the doing, good or bad. And you have to keep doing-good or bad. That is the only way.
So what price are you willing to pay to become a better artist?
I never cease to be amazed at this artist life. I've talked about learning and practicing in other epistles on this page. Most of the time we don't learn BIG, we just learn bunches of little things, and at some point, all those little things turn into a BIG THING.
It is when the little things turn into a BIG THING that it gets my attention. I do this life drawing class on Wednesday nights and the artist that rides with me to class is like a brain surgeon when it comes to pencil and drawing--she does lithographs--she is also a junior high art teacher. Our ride to class is about 30 minutes and during the ride we talk about school and art. We have been doing this for three years now, and one of the things she stresses with her art classes is the nature of reflected light. She has been telling me this for three years--I understand reflected light--well I thought I did. I was intellectually processing what she was saying about reflected light without really coming to grips with it.
Then, two weeks ago it hit, I mean it hit me like--like you are asleep, bolt awake and sit upright in bed, remembering you forgot to do something very, very important. I had been processing it, but I hadn't been understanding it at the gut level.
I love that bolt upright feeling when I understand, but most of the time I'm ashamed that it took me so damn long--DUH--I get it.
There are many reasons I like watercolor and probably what most appeals to me is what you can do with value. The light reflecting properties of the paper and the transparent nature of the pigments is something that just can't be had with any other medium. Color was secondary to me--I acknowledged it, but didn't pay it any special attention.
Then last spring I was fly fishing with my two sons down on Lee's Ferry, at the head of the Grand Canyon and below the Glen Canyon Dam. One sunny afternoon we were sitting down by the river and I was looking at the canyon walls. I mean I was really looking. Slowly the neurons in my brain started to connect--it kind of evolved in slow motion and all of a sudden I had this blinding flash of what was happening with color. I understood that it was all around me and I hadn't been really seeing it. I'm not talking about just general colors that we see--green grass--blue sky, I'm talking about those subtle colors we never process. It was another "Bolt Upright" feeling--I smiled to myself and wondered how I had been so dense as to not understand sooner.
That is the artist life to me, it is the learning and understanding, the "Bolt Upright" happenings that make it so special. I can't count the times it has happened and I've had to say "DUH" to myself. Sometimes I feel pretty damn stupid--not having figured it out sooner. Of course if it was so easy, then it wouldn't be worth doing--would it?
Other than being an artist, I'm a school teacher. It seems I've been assigned a new class for this coming semester--a study skills class. I'm an art and mathematics teacher, and I'm not sure this new class is in my repertoire, but being the person I am, I will give it a go.
The class brings to mind some thoughts of youth today and youth of yesterday. I have this quote that I keep in close to me at school. It goes something like this: "Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers." This was written by Socrates in 420 B.C.
I think that quote puts things in perspective. Generations have been saying such things and the world goes on. When I was young, it was rock and roll--preachers were decrying the wickedness of such a thing and talking about how it would ruin the youth of the day. We survived all that wickedness, and even though I wasn't privy to what the teachers were saying, I suspect their comments were on the order of, "students just aren't like they used to be; they work less and don't seem to care about learning. They have no respect for authority and are worthless." Yeah, that was for my generation.
These days, I hear adults voice the same concerns. What I can't figure out is how the world continues to survive--since I know this has been going on since 420 B.C. What is working here? I mean I woke up this morning, crawled out of bed, climbed into the shower with nice hot water, while my programmed heating system came on 30 minutes before I got up. Before getting my shower, I stumbled downstairs, pulled out my Starbuck's beans and put them in the grinder so that I could load them in the automatic coffee maker. After my shower, I went to my closet and pulled out clothes that had been washed in my automatic washer and dryer. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. All those amenities have come about with my degenerate generation somewhat in charge.
Kids today are no different than kids of yesterday--except they probably learn more and work harder in school than we ever did. It is a fact that they (the testing authorities) keep renorming IQ tests because if they didn't, the normal curve would be skewed to the high end. What I think is happening--my opinion--is that kids grow up and become adults and then think their kids should be acting like the adults they became. Of course it doesn't work that way.
Our brains are wonderful, but they just don't log all the stuff that goes in, especially the stuff we want to forget. Ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years later, it is hard to remember how weird we were as kids. We are adults and that is incompatible with being a kid--or you would still be a kid. I say, trust history as we know it. Generations come and go, life goes on and gets better. That speaks loudly--kids that are worthless become adults that are pretty competent. From what I see, we should all relax--the youth of today isn't so bad after all--it is the adults that need a reality check.
Observing and Thinking
As a teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about learning and what it entails. As artists we have a special interest in learning--I sometimes think that art is the ultimate learning experience. I donít suppose Iím of the camp that thinks art is something mystical--the ultimate in right hemisphere gobbledygook.
Art is observing, thinking, doing--observing, thinking, doing, on and on. Of course, that is what learning is about. Great paintings donít come out of the thin air of the right hemisphere mystical experience. They come from deep conscious thought and practice.
Before we ever pick up a brush, we have to observe and think about what we observe. You donít just kind of look at things, you look deeply, analyzing line, value, shape, color, and about anything else you can consciously define about a particular subject--including its emotional relevance to you as an artist. It is not a halfway thing--it is an in-depth emersion.
Once we paint, we must deal with two things--our ability with our medium and whether we really understand the subject. You can have the greatest technical ability but misunderstand your subject and fail. By the same token, you can have the greatest understanding of the subject, but be deficient in your technical ability--another failure. It is a vital dance, this combination of technical ability and understanding.
They both require the utmost in learning. When we look deeply and understand what we are seeing, we learn. When we paint, we are learning lessons moment by moment and each lesson improves our technical ability. In each endeavor, we do, we observe, and we think. Whether we succeed or fail, we must think--think about what went right or what went wrong. We process that information and work on our understanding of the subject, or work on our technical ability, or work on both.
We live or die as artists by how well we learn. That is the way I see it.