The Line is grateful for: The simple joy of creating art
Have you ever seen your learning process?
As we start a new year, The Line asked some of its friends to write us articles about things that they loved during 2023. Consider this a small act on our part to help get 2024 off to a good start. Today: James McLeod on his year-long journey to learn how to paint.
By: James McLeod
You’ve probably heard that most New Year’s Resolutions fail. I’d like to tell you my story of a New Year’s resolution that succeeded beyond my wildest dream.
A year ago, at the end of 2022, I would’ve told you that I had zero artistic ability. I couldn’t draw a picture to save my life. I’d never painted anything except a wall. The sum total of my creative output up to that point in my life was a handful of short stories I wrote in high school, and whatever limited artistic value could be ascribed to my tweets.
But it was something I wanted to learn. The desire came partly because I’ve had a lifelong love of art galleries and visual arts. Partly it was motivated by a little bit of dabbling in a weird political art prank I’d done a few months earlier. Partly I wanted to learn to make art out of a vague and grumpy contrarian reaction to all of the generative AI systems filling the world with crappy images.
I’d heard somebody say that whether you sculpt or weave tapestries or draw or create music, those are all technical skills that can be learned. The true mark of an artist is just the desire to create something to express yourself, and the rest is just figuring out how to use the tools needed to bring your creation into the world.
So I bought a little watercolur paint set, some paper and a few brushes, and I set about it. It blew my mind.
Have you ever seen your learning process?
In January I was fumbling around, painting green leaves (poorly) based on a YouTube tutorial I’d watched. I’d put down eight pairs of leaves, and so on a whim I drew a stem, and then dipped my brush in the red paint, and set about painting a rose blossom at the top of the page.
The resulting painting was … horrid.
It wasn’t at all what I wanted to create, and I spent hours staring at it, trying to figure out where I went wrong. The next night, after practicing blossoms on some scrap paper, I tried again. The result was still horrid, but … different.
For nine consecutive days, I sat down at my kitchen table and tried to paint the same rose. Each day, I’d scowl and let my eye fall to the flaws and screw-ups. And then I’d try again the next day..
By the time I exhausted the pages in my little watercolour pad, my roses had improved dramatically. Overall I think Day Six was my best blossom, although Day Eight has something nice about it too. By the end I was painting little compositions with three or five roses on the page, playing with the form and trying to develop the idea.
Since January those nine roses have been pinned to the bulletin board over my desk.
I look up at them and draw a couple lessons.
First, and most importantly, if you just keep doing it over and over again, you’ll get better. We all know this, but it’s easy to forget. With most things in life you can’t line ‘em all up and see your steady progress, but seeing really is believing.
Secondly, as time goes by, if you do the same thing over and over, you’ll start to focus in on certain parts of it, and the process will take on a life of its own. Maybe there’s a certain aspect that you want to emphasize. Maybe a screw-up produces an interesting result, and it opens up a new creative path.
The thrill and motivation of seeing my progress on those roses has propelled me. Since January, I’ve made a point of completing at least one watercolour painting each day, and I intend to keep it going even past the end of the year.
Over the course of the year, this process has been revelatory. I see the world differently. The way the light falls on the buildings of Toronto. The texture of the concrete. The shapes of trees and the colour of the light. And knowing a little bit about what it’s like to create artwork has deepened my own appreciation of other artists’ work.
Along the way, I think I’ve also learned a few things about the process of creation.
I’ve learned that creating art is a process of fumbling and fiddling. A lot of time, when you’re painting, you make a mistake, but the thing you did by accident looks interesting. Maybe it ruins today’s painting, but if you can do it on purpose with a little bit more control tomorrow, it might look great.
I’ve learned that artwork is just as much about the audience as it is about the artist. When people comment on my paintings, they bring their own feelings and interpretation to the image. People often react to the overall feeling of an image, the colours, the shapes and the energy. While my eye is often drawn to some blotchy bit of paint or some other perceived flaw, other people don’t fixate on those details.
But perhaps my biggest insight from the past year, and most difficult to put into words, is simply this: There is a process of creation.
There is process in the act of putting a paint brush to paper, and there is process in the act of painting the same thing over and over again, and slowly developing an idea through gradual iteration. There is a process to learning a new skill over a whole year, and perhaps even gaining some wisdom that goes beyond the technical skill of painting.
Lately I’ve been thinking about ChatGPT and those AI image generators, and what bugs me about them. If you simply snap your fingers and an algorithm delivers you a picture of roses, you won’t feel much of anything, and you’ll learn even less.
I think that most New Year’s resolutions fail because people can’t achieve success instantly.
The process is what matters. I’m grateful for being reminded of that this year. And for roses.
James McLeod is a Toronto-based writer and communications professional.
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