Face to Face With My Comfort Zone (part 2)

webBLOG-6-me

Now that I’ve got the itch to get back in the classroom I signed up for another workshop: “Making Faces with Charlie Levin”.

The months passed and boy was I excited!  As the weekend drew nearer I began researching Charlie’s work and chatted anyone’s ear off who’d listen about my upcoming adventure.  I had prepared extra boards to bring because I just knew I’d blow through them like popcorn.  The day before the workshop I began researching portrait work that I found inspiring. For my reference material I had printed out a small collection of Francis Bacon’s self-portraits as well as one of my favorite paintings by Johannes Vermeer, “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.  My proverbial bags were packed.

The next day driving to Wax Works West I had my radio on full blast, “I’M WALKIN’ ON SUNSHINE! WO-OAH!” When I arrived and smelled the delightful aroma of melted beeswax the butterflies in my stomach were flitting every which way. Man, I was pumped! After the usual meet and greet we were able to watch Charlie in action. She spoke about line work, seeing the face sculpturally in terms of facial planes, shading techniques, proportions, and how to use this information to define a specific face. After watching her translate this information into an encaustic painting I was chomping at the bit to get my hand in some wax (figuratively speaking of course). We were allowed to begin practicing the demonstrated techniques and loosen up.  The picture above was my first piece of the day where I practiced integrating each technique.  Yeah!  Point for Jaya!webBLOG-6-sketches

I also enjoyed working on thumbnail sketches.  Multiple renderings of the same face helps you become very familiar with facial features, shapes, planes, shadows, etc…I easily forget how much I enjoy just sketching (note to self: do more of that).  Initially we worked from high-contrast photos with dramatic lighting but eventually we sketched from very flat-looking, blurry photos as well.  She touched on a point that I thought was very important: draw what you’re seeing verses what you think you see.  I appreciated the challenge and was instructed to stick with the soft, blurry photos for my reference.  Charlie handed me a very alien-looking out of focus photo of a child, “Try this one out!”  I wasn’t fond of the image so I put it aside and found a soft-looking black and white image of a geisha.  This one was also blurry and flat so I decided to practice from her.

webBLOG-6-geisha-1I felt I was quite familiar with this geisha by the time we jumped into the wax.  We continued with the thumbnail theme and worked on 3″x3″ Bristol paper.  This was a challenge in of itself – I had never really sketched with wax before and I was using an Enkaustiko’s slanted bristle brush which was quickly becoming my new best friend.  Working so small forced you to not get lost in the details.  And don’t even think about fusing!  I am the fuse queen – smooth seamless wax surfaces?  Fuget about it!  Charlie’s work is super textured with dynamic brushstrokes and she doesn’t worry about fusing her pieces.  So for two days I put the torch on the back burner (pun intended) and embraced the textured brushstroke.  What I learned from the geisha was that I was working too opaquely.  I could build up layers of un-pigmented wax medium instead of just laying down WHITE.  This was an eye-opening revelation.  Take a closer look at the 3 geisha thumbnails.  (left) My first attempt (middle) Charlie’s example (right) my second attempt.  There are two sides to the coin with this type of layering.  On the one side you can build up beautifully transparent layered highlights.  On the flip side the build up creates a 3D effect.  Did I mention how I covet the flat encaustic surface?  By building up these layers I totally had to release the flat surface.  Tough to do, but hey, I came here to learn so flat surface OUT THE WINDOW!  Smooth brushstrokes OUT THE WINDOW!  Fusing OUT THE WINDOW!  Charlie came by and gave me some advice and instruction, “Why don’t you give this one a whirl?”  Out comes the blurry alien child and once again I feel my blood pressure rising.  I thought to myself, “I don’t like this picture.  I don’t like babies.  It’s not that I couldn’t paint this picture – I could paint it if I wanted to.  I just don’t want to.  I hate this picture!”  Once again I put it aside.

webBLOG-6-portrait
“Sweet Little Bullet” detail. Gouache on panel. In my comfort zone.
webBLOG-6-bearded-man
Encaustic studies. Out of my comfort zone.

Day 2:  By this time I realized that my masterpiece study of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” wasn’t going to happen.   I was also secretly disappointed that I hadn’t painted anything “pretty”, especially because I’m darn good at painting portraits and I know my way around encaustics!  I can paint a rockin’ portrait!  I teach encaustics – I should know how to do this stuff!  What are the other students thinking when they look at my pieces?  How come this is so hard?!

Ahhh there it is…My comfort zone!

Oh internal dialog how ridiculous you are, but thank you for being there to remind me that I need to get back on track.  Let me summarize the above paragraph:  I don’t know about you but artistically speaking I hold myself to a very high standard.  I teach art so I should know what the heck I’m doing.  This means I must produce “good” pieces.  What does a good piece of art look like?  Something produced with skill.  What I had been working on was not skillful therefore it was “bad”.  My encaustic comfort zone is creating smooth surfaces with calculated brushstrokes.  When you are in your comfort zone there is no room to grow, I mean, why would you need to?  You are already good at whatever it is that you’re doing.  In your comfort zone you can paint pretty pictures ’till the cows come home.  When you are out of your comfort zone it feels uncomfortable, unnatural, and awkward because you are in unfamiliar territory.  Only then when you are faced with a challenge do you have the opportunity for personal growth, to learn new skills.  It was at the beginning of day 2 that I realized I was way out of my comfort zone.  Well about time – now I can get down to business!

My frame of mind changed instantly.  I am in Charlie’s class and I am going to learn what Charlie has to teach how Charlie’s going to teach it.  Where’s that alien baby head?  I spent the remainder of the class practicing the same techniques, only this time I didn’t care if the final product looked “good”.  I was really able to let loose.  During the rest of the day I thought about the many parallels between taking this class and my own students.  It was like a spotlight was flipped on:   practice what you preach.  A common quote of mine is “We are not here to re-create the Mona Lisa”.  At the beginning of each of my classes or workshops I make it very clear that I could care less if you paint a beautiful picture.  All that matters is that you understand the techniques.  Mastering the techniques will allow you to paint a hundred beautiful paintings on your own outside of the classroom.  This, of course, does not stop the attempt of painting something pretty.  Soon the “frame-worthy” painting attempt takes over and technique takes a backseat.  Some students come into class with an agenda (to paint a pretty picture to hang on the wall) and these students will have the toughest time.  Here I am coming into this workshop with my Vermeer print out and my multitude of extra panels.  Talk about an agenda!  me-and-charlie

Once I came face-to-face with my comfort zone I was able to recognize it and change my frame of mine, thus totally shifting my classroom experience.  Something I wasn’t expecting to gain from this workshop was a renewed appreciation for my own students.  Every class they come to I take it as my responsibility as a teacher to challenge them and in doing so provide them with room to grow.  And they keep coming back!  That says a lot about their bravery to face their own comfort zones.  By the end of the “Making Faces” workshop I felt honored that my students keep coming back to paint un-pretty pictures.  I can only hope that I am brave enough in my future learning experiences to continue to face my own comfort zone.  Only in this way will I breakthrough to new artistic heights.

Thank you Charlie Levin!

Face to Face With My Comfort Zone (part 1)

Thanks for tuning in!    Before I jump into my own personal experience I thought I’d first build a little foundation.  I decided to break the subject of the “comfort zone” into two parts to really emphasize the importance of this phenomenon.

I taught a watercolor workshop over the summer called “Kick Start Your Creativity”. It was a fairly intense 3 days. Aside from watercolor technique the underlying focus of the workshop was breaking through creative roadblocks and reconnecting to inner creative impulses. It was a very personal workshop where each student was confronted with their “comfort zones” and worked to overcome them. I’ll tell ya, these gals followed me down the rabbit hole and out the other side. It was an awesome and emotional experience and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The COMFORT ZONE is a cozy word for “trap”. It is a very alluring place to be. It’s a safety blanket. It’s “pretty”. It’s also a cage with golden bars. Everybody has their own comfy, toasty, delicious little comfort zones. An ongoing exercise in the workshop was learning how to recognize them. This is the first step to breaking through them.

me-paintingArtistically speaking let me give you an example: The painter sits down to her canvas and paints a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I mean it’s breathtaking. Perfectly composed with masterfully rendered petals, soft light, thoughtful colors, the works. She looks at the painting and decides it’s finished. She places the canvas on a stack of other beautiful floral paintings and decides to make herself a cup of coffee. In the kitchen she stirs in her sugar as she looks at her other lovely bouquets hanging on the wall and sighs. She decides to take a walk so she grabs her coat from the closet; she needs to move a few more of those gorgeous paintings out of the way to reach her jacket. Outside she strolls down the street to a café and orders a sandwich. There is some local art and photos hanging on the wall so while she waits for her turkey club she looks at them. They’re not finessed gallery-quality pieces but she is drawn in nonetheless. The black and white photos are simple and the paintings are bold. She is mesmerized by the different-ness of the art and is inspired. She takes her sandwich back home and brings it into her studio. Rejuvenated from her outing she decides to try something new, pulls out a blank canvas and begins to paint. BAM! Bold colors. BAM! Big brush strokes. BAM! She shoots from the hip. A couple hours into the painting she’s feeling pretty good so she stands back to assess her progress. After a few moments in front of the canvas her thoughts wander…“Will people like this? Will this sell? What if this doesn’t work? Hmmm…I’m not too sure about this.” She begins to tighten up a few of the brushstrokes here and there. Soon her abstract brush strokes begin to resemble petals. “OK, this is more like it.” This feels a little more familiar so she continues. The initial bold brush strokes are eventually whittled down and the raw colors become over-thought. After another hour she steps back to look at her work and she sighs. She takes the canvas off the easel and leans it on the wall next to her other pretty paintings.

Yes, this piece was different from her usual work but it lost the initial energy she felt when she first sat down. The sense of adventure, the new-ness, got too scary and she fell back into a safe place. She knows she can paint a successful floral so she began using those tools to get her back on track. There’s nothing wrong with using the tools you have, but when they become your default you can be stunted by “what you do well”. Of course this example goes beyond the floral painter who wants to loosen up, beyond the abstract artist who wants to try photorealism, or the classical violinist who has always wanted to experiment with jazz. I most certainly have my own comfort zones, heck I even have comfort colors! Never fear, Jaya – Green Gold to the rescue! I work on recognizing my little “safety nets” and then I confront them head on. If you never challenge yourself, how do you grow? How do you reach your full potential? I mean, it’s your own personal glass ceiling and the funny thing is the more you work on your craft the clearer it becomes. You’re on the inside looking out and it’s a beautiful day outside.

PART 2 of “Face to Face With My Comfort Zone” continues next week with my adventure in Charlie Levin’s encaustic class…

 

So you think you want to start a painting?

Part 1

My cousin is getting married later this month and smart me thought, “I’ll make her a painting!” Nothing like a personal from-the-heart gift to celebrate that once in a lifetime union to your soul mate. It’s either that or a gravy boat. So I asked her what their favorite colors are. I got back fuchsia or a burnt red for her (that’ll work! I like red) and…black. Really?! It’s just like a boy to like BLACK. Couldn’t you be a little more creative? So here I go thinking to myself, maybe by “black” he really means “aqua” or a lovely “spring green”. Who’ll notice? No more fooling myself – I’ve got to work with red and black and NOT make it look like the apocalypse. The gravy boat’s not looking so bad now…

While writing this post I began thinking about artist’s processes. I realize that I am very methodical in how I prepare to paint. Whatever the subject matter, style, size, or medium I always start the same way. To embark on my red and black challenge I begin by organizing myself.

BLOG-2---materials

GATHER MATERIALS: I pick out a canvas. I have a plethora of unfinished paintings that I look through. I know I want an elongated canvas and I find a half-finished 10 x 30 with owls on a blue background. Remember when the owl craze started? I’m a little late to that party now so no problem, I gesso over the owls with my favorite Golden brand gesso. Next I look through my black & white collage papers (ok, now the juices are flowing – maybe black’s not SO bad…), I choose a limited paint selection, a few brushes, and some mixed media accents (water-soluble crayons, gold leaf, gel & pouring mediums).

PREPARE MY WORKSPACE: Set up my easel and supplies. I position my easel to the correct height and since I’m right handed I put my palette and water bucket on my right (I see so many artists struggle with their workspaces – they’ll reach over themselves to mix paint, the easel will be too low or too high. Make it easy on yourself and really look at how you have your space set up!)

TAKE CARE OF MYSELF: I eat a quick lunch, put the animals outside, get some laundry going (for some reason I feel more productive if I have some clothes in the wash), and finally use the restroom. This sets me up for the least amount of interruptions (at least the ones that are under my control).

Preparing to paint is also a creative process. Looking through your paints and tools should be inspiring. It should make you think about where you want to go with your piece, and perhaps a new possibility that you hadn’t thought of before. Workspace is equally important. Even if you only have a corner of a studio apartment – you can transform it into an inspiring area. Turn it into a place where you want to create, not only that, a place where you can create effectively and easily. Clear away anything that does not get your juices flowing. “Only creative stuff is allowed in this 3 foot square corner of the room.” When you sit down to paint, draw, write, sing, whittle, design cat outfits, do so without any excuse to stop. An innocent trip to the restroom can easily be sidetracked and you end up cleaning the entire bathroom. So take care of yourself first!

Part 2 “The Creative Process” to follow next week!

 

Happy Birthday to “The Fearless Painter”

To be honest,  I don’t follow anyone’s blog.  Ok, that’s not true,   let’s be REALLY honest – when I decided to start my OWN blog I researched “Successful Blogging” and found someone who sounded pretty smart so I figured I’d “follow” him.  Maybe it’s the submissive stigma of “following” in lieu of “leading” and I think, “Well, why should I follow anybody?  I should be leading the pack!  I know what the f*** I’m talking about!  Why should I ‘follow’ anyone else?”  Well, geez, maybe I should get my ego in check…hence I began ‘following’ someone who sounded somewhat interesting and maybe I could learn something.   I can only imagine that I’m not the only visual artist who was pulled kicking and screaming into social media.  I’d rather spend my days creating art rather than taking selfies in front of what I ate for breakfast.  I mean really, who needs to know that I like to mix my Special K Protein flakes with my Special K red berries cereal? I’m still unsure of what “Twittering” is (or is it “twerking”?).  I like birds so maybe it’s up my alley.   In the blog I began following it was suggested that I limit my writing time to no more than 2 hours so I figured I’d test the waters and begin by typing for just 1.  Over the past few months I’ve been fleshing out my blog in my mind, because lord knows I’ve got to be prepared before baring my soul in front of the world wide web.  What should I title my blog?  What should be my focus?  How often should I post and how long should my posts be?  How on earth can I be committed to such an undertaking?  There’s a responsibility to blogging and good grief are my standards high.

To give you a little background:  I work at an art store pretty much full time.  On my days off I teach art workshops and classes.  When I’m not teaching an art class I’m preparing for the class by testing out techniques and making what I like to call “sample boards”.  When I’m not doing any of the above I get to truly explore what I love, live and breathe:  art.  A few weeks ago I taught a workshop at the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society and the undercurrent of the workshop was fear in the face of creating art or vice versa:  creating art in the face of fear. Potato potAto.   It was intense and amazing and I was honored to lead the students through uncertain waters.  I mentioned to the group that I was going to begin a blog.  The only thing stopping me from beginning this venture was the lack of a name.  For some reason I thought it important for my blog to have a proper name.  I couldn’t possibly start this project without a name.  Plus, it has to be the right name, the “correct” name, a name bestowed upon it from the heavens above.  Without this PERFECT name the blog cannot be in existence.  That was when I caught the tiger by the toe.  There it is again, my buddy that puts up the all-familiar roadblock to something potentially exciting and personal and quite possibly life-changing:  perfection.  So if perfection is the only thing that’s stopping me from writing this blog – screw that and here goes…

This is my art blog that focuses on painting as “survival” vs. art as “inspiration”.  We can simplify this further: painting vs. art.  Painting in the face of fear, perfection, selling, john-Q-public and ego is a different game than art for creation’s sake.  Learning from your pieces, painting for the hell of it and loving the process more than the outcome is by far more rewarding and what I consider ART.  I decided to draw up a little contract (mostly for myself) to put my intentions out into the world:  In my future writings I will:

  • cover my personal art processes, inspirations, and road-blocks through the painting media that “suits my fancy”.
  • Post on average once a week.
  • Type for no more than 2 hours.
  • Post pictures and videos.
  • Give myself permission to misspell words.
  • Veer off topic from time to time.
  • Not beat myself up.

That being said, Happy birthday to “The Fearless Painter”!