Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Self-Taught or Not?

For the longest time I had considered myself "self-taught," and it was out of honesty, pride, and even humility that I made that statement. I didn't have a degree in art or much formal training, and the little formal training I did have did not make significant changes to my existing abilities. But this outlook changed after I picked up my college diploma last summer. I could no longer in truth say I didn't have an art education, even if most of my skills were acquired before the formal instruction. That left me wondering "Am I still self-taught? Was I ever self-taught in actuality?"

Contemplation of such a concept led me to evaluate what I had learned at university, what I had known before then, and how I had learned each of the skills and lessons that I employ so regularly. In this introspection I decided that no one is truly self-taught. More appropriately, we are either self-guided or formally-taught. Perhaps that is just arguing semantics, but I think it is a more accurate statement that affords added honesty.

Being "self-taught" makes it sound like one had no outside influences and learned everything entirely on their own as if they had been locked in a room with paint, brushes, and canvas figuring out what colors make other colors, how to draw shapes, etc. That is nobody's reality. We were all taught the language we speak, and we were all taught the skills we possess, and art is indeed a language as it is a way of expression.

Think about how we learn language. Our parents help us shape sounds into words. Later, this is refined in school. We begin to learn slang from our peers, and invent our own phrases and references based on our personal and cultural experiences. In higher education, we are taught how to present arguments and clarify our language so it is more easily understood by others... We don't start babbling one day and teach ourselves our native tongue the next. We may seek out exploration on our own, but we are also trained by being assessed, corrected, challenged, and introduced by many outside influences. If you are someone who has acquired most of what you know without the help of formal training that's incredible, but you most likely learned each piece from somewhere either consciously or not. Some of what I have discovered for my own experience is...

  • My father taught me how to prepare my masonite boards, clean my brushes, and open gummed up old paint tubes. 
  • Following along with Bob Ross taught me brush strokes.
  • Intuition taught me the "golden triangle," and something else (don't remember what) taught me it is called the "golden triangle." 
  • Observation and my own grade school doodles taught me perspective, but art school refined it. 
  • Trial and error taught me too many things to name.
  • The art academy oil painting class taught me I hate using course bristle brushes, that you have to be careful about toxicity, and that holding a brush toward the end reduces hand fatigue. 
  • State school taught me that I know myself, but I also need to shut up and just try something, and to keep at it even if it's frustrating. 
  • Experience has taught me that yes, quality of materials does matter, but there is a margin of diminishing returns as well. 
  • An inherited creative streak taught me to keep trying. 
  • Self acceptance and peer support taught me that there is nothing wrong with creating what I love and have passion for, regardless of what mainstream media or the over-inflated egos of big city critics might have to say. 
  • Music taught me rhythm, and that it's okay to not confine yourself to one style if you're capable of more; to explore feeling, not popularity, and to not abandon who you are inside. 
  • History has given me inspiration and the technology of better and easily accessed materials.

I didn't teach myself the skills acquired outside of school. Instead, I consciously made choices to guide myself towards experiences that would support my goals as a creative. I sought out or accepted individual experiences that gave me a piecemeal, informal education.

With all that being said, yes, I believe there are people out there who are genuinely self-taught, who have this innate savant-like ability that most don't possess. But I'm sure if they were to think about it, they would discover the sources of their skill as well, or at least outside influences that helped them improve their art. For example, I didn't learn pencil drawing from anyone. I literally just picked up a mechanical pencil, sketch paper, and a photograph one day and let my brain create whatever it could. However, I did learn additional techniques from external sources later on, which improved my abilities, and I'm not sure I would have discovered them on my own. Getting instruction from others fast-tracks learning and progress.

What I am trying to say is this. All the little bits and pieces, the experiences and lessons we acquire result in the artists we become, and I think it is just a wee bit arrogant to say we are self-taught as that diminishes the influence the world has had on us. We are not beings hatched from a sterile environment and let out into the universe without any influences. We are products of nature and nurture. We make our choices and guide our path based on what inspires us within and without.

I know that using the term "self-taught" will continue to have the most effect on communicating whether we were formally trained or not; it's not likely to go out of use any time soon. But if I'm being as honest as I can be, I am "self guided" in my abilities: they are a mix of natural, acquired, and instructed skills learned from a variety of sources, all culminating into the work I create with them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Issues with Validation...

As an artist (and sensitive soul in general) I've always faced issues with validation, as most of us humans do. When I was younger, it ran my life. There were so many people to please, and in my teens it torn me up inside. It continued into my twenties, and it wasn't until my mid thirties when I rid myself of most of the obligation of pleasing others and the guilt of always disappointing them.

Early on, I felt constantly pulled in every direction but my own. My parents were divorced when I was about seven, and in my teens I split my time between my two parental units, my grandparents, and a boyfriend. They all wanted something different: they each had different expectations and rules which were often in conflict another. Art wasn't available as an escape. I didn't have any escape really. It was just survival mode with a haze of potential personal interests- hints of the future and who I was.

Without going into details, I realized there were certain people in my life who I would never be able to please, and the requirements to make them proud of me were beyond my desires or abilities, and in my late 20s I finally gave up trying to please them. Nothing changed as far as our relationships, but I was no longer burdened with the guilt or the weight of failing them.

Looking back, it's obvious that it wasn't about me, it was about them and their place in the world. Their ideals being misplaced and influenced by their own stress, uncertainties, and dissatisfaction with life. In fact, anyone who tells you not to pursue a dream is usually driven by fear or jealously. They may have your best interest in mind, but they are not coming from an unbiased mindset. What is one person's experience can serve as a lesson or a warning, but not always in the way intended Additionally, what was one person's reality may not be what you end up experiencing. Often naysayers are people who do not even work in your field, or people who have had their own dreams crushed by fear or disapproval. Perhaps they were not strong enough to fight for it, but you are.

My father always encouraged me, and made no demands other than to find happiness. He struggled in life with pain and with money, often giving his talent away which is something I've inherited and am trying to overcome. This stems from wanting to give everyone the chance at happiness and abundance, regardless of status or income. We figure "if I can provide even a tiny ray of sunshine that makes someone's day, the cost to myself can never be too great." But that is a dangerous fallacy. There are costs too great, dire even. We risk financial, emotional, and physical ruin without establishing boundaries or holding others to the same expectations they hold to us to. If we do not respect and love ourselves, how can we expect the same from others?

Up until only a few years ago, I was practically mute. Aside from being a shy introvert, I never opened my mouth unless I had something meaningful or useful to say, and when I did I was often unheard for one reason or another, being constantly vetoed by more dominant voices and personalities who spoke with authority. I bent to that authority, thinking they must have known better than me. Why else would they be so confident? I learned later what a farce that was. Chances are the louder the voice, the less authority that person has to speak on the subject.

What changed for me was feelings of validation. When I went back to college as a 33 year old, I had no idea what kind of student I was going to be. I'd been out of school for 15 years and hadn't done as great as I had wanted back then. I started slow, taking only two classes the first semester and increasing to four in the spring. My grades were good, exceptional actually, and that continued for the remainder of my education earning me a nearly perfect GPA. By sophomore year, I started to realize I wasn't the idiot I thought I was. I realized I had been talked over, trampled on, and overlooked because I had let it happen, not because I was of any less value compared to the others around me. And finally, I had something to say. Now there are times when I don't shut up, and my notebooks are loaded with creative projects to carry out. I've got all this passion to share with anyone who will listen, and I've been able to acquire peers with similar interests, or at least curiosity, that are willing to hear my voice.

This is not to say that the validation of others doesn't still affect me at times. A good example of this is last year's attempt at oil painting again. Just two blog posts back I had been exploring creating an under-painting for a self portrait. I was personally really satisfied by how the under-painting came out (hence why I posted about it), but those close to me said it was "too harsh" or didn't have any encouraging words. I was admittedly discouraged, but still curious so I continued and painted the oil color over it as planned.

I struggled. Getting the skin complexion of a ginger is hard even for the ginger who is painting it. You would think I'd have that figured out by now, but the reality is different. (I get so used to looking at people darker than me that the sight of my own pale visage in the mirror startles me sometimes.) The rest of the work was slow, being held back with my dissatisfaction with the skin. I can't help but think I've been subconsciously held back by the unenthusiastic comments concerning the under-painting I thought I had excelled at. If I didn't like how the (color) painting was turning out, then others certainly wouldn't either, causing me embarrassment and loss of self-esteem.

So it sits unfinished. I've moved on to other projects that will take less time and hopefully less struggle. I've considered redoing the whole thing but in color and in acrylics instead. It's caused me to be less excited about oil painting again, but I still plan to try. Just perhaps on another project.

Overall, however, I'm in a much better mindset than I used to be. I don't care so much what people think of the subject, but I still care about what people think of the craftsmanship or raw skill that goes into something. If a symphony is dissonant but expertly played to me that's much more important than a symphony that is intended to be consonant but poorly done. I cannot please everyone's taste, but I think I can at least earn their respect for the quality of the work. Therefore, I continue on with my own subject preferences no matter how cliche, morbid, unpopular, or discomforting they may be to others. I cannot be something I am not.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Triumph of Synchronicity

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I was reminded that Manowar's album Triumph of Steel was released 26 years ago today. The personal significance of this, besides making me feel a bit old, is that the anniversary of its release has made me realize that I've begun to come full circle back to when I first got this album in 1996/7.

When I was a teen in the mid-nineties, my exposure to the metal world was mostly to the  Thrash/Speed sub-genre. Since the internet wasn't what it is today, we relied on obtaining information and exposure from other people, MTV, VH1, Metal Edge magazine, interviews, special releases and boxed sets, as well as first hand experiences shared by word of mouth. Being introverted, shy, and a teen with very minimal funding, my exposure to other bands and genres were quite limited.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Self Portrait Acrylic Underpainting (Part 1)

When I was about ten years old, my father took me to the family home where he grew up along the rocky shores of coastal New England. At the time the house belonged to my dear uncle and aunt who had raised their children there, but the attic held remnants of past inhabitants. Among these items was an old set of oil paints that belonged to my father.

I've forgotten how it all came about exactly, but it seems that my dad had recognized my interest in art, perhaps even before I had become conscious of it. I was one of those lucky girls who had a father that encouraged her to explore her heart's curiosities; a trait he and I shared. Unfortunately, I also inherited his crippling passiveness which left me vulnerable to negativity and defenseless to authority, resulting in the limited faith I’ve had in my capabilities and personal worth in the world.

After retrieving the paint set and tossing any old paint that had dried up, my father gave me his paints and taught me the basics: how to prime Masonite panels (which he cut for me, and later taught me how to cut myself), mix paints, and clean brushes. I was on my own for the rest, but fortunately a friend of my father taped new Bob Ross episodes on VHS for me so I could learn to paint and take my time.

I had painted one big landscape (which I still have somewhere), and a few smaller pieces. I loved to paint mountains, evergreen trees, and water - a sure indication of what I would always consider paradise. To this day, I crave mountain vistas, and cannot fathom living away from a lake, the ocean, or at least a fresh running stream. And the trees... I have had nightmares of being without trees! There are plenty of oak, ash, and even birch trees around here, but not nearly enough pines, firs, and cedar for my liking. 

Unfortunately, for the last 25+ years, I haven't done much oil painting. I worked with it again in the early 2000s for one painting class, but because ventilation (and Teflon flooring) is needed, it just isn’t practical when living in rentals. But I’ve thought of it often, how satisfying it is, and vow to get back to it. Thanks to healthier solvents and cleaning alternatives, I am hoping to start painting in oils again.

I wanted to try to paint a portrait first. I had made my first [graphite pencil] portrait attempt in 2004 and was surprised by the results, but have since only done a handful of serious portrait attempts (in graphite). Since the human figure is now what I focus on in my personal work, I figured portraiture would be an enjoyable challenge. I decided to do a self-portrait because it would give me the best access to reference material, and historically it seems to be an unspoken requirement if you’re going to take yourself seriously as an artist. It reflects physical appearance, as well as personal background and style. Underpainting has been a technique I have wanted to try for a long time. It's what the masters often used, and it makes practical sense.

Layer One: Acrylic Underpainting (Grumbacher: White & Raw Umber)

This is only the finished underpainting. I think I went a little overboard with the detail. It's my understanding that underpaintings are not so tight and blended, but I am particular and wanted to do a good job. Plus, once you get in the zone things just happen. I just hope the oil paint layer doesn't completely ruin or negate all I've done so far. It is fairly dark and "harsh" right now, but I've tried to consider the transparency of the colors I will be using and how they will interact with the values on the underpainting. For example, if I were doing the composition in graphite pencil, I would have done the values differently and given a higher contrast between the skin and lips. However, red paint (applied to the lips) is translucent, whereas white (which will dominate the flesh) is opaque, therefore the skin will [theoretically] get brighter while the value on the lips will stay relatively as they are now with the underpainting coming through more in that portion of the painting. It’s definitely an experiment, and I hope my logic plays out well.

Honestly, I did this because I wanted to see what I could do. I had no idea if it was going turn out to be good or awful, but so far I'm satisfied and it's given me some hope for future paintings. It’s helping me expand in a direction that should bring me back to the type of art I have always loved, but wasn’t confident enough to create. So, in a way it's exploring in order to return home. As someone who suffers from hiraeth, the irony is not lost.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brighid (Brigid, Brigit, Bride, Brighde)

Brighid is probably the most well survived deity and her popularity spans across multiple religions. Her name has several variations depending on country, time, or incarnation. She is popular, to this day, with both Pagans and Catholics.

Some believe that she is or is related to the ancient Goddess Brigantia or Britannia, while others maintain that they are separate deities. The Romans equated Brigantia and Britannia with their Minerva (and Greek Athena), a deity that has incredibly similar associations to Brighid, so it really is no stretch of thought to consider that Brighid, Brigantia, and Britannia could be related or different variations of the same entity. She is most definitely related to the Catholic Saint Brigid, as their associations mirror each other. This is no surprise considering many Gods and Goddesses were adapted as Saints when the new religion of Christianity came to the British Isles.

Brighid is the daughter of the Dagda, but her mother remains unknown. She is half sister to Oengus, Bo Dearg, and others. Sources often say she is one of three sisters, all named Brighid. While this seems odd to our modern minds, it is a common theme in Celtic mythos. Many deities come in three, three incarnations of themselves. Sometimes they are easily defined separately but related because they have different names and related but different traits, other times not. In this case, the three Brighid sisters are responsible for poetry, healing, and smith craft. The number three is considered an ideal and powerful number. It seems that when something appears in threes, it signifies and amplification of power or importance on that subject or entity.

Brighid is associated with fire, the sun, hearth and home. She brings and cares for new life, spring, healing, cattle and livestock. She breeds and nurtures creativity through poetry, smithing and crafts, wisdom, battle skill, protection, and intelligence. She is truly an all encompassing figure. No wonder she is a favorite!

Her other associations include serpents, boars, wells, and milk. Her holy day is Imbolc, which takes place on February 1st, which is also St. Brigid's Day.

She was married to Bres, a Formiorian, no doubt a political marriage. Her son was named Ruadan, who dies fighting for the Formorians, and through her mourning she invents the practice of keening (crying and singing). She also initiated the use of whistling while traveling at night to keep in good communication.

Brighid has a sacred temple that was tended to by 19 women. No man was allowed to enter. There are stories where a daring man or two decided to test this, and ended up either insane or injured. Other stories include her birth and adoption by Druids and Christians, her healing abilities, and her wit. often the lines between Goddess, Druid, and Saint are blurred. There are many stories, and if you would like to read more about them or about Brighid herself, I humbly encourage you to read this book: Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint.