As soon as you decide to paint something that people will be able to recognize, for many of us, the mere thought of painting a more complex subject, or putting creative, expressive, and therefore putting more of yourself into the work, often causes fear and even panic to creep in. It is because we assume that people will evaluate the work, and find our talents wanting.
In addition to outside expertise, we each have our own internal critic, an ego, which has been created by the unique pattern and influences in our lives. It can be strong and supportive, and it can be overpowering to the point of crippling any forward momentum. As a workshop instructor, if my students are to be successful and have a positive experience in the workshop, it is imperative that I include exercises to ‘exorcise’ the ego, and offer strategies for coping with it…Here’s an example:
The terrifying clown workshop:
(So sorry I’ve lost all the images due to my old laptop crashing.) On the first day, we placed my little marionette collection around the room for people to sketch and paint the puppets’ odd little gestures. We played some Cirque du Soleil music, and I placed treats and sweets all around. Everyone had a good time on these very non-threatening, quirky little still lives with wonderful, distorted, human gestures. Lots of chatting, laughing, free, happy paintings as most of the painters were not taking the process too seriously. After all, they were only puppets.
On the second day, we had a rodeo clown as a live model. Everyone froze! You could hear a pin drop in the room. Looking out over the group, all I could see were expressions of panic bordering on horror. The guy was dressed in clothes that, comparison, made Pippy Longstocking look more like Donatello Versace. His face was white with bright yellow cheeks, bright red nose, purple curly hair and a cowboy hat. Now I ask you, how threatening can such a model be? How can you do a bad job of painting this person? It was time to give everyone a fly swatter and have a little chat about fear and the artistic process:
Everyone, especially me, has a sometimes negative, sometimes insidious internal dialogue going on in their head. I hear it too; For example, whenever I begin a painting, whether I’m in the quiet of my studio or demonstrating in front of a group I will hear the usual : “You must be mad if you think you can pull this off!” Or “Why don’t you pick something easier?” Or “Why don’t you paint something you know people already like?”
I call it (pardon me here) “The Itty Bitty Shitty Committee” (the Committee) and I tell my students to imagine it sitting on their left shoulder. I explain how the Committee seems to raise to a cacophony whenever we chose to put ourselves in a situation where we might fail, and people will see the results of that failure, and they might judge us. I then remind them “It’s only a painting folks; there are no painting police allowed in my studio, so have fun and beat them off your shoulder with the fly swatters!” Well…The self-flagellation that I have witnessed over the years! Get yourself a fly swatter. Keep it with your brushes.
These ‘internal blurts’ that seem to want to sabotage us are labels we’ve heard over the years (often informative years), and bought into them. They are applied to us like layers of clay and cover up our formerly golden image of ourselves (see “Gold Mining in Key #2.). I suggest to my students that they can eliminate these ‘blurts’ over time by writing down what they hear (and they will hear a lot as they continue to paint.) Their homework is to take each negative criticism and remember where they heard that before. It can be parents, neighbors, teachers, partners… (everyone seems generous with clay!) Once identified, I advise you to do something creative, ‘to address the committee’ like write a note and let them know you don’t need their advice any more. (You don’t have to send it.) Here is a story of just one of mine:
The story of the pink blancmange rabbit:
If you grew up in England, you have eaten a pink blancmange rabbit. (Pink blancmange is a type of gelatin dessert which, in this case, is poured into a rabbit-shaped mould.) At around 6 or 7, there was I, happily trying out my new crayon set and drawing, for the first time, a rabbit that actually looked like a rabbit. I can remember the feeling of euphoria as I held it up for my Aunt to see. She said “I like that rabbit Lesley, but rabbits aren’t pink you know.” I said “What color are they, then?” She said “They’re brown and grey, love.” I felt my heart sink with the instruction. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if they were pink after all!) Clay application can be as simple as that, creating a situation that prevents us from wanting to show our work in the future. I painted a watercolor of a pink rabbit and sent it to my Aunty for Easter. She thought it was lovely (but she thinks I’m famous now, so what else was she going to say?)
People watching me paint think I am fearless. Perhaps the most important thing I can share is that I do feel the fear, and I do hear the Committee, but I go anyway! I suggest you ‘go for it‘ because nothing shuts up the Committee like forward momentum. (Food for thought: When you no longer hear the Committee, and feel at least a little fear, in my opinion, you’re losing momentum, and/or you’re feeding the Committee. There’s no such thing as ‘stasis’ for very long… You’re either on your way up, or you’re on your way down. An artist, in all walks of life, is an explorer, always seeking, always unfolding.)
Everyone has a Committee. Everyone must discover ways that work for them to deal with it, or stay forever stuck at the start gate….
Time To Believe
No more time to train, no time for adjustments, no turning back. It’s the start gate of cross-country day. Your heart is in your mouth, and your mouth is dry. “What if” thoughts cause panic, and you consider turning back. It’s ‘Time To Believe’… It’s the threshold that holds the terror; and it’s time to go.
Any threshold can that stops us in our tracks. Once we commit, we step foot across and chose to go forward, fear subsides and gives way to presence. From riding a horse, to putting paint on canvas. Just go for it!
PAY IT FORWARD
My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”. In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information. The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey. If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."
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