Mediocre Art

I subscribe to a Canadian magazine called Uppercase (for the creative and curious).  It’s about all kinds of creative things like letterpress, painting, fabric art, illustration, quilting, folk art, you name it.  Anything creative and artsy, it gets talked about in Uppercase.  The magazine is also generally a place for emerging visual artists to get “seen,” even if on a quarter page.  I love this magazine!  Issue 42 features an artist named Anika Lacerte who specializes in prints that deliver the message to “persevere through making a lot of art even when it doesn’t seem ‘good.’”  For instance, Lacerte’s print that is featured in Uppercase reads: “May you allow yourself to make lots of mediocre art.” 

One thing I have noticed since taking painting classes for the last couple years is that beginning and intermediate painters, including myself, tend to think that making a single “bad” painting means you are not capable of making a good one.  And that, therefore, you will not ever make a good painting in the future.  There’s a sense of panic that can set in when a piece isn’t going well, or when you make mistakes that have sort of compromised the thing.  But as one of my teachers always says, you have to make mistakes to improve as an artist. 

We all know this, but sometimes it IS difficult to keep in mind.  It must be something about the fact that things we MAKE feel like they are part of us–  represent us, or our capacities–  and when something is mediocre, then WE might feel mediocre.  I recently was working on a pretty simple watercolor of a notebook and a coffee mug, just a quick study, really.  But I made some less than ideal decisions about the composition, and about the elements surrounding the primary objects in the painting.  It turned out to be kind of bleh.  And it’s true, I got a little bummed out about it.  But the very next painting I made, which had a different subject matter, I was able to build upon and adjust my decisions about composition etc., specifically because that first painting had turned out a bit mediocre.  And the second one really did turn out to be much more satisfying and “successful” from a compositional stand point, etc.  Maybe what we ought to remind ourselves is that the more “bad” art we make, the better chance we have at making “good” art, actually, in whatever form or discipline.  Also, we tend to forget that even masters of certain forms, people who are respected and even “renowned” in their craft, sometimes discard an unsuccessful canvas, or ditch a poem that just didn’t blossom into a real gem.  In fact, they do this a lot more than we might expect.  Again, we kind of know this, and it should be obvious if we think about it for a moment–  but we need to remind ourselves more often that this is the case.  So–  a shout out again to Anika Lacerte, for this fantastic truism.  May we allow ourselves to keep making ALL the art that we make.

Cracking Up

I’ve only been painting regularly for about two and a half years.  I consider myself very much a beginner in visual art.  That’s especially so since I was a dancer and choreographer for so long–  technically a dancer for 40 years, if I’m being exact, and a choreographer for 25 years.  On the one hand, it’s especially challenging to try a new art form when you have sort of “mastered” a different one (or at least have become really skilled and proficient, and even taught in another form).  As someone who had a semi-professional life as a dancer and choreographer, it’s really hard to be BAD at an art form, in one sense.  I guess this is because I had become accustomed to being good at a different form, for a few decades.  On the other hand, it’s really freeing to ALLOW yourself to be bad at something, as a beginner.  It’s secretly fun to be the LEAST competent person in the room, rather than being the “expert,” the one who’s passing along techniques and skills to others.

I first tried acrylic paints in a workshop-style course that was largely about sampling different approaches.  It was a perfect beginning, since it was freeing and experimental, and the teacher was super skilled and also really open.  After about a year of that, I decided to focus more on technique and the “nitty gritty” of learning how to paint.  That led me to oil painting lessons in a classic style, and then to watercolor classes that I started about a year ago (both of these with excellent teachers). 

My watercolor teacher is extremely accomplished, a gifted professional artist, and a perfect teacher, in my opinion.  She sees my nascent skills and limitations, and challenges me at just the right pace.  We work hard in her class—  are serious about learning various techniques, considering compositional approaches, using artistic license, experimenting with forms, mediums—  all the things that make a truly rigorous course.  And yet despite the rigor, which I completely value, one of my favorite parts about this class is being able to really laugh at myself.

We will be all bent over, working on a painting or a painting exercise.  I will understand, intellectually, just what my teacher has explained.  I’ll even be able imagine the outcome that she has in mind (and this outcome might be a spontaneous or “loose” expression of something in a piece, not necessarily a precise image).  Then, when I try to do the thing, and it is slightly disastrous, I often find it totally hilarious—   and I laugh so hard at myself.  Something about the seriousness with which I try, and the wobbly or just plain horrific outcome, allows me to howl out loud.  As much as I love making a painting that might “work” or be visually appealing in some way at this stage, sometimes I love it even more to just crack up, to allow myself some real joy in the mistakes.