You Actually WERE Born to Paint

I’m drawn to the mundane and the ordinary as painting subjects.

I’m drawn to the mundane and the ordinary as painting subjects.

I used to think of painting as just one of many art forms, on par with playing the clarinet or tap dancing.

But now I believe it’s much more primal than that.

We Are Wired to Paint

Consider this:

  • There are cave paintings in southwestern France, thought to be nearly 20,000 years old. Wind instruments and tap shoes were developed much, much later.

  • All small children spend time painting, using fingers until they’re able to hold brushes. No paints available? Swooshing apple sauce around the high chair tray will do.

  • How do disenchanted young (mostly) men leave their marks on abandoned buildings—with dirt clods? No, with paint.

See what I mean?

Making marks on walls, paper, and cloth is something that humans have naturally done for millennia. Pretty much all humans do it, too—until we learn that we shouldn’t, or can’t, or aren’t doing it correctly, or not as well as that person over there.

Then 99% of us stop painting.

Here’s why most of us stop : We’ve been sold a belief system that says “only real artists can paint.” And real artists are those other people who are either slightly insane, obsessive, anti-social, addicted, or have the correct string of letters after their names. Or they’re “gifted.” (Don’t get me started on that word!)

This has conferred a whole lotta creative baggage onto the rest of us.

I call bullshit on all of that!

Sure, some people have more skill at painting than others, the exact same way that some people have more skill at basketball, or at writing code, or at teaching kids to read: because they spend lots of time doing it. Sometimes lots and lots of time. Maybe years and years and years. After all those hours of practice, I should HOPE they’re more skilled at it! (How demoralizing for those of us who’ve been working at it for years, if you matched our skills on your first or second try.)

Therefore, if you want to learn to paint, you are hereby free to do so. Permission granted! Save the tens of thousands of dollars of art school tuition—it’s not necessary. You can follow these steps on your own, or come to my workshops, which are much more affordable than a fine arts degree. ;)

Here’s a series of hats to wear along the way.

To ease back into painting, think of taking on different roles, like this:

  1. Think like a kid again. Remember the joy you felt as a child, standing at the easel with a big red-handled paintbrush gripped in your pudgy fingers and a blank sheet of newsprint in front of you? If not, try to put yourself in the mindset of that enthusiastic beginner, full of wonder and free of expectations. (That feeling before adults started asking you, “What is that a picture of??”) Then . . .

  2. Imagine you are a casting director, auditioning materials. (I wrote a whole blog post about this once.) On scratch paper, try out several different sizes and styles of brushes—broad ones, small ones, ones with stiff bristles, longer bristles, rounded bristles, and so on. Same with paints: try whatever you have on hand (or what I have on hand, since materials are included in my classes). Do you like the way they feel? Is this one too thick and gloppy, and that one seems too runny? What can each one do for you? You’re the boss of this production, so choosing materials that feel good is a great place to start. Then . . .

  3. Act like a laboratory researcher. The question on your mind is, “What would happen if _________?” What would happen if I mixed this blue with this orange? If I made big circles by swirling this broad brush around? If I covered this patch of white with a thin layer of yellow? If I put this color next to that color? Besides getting familiar with how various brushes and paints feel, you can explore how they interact with each other. No test tubes required. Then . . .

  4. Train like an athlete, whatever kind of athlete that is. You get to decide whether you’re aiming for the painting Olympics (let’s say, being accepted into the Venice Biennale), or you just want to lose a few pounds of creative baggage. Honestly “art competition” is a ridiculous concept in my view, so the sports metaphor is not perfect. But my point is simple: If you want to improve, you’ll need to work at it. When you pick up a basketball for the first time, you probably don’t expect to play in a full-court regulation game that same day, let alone be the leading scorer. Similarly, your first painting might not get a place of honor on your living room wall. Is it realistic to think that it would? Does it mean you’re “bad at painting” if it doesn’t? You might need to re-set some expectations here, and find a little patience. What’s your goal, and how much “training” seems realistic to achieve it?

  5. Circle back to that childlike Beginner’s Mind. This is a great place to return to again and again, wondering what will happen next, going easy on the self-judgment, keeping an attitude of experimentation, play, humility and curiosity. Open yourself up to the creative flow of the universe. It sounds “woo-woo” but it’s true: The more pressure you feel to pull amazing-ness (or perfection) out of yourself, the less fun you will have. That’s how art-making becomes stress-inducing drudgery. Then you don’t want to do it, so you avoid it, so you can’t get better at it, and so goes the downward spiral. Listen: You don’t need to go it alone! Invite Divine Inspiration to join you—or gather some friends for an art night out in my studio. :)

I’ve fallen in love with painting all over again this month, conjuring crows and boots and more crows with reckless abandon. And it just so happens that I’ve got spots available in some painting workshops over Memorial Day weekend coming up. So if you, like me, prefer to let other people crowd the campgrounds during the holiday weekend while you stay close to home, come play with me in the studio! (Emphasis on play. Yes, you can.) Info and registration is here.

Your Turn

Now tell me: What are your biggest roadblocks to painting—or making any kind of art? And which “hat” do you think could be the most helpful for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and for being with me on the journey.