“Making friends with our perfectionist parts will help to gently encourage us out of our our comfort zone and help us feel safe to experiment and have fun.”
“We grow because we struggle, we learn and overcome.”
R. C. Allen
The Coming of Spring is a perfect time to reflect on growth, renewal, beauty, and perfection. The warmth and beautiful colors of Spring help us to forget the difficulties of the dark, cold Winter. It’s human nature to want to forget and avoid difficult things. We want to avoid mistakes, for things to be easy and perfect. Yet, we know we can’t have one without the other and that life will always be full of difficulties. It is how we perceive and handle them that makes the difference.
For me, teaching students how to draw is the easy part but teaching them to be open to something new, to let go of perfection and stifling self-criticism is hard. How can I help students, especially young ones, understand something that I still am challenged with. In our role as a teacher, parent , or friend it’s hard to see someone struggle or be in distress. You want to fix it but usually it is a change in perception or action that only they can make. We would never grow or learn without mistakes and challenges. I am learning, for myself, that awareness is the key and that I can only teach acceptance with empathy and encouragement.
It’s also important to pick our battles and learn to struggle toward something real. When we accept that we were already created perfect in our own way, with our own unique gifts, we realize that the perfection we strive for is an ideal that isn’t real or our own. It’s one we can never reach. Fear and caution help us avoid danger but hinder us in other things. The fear part of our brain tells our body to react but can’t tell the difference between crossing the street or making an embarrassing mistake. We can’t stop it, it is doing its job but we can be aware of what is happening. Awareness of this reaction and then facing our mistakes and struggles with kindness will help us to trust that we will grow to our full and perfect potential.
“For every time there is a season..”
It has been a bittersweet summer for me. I am very excited to tell you about all the nice things, like the fun Summer camps and workshops that where wonderfully intensive, prolific and inspiring. We touched on a wide range of themes and I love how being immersed in creating for 3- 4 days in a row allows a student to grow immensely. But, I have struggled with whether I should share with parents and students the difficult loss I have experienced this Summer.
I don’t want to burden other people with my struggles and don’t want it to seem that I am needy for sympathy. I am so blessed to have the support of many dear friends and family. Death is an uncomfortable and awkward subject for many and until you truly experience someone close to you dying, you have no idea how someone in that situation feels and what you should say or do for them. I want PrairieArt Studio to be a fun, happy, joyful place and don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable here. I am so fortunate to have my artwork and teaching to focus on. I find so much inspiration and joy in helping others to learn the skills and gain the confidence to enjoy the creative process.
I realized, though I am a very private person, that when I teach, I share a big part of myself, my story and my life. For me, at its best, Art is a refuge of calm, an expression and an outlet for things that are too big for any words. I invite my students and their families into my home and my world. It seems disingenuous not to share something that has profoundly changed the trajectory of my life. You see, on July 1st , I unexpectedly lost someone very close to me, my husband Tobin. We were together on a walk in nature, our favorite place to be and he was suddenly taken from this world. I will forever ponder the reason.
I love Fall and usually love change. It’s an expected change, a chance to start fresh, to refocus. It’s a crisp invigorating reminder to get back to work after a warm lazy summer. As an artist it is so important to really look and observe things and change, whether it’s the season, travel or just rearranging your furniture helps us to see things with “fresh” eyes. Some people embrace change and some are more reluctant but life is change. Every moment is different from the last. We really do need to embrace change and help our children to be comfortable with it. Unexpected change is harder to understand. We are forced to look at our own life with “fresh eyes” and to try to accept that there is a bigger plan. Having a creative outlet to express our feelings with both sadness, loss, confusion or joy and happiness is so important and extremely healing. My loss has helped to reaffirm my goal for myself and my goal for guiding my students to get past and put aside our perfectionism and our need to get it “just right” to be able to get lost in the process. I want to remind my students and myself to get out your head and back to your heart because miraculously the quality, technical skills and beauty will follow.
Our world is getting faster, more stressful and complex. It is easier to be busy and not face our feelings but not good for our health, hearts and minds. Life keeps moving, life goes on and it’s my hope that I can instill in my students a love of Art that will help them through all of the highs and lows of this time we have on Earth.
I recently came across an engaging and funny article (1) (which I re-posted on our Facebook page) about some of the things that happen when you carry a sketchbook with you all the time. (Even if you're not an artist.) I haven't done this since I was a young student but it's such a great idea that I am encouraged to do it again. This particular article is geared for adults and I would like to encourage parents to try this but also to promote the idea to their children, who have a bit more idle time than we do.
A pad and paper is just as portable as a handheld screen but connects us to the present and exercises our creative mind instead of being mindlessly entertained and lost in another realm. It's a way to appease boredom or nervous energy that is engrossing but still present. It is, in its simplest form, a journal and personal record yet can be so much more. When my family moved and I had to start at a new school, my sketchbook was way to deal with that socially awkward moment of where to sit at lunch or during Common-Plan. It allowed me a safe place to feel included but also express my individuality. Not only was my sketchbook a refuge and a friend, it also allowed me to observe the outer world as well as my inner world and my creative ideas in an ongoing, developing dialogue.
An image or idea in a sketchbook is not meant to be perfect or a finished work of art. It can even be a word, feeling, doodle, pattern or impression. It's a recorded moment in time which can be used as a springboard for further development. A sketchbook is a personal place to practice, learn and develop. Don't insist on viewing someone's sketch book and if they do want to share it with you, hold back any judgments good or bad but encourage the effort and maybe just ask them to tell you about it. An open ended question about a particular sketch can lead to a conversation that may give insight for a parent into a child's life and individual personality.
Most children will want to draw from their imagination in a symbolic style, or in their favorite cartoon style which is good as well but also encourage them to look around and draw things in their own environment or copy pictures of things that interest them. If your child gets stuck, point out some things for them to observe like the shapes of different trees, branches or clouds in the sky, a close up or exploded view of an ordinary object, pictures of a favorite animal or just suggest shapes and lines in an abstract way that represent a feeling or sentiment. Try it, take a pad and pencil with you wherever you go and let me know some of the things that you and your child experience.
(1) Pricilla Frank, "9 Things That Happen When You Carry a Sketchbook With You Nonstop, Go ahead, give your inner artist some space to grow." Huffington Post: Endeavor. February 23, 2016.
I don't usually make New Year's resolutions because by now, in February I've already gone off track. This year I have a reminder though, Clyde (pictured above), he is the manifestation of my new mantra for Art and Life..."Gentle Determination and Quiet Persistence." After many who have been sacrificed before him (May they R.I.P) and two years of tending...Clyde the Orchid has finally re-bloomed! Oh, I may need to change his name!
Our critics (inside and out) are loud and unrelenting. Our critics think they are helping but don't know all the current facts or when to let go. They can overshadow our quiet and determined Soul. What I have found works best in the long-running struggle with my critics is to acknowledge and thank them for their "opinion", become aware of what is really true and continue on, gently, one small step at a time. I am also reminded to do this myself each time I help one of my students struggle with their own critics..
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ~Pablo Picasso
I am not surprised at the current popularity of adult coloring books, Zen tangling and paint night parties because on some level, since childhood, we’ve always know that the act of creating art is not only fun but beneficial. It can be playful, stress relieving, meditative, great for increasing focus and problem solving skills and most of all good for the soul. Most children love to color and draw but as they grow a critical part steps in and as teenagers and adults they convince themselves that they absolutely can’t draw or don’t want to. For those that do try, many of the benefits can be sabotaged by self-doubt. Adult coloring books and doodling are great ways to overcome the fear of failure and stress of perfectionism and to get back to doing something artistic. They are a great first step in tapping into the creativity that is inside all of us.
The benefits of meditation are now being proven scientifically; it can actually change the pathways in our brain from negative thinking to positive (1). The basic idea of meditation is to quiet our busy minds and be in the moment. This creates a space within that is calm, open and rejuvenating. Depending on one’s beliefs, meditating can help to be more in tune with our intuition, our true self, divine power or soul. Mediation can be done passively by sitting and following the breath, reciting a mantra or prayer but it can also be done actively. Activities like drawing, knitting, gardening, running, yoga or walking the dog, when done mindfully, can take us to that meditative state. I myself have found that I need to switch it up, depending on my state of mind and current stresses; different kinds of mediation benefit me in different ways.
For some that first step is enough but for others there is an inkling to want to do more. Some people find drawing comes naturally just as some people are natural athletes. Just because one isn’t going to become a professional athlete does not mean that they do not need to exercise, likewise, just because one isn’t going to be the next Rembrandt it does not mean they should not do art. In both cases they will reap the benefits but adults need to be conscious of their perfectionist parts and look at each drawing as an exercise, a baby-step in the right direction. It’s OK to not like every drawing, it is in the doing that the benefits lay and we will find that, just as in exercising regularly, we will see and feel the results.
As adults we tend to put other things like work and family before our own needs without realizing that we need to nurture ourselves to be our best for others. Learning something new and challenging ourselves throughout our adult lives is what is going to keep us young and our brains sharp. If there is a nudging voice that wants you to try art but another one that that shuts it down, thank that second voice for its concern and take that next baby-step; remind yourself that art is fun, it isn’t a frivolous waste of time, it’s good for our brain, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and that it may be just what your soul needs.
References: (1) Alice G. Walton, “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain”, Forbes/Pharma and Healthcare. February 9, 2015.
Drawing realistically requires looking at real things…It sounds obvious and simple but most students at every level need to be reminded at times not only to do this but how to do this. That’s because looking, really seeing and translating what you see onto paper is a complex activity. This is a skill which can be learned just like reading, music or dance. In order to do this we also need to take into account what kind of learner we are and overcome the brains tendency to want to simplify and categorize things as well.
According to Howard Gardner author of several books on Multiple Intelligences there are 8 Basic Intelligences. These intelligences are present in each of us at varying degrees and must be considered for something to be taught successfully. Visual learners find the drawing process natural. They either already are doing the process unknowingly or once shown the concepts or reminded of them can progress quickly and move onto advancing their skills with different media and subject matter. Non-visual learners need the process broken down in a way they can understand. They may need a little more time and practice, they may need to experience the seeing and interpreting in a different way. Non-visual learners also tend to be more impatient, critical and frustrated with their drawing.
All types of learners benefit from breaking down the process into steps and learning to look at and see things differently. It is a skill, though, that for every student takes practice, trial and error, dissatisfaction and the desire to learn more while letting go of judgment and competition. Drawing at the start involves line, shape, light and shadow, color, negative and positive space then with experiencemore subtleties can be considered such as movement, atmosphere, balance, tone, texture, perspective, focus, reflected light/color and more. There are different ways to teach drawing from “sink or swim” to highly technical instruction (in my art school career I have experienced many of them) but I have found the method that Mona Brookes has developed for drawing with children and beginning adults a method that integrates different kinds of learners and breaks down the beginning process in a way that fosters understanding and success at any age.
I include a number of resource pictures of whatever subject we are drawing in class as well as ideas for backgrounds. If students want to add something else to their picture I encourage them to look up images to draw from rather than draw from memory or imagination because without a reference we tend to go to our brains simplified categorized symbol of an object. The internet is a wonderful source for images to draw. I also want to encourage students and parents to notice things in nature and their everyday activities…How does a flower or branch really grow? Are all leaves, flowers and branches the same shape? How does a light affect the shape of the shadow of a coffee mug or how does the shape of the rim change from different angles? Notice the color of a tree that’s wet or that all trees aren’t green and brown or the same shade of green and brown. Is the sky always blue? Are pumpkins always round and orange? It doesn’t have to be anything in particular just look, notice and really see. Everyone in life and art, even experienced artists, sometimes need a reminder to not take things for granted and not make assumptions but to see with fresh eyes the things around us.
Mona Brookes, Drawing with Children, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 1996.
Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
If you have gone to art museums or galleries you will notice that you will see everything you could possibly imagine and you may not like all that you see. Everyone likes something different so praise, judgment or competition has no place in an art class. In my art classes I try to eliminate words like: Good, Bad, Better, Best and Mistake. I will not give my opinion of a student's drawing, I will give praise on their willingness to try something and advice about skills such as accurate perspective proportion or color theory but it's totally up to the student to do what they want to do. I encourage student's to look and learn from each other but do not allow them to comment on each other's work. Many famous artists have done masterpieces without accurate perspective or proportion. Student's need to learn to draw for themselves. If they do not like something they need to learn how to change it or accept it, grow and move on. Self esteem does not come from praise, it comes from accomplishment and solving problems.
Student's also need to realize it's OK not to like their drawing and that it's no big deal. They need to get used to only liking some parts of a drawing and learning how to make changes or start over. Even professional artists don't like all their work and it's not a good idea to try to give praise or talk a student into liking something they do not like. From his article "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job", parenting and education author, Alfie Kohn says, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure." It makes them feel manipulated and undermines interest and achievement. In regards to your children's artwork, rather than say "good job," it's much more constructive to provide feedback not judgment by saying what you see or to asking questions: "That's a colorful bird!", "Wow, you used a lot of pink in your picture!" or ask "What is your favorite part?", "How did you figure out how to draw this part?"
This doesn't mean encouragement and support is bad and all compliments and expressions of delight are harmful. We need to be more mindful though of the motives behind them and if they are actually helping the student become independent and motivated.
Kohn, Alfie , Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job" , September 2001. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
Mona Brookes, Drawing with Children, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 1996.
One style of art is not better than another, we should not compare them. In fact symbolic, abstract and representational drawing are done for completely different reasons and benefits.