On Being an Absolute Beginner in Art

The scene is my art teacher’s sun-filled kitchen. I’m sipping peppermint tea and enjoying what turns into a two hour chat. Rod has invited me to visit because I have self-identified as an absolute beginner in art.

The Absolute Beginner in Art is a Rare Bird

For people in my age group, it’s rare to be a true absolute beginner in anything, but perhaps especially in art. Everyone else in my six-week Drawing for Absolute Beginners class has, at the very least, doodled for years. Many have taken other courses or made serious attempts to teach themselves. Not me. I’ve bought books about drawing and a nifty set of graphite pencils which I have oh-so-attractively arranged in a ceramic pot.

Ditto for the subsequent six-week Painting for Absolute Beginners class, although in that one I am a tiny bit further along. I took a one-day oil painting class twenty-five years ago, and a one-day abstract painting class nine months ago. I’ve also mucked about with paints a bit, by which I mean that I read a good book called Brave Intuitive Painting and then, for two weeks, tried to paint bravely and intuitively… with limited success. All was not lost, however.blank sketchbook of an absolute beginner in art I now own a great assortment of paints, brushes, papers and, of course, books. Oh, the byproducts of a turnkey mentality!

Rod Surprises Me

My art teacher, Rod Bergeron, has started to make YouTube videos. He has several really good ones about en plein air (making art outdoors). However, I am a long way from being able to draw or paint adequately at all, never mind doing so when the breeze picks up. So I asked Rod for some videos for absolute beginners like me.

The problem is, the last time Rod was an absolute beginner in art was probably thirty years ago. That’s not to say that he doesn’t try new things–he does that relentlessly–but he’s an exceptionally bright guy so he recognizes immediately that he is afflicted with the curse of knowledge. When you’re an expert, it’s really hard to unring that bell and see life from the viewpoint of the absolute beginner.

That’s why I’m sitting in Rod’s kitchen. I’ve been invited to tell him what sorts of videos I’d find most useful. Honestly, I figure that’s all that is going to happen in this meeting. I’ll get to see some more of Rod’s art, hear some great stories about his life, and help him out with a list of topics.

And all of that does happen. But so does something else. Rod asks me three great questions. Have you ever had the experience of having someone ask you just the right question at just the right time? It’s like finding that impossible-to-find piece of the jigsaw puzzle, or watching the final ball drop with the number that determines who wins a million dollars in the lottery.

Rod’s Three Questions

I’m keenly aware of the danger of overselling. Rod’s three questions will probably be no big deal to you, and you may wonder why I’m acting as if I’ve been handed that million dollar lottery win.

It’s because I have. Rod’s questions have been reverberating in me for a few weeks now. My answers to them are becoming deeper and richer over time, and those answers are informing how I think about myself and the next steps I want to take.

Here are the questions:

  1. Why art?
  2. What do you want to achieve in art in the first year? In the second year? Fifth year? Tenth year?
  3. What do you want to say through your art?

I warned you that you might be disappointed, but please stay with me. These questions might help you too, even if you could care less about art.sculpture of mermaid on rock with background of water

The First Question

Rod said, “You’re a published writer. You’ve told me that you love to write. So why are you now talking about becoming a visual artist? Why art?”

It’s not that I hadn’t thought about why I’ve had a lifelong passion for visual arts; I had. But the question had never been put to me that bluntly by anyone, myself included. I thought fast and gave him four answers to “Why art?”

  1. I love image and colour. I’m a visual learner. I notice art.
  2. The creative act, in whatever form, brings more beauty into the world. The world needs more beauty.
  3. We need more beauty too. Art, as Kurt Vonnegut said, makes your soul grow.
  4. I have always wanted to immerse in the life of the writer, which I think is also the life of the artist. I see the creative life as a life of awareness, simplicity, serenity, and challenge.

In the last few weeks, a fifth answer has emerged –self-discovery. My experience as an absolute beginner in art is teaching me so much about myself. For example, that control, regimentation and order are not my friends when it comes to art. I’m trying to learn to loosen up and play, something that is way outside my comfort zone and therefore exactly what I need to be doing. I sort of knew this before, but everything stayed theoretical until I actually risked being a beginner.

The Second Question

It is easy to say what I want to learn in my first year as an art rookie. I want to:

  • really see, not just look.
  • loosen up and play.
  • learn techniques and develop some skill in applying them.

After that, the water gets murky. But here’s where Rod’s questions and our subsequent conversation made a huge difference to me.

Rod talked about artists as people who do more than paint pretty pictures. He talked about the role of narrative in art, and his enthusiasm for artists who create a body of work that communicates something of importance to that artist and that, in turn, informs the viewer who sees perhaps a meaning similar to that of the artist or perhaps an entirely different, yet equally meaningful, story.

That positioning of art as narrative, art as story, was the final ball dropping into the slot, announcing the big lottery win. It answered the question of why I’ve been procrastinating about making art, visual or written; why, when I play with techniques or respond to writing prompts, it has felt a bit meaningless; why I never have any idea of what I want to draw or paint or write. If I don’t have anything to say, I don’t see much point to expressing myself through art forms that I am not, currently, very good at.

The Third Question

Rod elaborated on his second question with a third one– “What do you want to say through your art?”

And here we get to the crux of the matter. I just read a great line from Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman. She said that “Instead of transcending ourselves, we must move into ourselves.” So, at this point in my life when I have the freedom to write/say/paint what matters to me, what is that thing? When I strip away the work I lived for, and the expectations of others that I strove to meet, what’s there? Who is Karen Hume and what story does she want to tell?

Rod encouraged me to start from my strength, to start from the written word. I told him that, even there, I’m dry. He said to read related to the big ideas I’m interested in, to watch and wait for the line or scene or image that will come, and then to pursue that hard. His suggestions surprise me, but they shouldn’t. I built my career on differentiated instruction –the idea of teaching from an individual’s strengths. And yet differentiating for myself never once occurred to me.

I’ve been giving Rod’s wise words a lot of thought and the murkiness is dissipating. I feel a huge upsurge of energy thanks to an increasingly clear sense of purpose. I have been painting and writing every single day since that conversation with my art teacher. 

…getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me up to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Steve Jobs

Searching for Purpose

Many Profound Journey tribe members have written of a desire for a new sense of purpose, whether because of retirement, a job change, or transition into a new stage of life. In fact, Pat just wrote an interesting post about a purpose-driven retirement a few days ago.

I have certainly made no secret of sometimes searching and sometimes waiting, with varying degrees of impatience, for a new purpose to reveal itself. Two-and-a-half years into retirement, I’m finally starting to come to grips with what I think about purpose at this point in my life.  You can read about that in this other short post – Some Musings About Purpose.

For me, it has taken lots of time spent searching and waiting; a willingness to be an absolute beginner in art, and the fortuitous connection with an artist whose way of thinking and working resonates with and inspires me.

Oh, and two or three great questions. I encourage you to give the questions a try and see where they take you. Just think of something that is calling to you –an art form, a move to a new home, a gig as a volunteer, a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Whatever it is, ask yourself:

  1. Why? Why this and why now?
  2. What do you want to achieve or what do you hope to gain – immediately, a year from now, five years from now?

And, depending on what you’ve chosen, add #3 – What do you want to say through this action?

If you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear what you think.

 

 

 

 

18 comments

  1. Bravo Karen, I think through your talk with Rod the floodgates have been let loose! You say that since your visit and chat over peppermint tea with Rod “I have been painting and writing every single day since that conversation with my art teacher.” I was also thrilled to hear that the murkiness is beginning to dissipate for you. I have just been to Rod’s YouTube channel and subscribed. I watched him sketch and then watercolour en plein air of the dilapidated barn and garage and tin shed. You are right Karen, he is an excellent artist and teacher! Thank you for pointing me in his direction.

    Thank you for sharing so much of your journey with us…I am thoroughly enjoying your more personal writing style. It makes you more human to your readers and less and less like a magazine that has copy written by some unknown person that just gets a byline but no other details.
    Okay, I am off to read your other post now with great eagerness to learn what your musings are about purpose. See you over there. 😉 lol

    1. Thank you, Susan! And thank you for checking out and subscribing to Rod’s channel.
      I appreciate what you’re saying about the more personal writing style. Now that I’m doing it, thanks to your urging and that of others, I’m actually really enjoying writing in this style.
      And finally, you’re absolutely right. The floodgates are opening. Wahoo!

  2. Very interesting and insightful to read about the process you recently went through, Karen. And, so rewarding and life-altering for you. I could especially relate to your fifth answer to the first question; an answer that could not have come to you sooner than after letting the whole idea sink in a bit.

    Like you, I am organized, structured and – sometimes – a perfectionist. While this alternates between helping us and obstructing us as writers, these are not good qualities to have as a painter, or visual artist, I think. For that passion and/or exploration, we have to let go. Let the juices flow hard (like free writing, you know, the kind without a purpose :-)), and be OK with the result. Any result. This means to me that creating art can be very liberating and enjoyable – some kind of freedom (re)gained. I’m sure you will enjoy the process thoroughly, find your muse, and the art form and style that works best for you.

    1. You’re absolutely right on all counts, Liesbet.
      I love that expression “let the juices flow hard.” Especially when we add “and be OK with the results.” I just might put that up in my art studio as a constant reminder.

  3. Hi Karen,
    I loved this entry! You are so lucky to find an instructor like yours. “When the student is ready, the teacher will come!” You have always been that kind of teacher to your students and colleagues and now you get to learn so much from someone like you.

  4. Hi, Karen – I would never consider you an ‘absolute beginner’ in art due to your incredible passion for it. I believe that passion, combined with Rod’s great teaching, will lead you to some very interesting creations and discoveries.

  5. Karen – I’m intrigued with the idea of differentiated instruction – building on strengths. I too am a story teller, and perhaps I need to bring that element into my book writing a bit more (where I’ve been stuck for over a year). A fellow conference goer recently told me his book was called “one man’s understanding”. That resonated with me and I’m thinking of re-working my retirement transition book to be more like a memoir. I still feel an attraction to play with words… and not to move into visual arts like you did. So I will continue there… and see if I (continue to) find joy in it. And think some more on the three questions as it relates to my writing….you’ve definitely got me thinking!!

    1. Hi Pat,
      Words are probably always going to be predominant for me too. One of my problems is that I wrote six books for teachers and principals and now I’m having a devil of a time getting my brain out of that kind of writing and into another genre. I’m hoping that one of the values of visual arts will be to help me look at the world differently, thereby jarring my brain out of its rut!

      I think you might have become a Profound Journey tribe member after the memoir series so you may not be aware of it. I wrote six posts about memoir – the first of them is this one – https://profoundjourney.com/why-memoir-not-facebook/ Hopefully there will be something in the series that will help you.

  6. Karen, I think that you really touched on the crux of the matter with this statement: “Who is Karen Hume and what story does she want to tell?” That is the big question, and opportunity, of retirement. The career was one story — one that you and I poured most everything into. But now in the third act there is a chance to write a more personal story.

    I have always considered myself to be a writer and an artist. But, in fact, throughout most of my life I was a wannabe writer and artist. The writing and art was always relegated to the margins of my life. Now that I finally have the time, it is scary to stand on the threshold with no more excuses.

    I find that the process isn’t very linear. That is, I can’t answer the question “who is Jude?” first and have that show me what to write/paint. Instead, I have to get busy and just write or paint, and that answers the question.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      I agree with you. Engaging in self-expression, in whatever form, helps to reveal both the self that is expressing and the content. It’s an incredibly fascinating process.
      I also understand what you’re saying about having no more excuses. Surprisingly, I feel very similar despite having published six books. Somehow in my mind, that kind of writing no longer feels like ‘real’ writing because it wasn’t as literary as what I’d like to do now. Of course I know it was very real and just in a different genre, but the scariness of a ‘new’ venture remains.

  7. These kinds of simple, yet profound, questions always send my little analytical wheels turning.

    I would be considered a true absolute beginner at art. I know virtually nothing.
    The idea of ‘art as narrative’ may be obvious to some people, but it’s a major revelation to me. It now puts into context a question that my husband asked me a while back about my photography (of which I’m a beginner), which was … what was I trying to say? At the time, I didn’t respond because I felt the question was pejorative, yet now I appreciate that it wasn’t.

    I’m really enjoying reading about your journey in exploring your inner artist. I will be chewing on your thoughts in this post for a while, especially as I too start to ponder why I want to learn to express myself through art.

    1. Hi Joanne,
      I’m delighted that the art as narrative idea is speaking to you. I suspect that thinking about that as it relates to art of all forms, including your photography, will make an enormous difference to you. I don’t know how; I don’t know in what ways, but do know that Rod’s question “What do you want to say?” continues to be top of mind weeks after he said it.

      1. Since I have a tendency to overthink stuff, I hope that it doesn’t cause me to hesitate to the extent I don’t take the photo, or take that next step. Because of my over-analytical tendencies (ie – why is my intuition telling me to take this action?), I find sometimes it’s just better to make the leap and ponder the whys the later.

        1. Hi Joanne,
          I’m the same. I’m finding that it’s by looking back at things I’ve already done that I’m starting to get a sense of what I want to say. Once I’ve got a lot more clarity about that I’m hoping it will start to really inform what I do moving forward. But until it does, I’m with you – it’s about making the leaps and pondering the whys later.

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