What price art?

a mess of paint on canvasI managed to get the acrylic paints out today, for the first time in months. I painted a picture of a tree – a rare example of me painting from memory rather than from a picture or real life – and then I painted this, which was basically a way of using up the paint and practising mixing colours on the canvas.

As I usually do when I paint or draw, I muse on how I got to this point. I think about art lessons at school and practising at home.

I do remember one art class when I was about 9 – this was the point when art lessons were about putting newspaper on our normal desks and getting the paints out. I never felt any sense we were learning how to do anything in those lessons, they were just a fun activity. On this occasions we were set the task of painting a portrait of the person who sits opposite us, in pairs. I don’t even remember if it was painting or drawing, to be honest – but I do remember the effort I put into that picture, and of looking at the end result and being really pleased with it – even looking around at the other drawings from the rest of the class, I felt my drawing stood up very well for itself and was a good likeness. I have never forgotten that moment, of having produced something that looked good, and maybe that’s the point that sparked off my enjoyment of portraits.

Contrast that with the frustration of wanting to draw horses, and trying and trying, while one or two classmates would produce a brilliant drawing with a few strokes and then complain about how it wasn’t good enough. I do wonder, thinking back, about how much of this was perception – that we always see what’s wrong with our own work and what’s right with others’ work.

Then we went on to secondary school, where there was a dedicated art room. Our art teacher was definitely a little odd – one lesson she counted off about half of us into the room and then told the rest of us that art club was full and to come back next week! I don’t recall learning that much, it was definitely the impression that those who could draw would get the support while the rest of us were just there to pass the time.

I remember one exercise was to draw a group of people eating a meal around a table – from imagination – and I got really frustrated because I realised partway through that I had got the sizes all wrong, but there was no help to fix this at all. I remember exercises with shading, and filling in lots of boxes. I remember having to make up and design a poster for an invention. I remember very little of being given objects and shown how to draw them from life, observing carefully. I remember one large project where a black and white image was broken into squares, we were each given a square to copy larger then the whole lot was put together as a display. I remember stunning images on display that I would admire, but never anything of mine. I remember knowing that there was no point in choosing art as an option because I was no good at it.

This, despite me painting and drawing at home in my spare time. I loved portraits, and used to use the same picture of my young niece over and over, until I could produce it pretty well in any medium. I tried oil paintings – but could never mix green properly, so I would spend five minutes on the horse in the field and two hours trying to get the grass right. At this point, I was working from a grid on the page, so could produce the image reasonably well. Was this cheating? Does it even matter?

When I go somewhere new, one thing I like to do is sit and sketch the place, so that I have every detail recorded. Even now, when I think of some of those images it can conjure up vivid memories, much more so than a photo.

I’ll never make a great artist, and am unlikely even to make a reasonable one, but still the pleasure I get from drawing and painting is invaluable. The thing that had most effect on my drawing skills was the book drawing on the right side of the brain, which really seems to capture the effect of focusing closely on images, as well as giving me hope that I’m not that useless.

I’ve been on a couple of art courses, and I learned a lot in them, but most of what I learnt was not necessarily from the teacher, but from the experience of drawing or painting, and the trying out of different techniques that I’ve been introduced to. Maybe that’s the purpose of the teacher, I guess – not to teach, but to enable learning.

So what price art? Mine is in every way priceless – nothing to anyone else, but everything to me because it helps me find myself, my place in the world, makes me observe closely and gives me a sense of achievement. That mess at the top of the page illustrates that because the end result is absolutely pointless, but what I learnt along the way about how the paint reacts to different brushes and techniques was invaluable.

And the last laugh is that while looking at my drawing and painting photo collection on flickr, I found another painting of a tree, which is very similar to the one I did today – even though it was watercolour used incredibly badly, the subject is the same.

Having taken the time to do some painting today, I’m now determined to spend more time drawing and painting, and not to forget the mood boost it gives.


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