February 2016 4
Often times I’ve heard it said, “I wish I could [draw/paint/create], but my best is pretty much stick figures.”
And usually without hesitation, my response is “You can do it,” which is then met with insistence that there’s no way that could be.
Does it help to have skill or talent? Of course. But I maintain that while there are tricks of the trade, creation is really the practice of seeing, observing and then translating. I say “the practice” because with all things in life, the more we do something the better we’re able to do it.
The more we look at things and see them, the more familiar they become. In the process, we observe more about what we’re seeing. And then we engage in the fun (and sometimes infuriating) part of creating which is to explore a medium and experiment with it to recreate or translate what we’re seeing into something entirely it’s own. Each time, there is something new to be noticed that we hadn’t seen before and a sharpening of our skill set.
There’s no one right way to do it, but if you want to draw here’s a start: Pick up a pencil and start recording what you see in whatever fashion you can. Then do it again. And again. Or, I’ll teach you. Shoot me an email and we can do it together.
(The way light hits basic shapes is good to observe and record. But your own face is always readily available too.)
I’ve learned more about history, religion and culture from looking at and reading about art than I have through most other resources.
Artistic expression hits the soul, the very core of what makes us human and allows us to relate to one another. In the context of history, it shows what was culturally important, how we lived, what life was like before we were intimately connected on a global scale. But most importantly, it shows us that no matter how much time goes by, we never really change.
Sure, things around us change. Dwellings, infrastructure and industries shift, giving rise to new inventions and devices that alter our mannerisms, colloquialisms and interactions. At the heart of everything though, the very nature of human beings remains relatively unchanged.
While at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., I noticed this painting from across the room in another gallery and was immediately drawn to it for its crisp linear perspective and gentle illumination of the interior of the building.
But upon closer inspection, even with all the technical skill displayed, it was the painter’s choices for the narratives within that stood out.
*Disclaimer: I have done no scholarly research on this painting or its painter other than brief searches and light reading about it. But as a fellow human being, there are a few things I can assert.
It may have been common for dogs to run around in public spaces, but de Witte made a choice here. Instead of only painting a dog’s likeness, he chose to paint a dog in the bottom left corner, urinating on a column in the revered church.
I couldn’t help but smile as I studied the painting. Could there be a reason de Witte made that exact choice? He’d done other paintings of church interiors with animals roaming freely, but none desecrating the space. So, what motivated him to do it in this painting? Was it just an honest representation of a scene de Witte witnessed himeslf? Or could it be a subtle commentary? About the church? About the people nearby, oblivious to the dog’s unabashed marking? Or perhaps (although highly unlikely) de Witte was not a fan of his patron, or he was just having a lousy month, so he cheekily committed his frustrations to the canvas.
Maybe it’s not the greatest example of my point, but I like to think sometimes it’s the little details that give us insight about humanity’s past, and perhaps comfort in knowing that generations before us were not so different. Hopefully, scholars have already figured out the meaning behind the choices de Witte made. And if not, I hope there’s someone trying to understand them.
After all, that’s the really fun part. Asking “Why?” and then piecing the answer together by understanding all of the factors that impacted the final work of art. Trends of the time, wealthy patrons, religious beliefs, an artist’s psychological and physical health, feelings of affection and affinity or hatred and disgust— every detail down to the kind of materials available to create the actual work. Each detail is a sentence intricately written into a greater story.
Recently, I was hanging out with my dad and watching “O. Henry’s Full House,” an adaptation of five of the author’s short stories. But one of those five stood out to me.
In “The Last Leaf,” a young woman suffering from pneumonia and without the will to live relates her last days to the leaves falling off a dying vine just outside of her window. As an icy winter storm persists, the leaves blow off the vine and she resigns herself to believing once they’re all gone, so too, will she be.
Her neighbor, an old and unsuccessful painter depressed by his inability to create a masterpiece, witnesses her declining health and delusion. On the morning after the storm, the woman awakens to see one brave little leaf still holding on, which revives her spirit and she decides she must live on. It is only after this that we discover the surviving leaf is a painting on the brick wall by none other than the neighbor who himself succumbed to pneumonia as a result of this sacrificial act. He used his gift to inspire hope.
Now, despite how unsure of your talents you may be, go out there and use them.
If you’re an artist, get out and make art.
If you’re a musician, get to playing.
If you’re methodical genius, show someone the process.
If you’re a problem solver, offer a solution.
If you’re just a damn good listener, lend an ear to someone in need.
Whatever it is you’re good at, do it unabashedly, because you never know what it may mean to another.