Learning to speak the language of art

My second painting, done from one of my own many flower photos.
My second painting, done from one of my own many flower photos.

Each week I take an oil painting class. I have gone for over a year now and completed four paintings, which I think is a pretty good number.

So far I have worked mostly from my close-up flower photographs, trying to recapture with paint the feelings each image produces in me that I can’t quite communicate with a photo alone. But I also have tried my hand at a seascape, and portraits (which I am dreading) are on the to-do list per my teacher.

In my class there is another student, a man whom I would consider more of a master himself, someone who doesn’t seem to me to need any painting classes at all. His work is beautiful, energetic, and colorful, with a seemingly loose technique that I would love to achieve at some point in my own.

I found myself wondering the other day about why this man, who is clearly so talented at painting already, would want to take a class (I will just have to come out and ask him eventually). I think it speaks volumes about him as an artist that he remains open to learning from other people. That alone is impressive. But I also started considering the idea that maybe the input from a different perspective – having another accomplished, artistic eye look a painting over – helps clarify the work and grow the internal process of creating it.

After all, most writers use editors. Words are the medium, but writing is, of course, an act of creation. Even for their blogs, a lot of professional writers seem to follow the process of showing their work to someone else before it’s published. Maybe it’s just a habit. But it is good practice, and it also makes good sense. Have you ever read an article or a story from someone who (very obviously) would have benefited from an editor? I sure have. Unedited writing can get as messy as an old junkyard. Allowing someone to read through your writing not only helps check for basic spelling, punctuation and grammar errors (of course, now the computer can do that), but it also helps determine if the story is making sense, if characters are fleshed out, if the dialogue is believable, etc., etc., which a computer can’t do (at least not yet).

On the other hand, it seems to me painters, photographers, and the like typically keep their work secret, creating and developing it in private until a finished piece is unveiled. Maybe that’s just my impression (and how I typically approach my own creations). But I do think it’s also more of the expectation – that a visual artist creates alone, with no other influences except his or her own imagination.

Why not engage an editorial vision for more visual forms of art? Is it pride? A creative ideology? Or maybe just a bad habit? I’m not sure. I know I have learned through taking my class that having a teacher, a critical eye watching me work, helps me see and look for things that I might otherwise miss when I’m too close (both literally and figuratively) to a painting. For example, I might hear suggestions like, “you need to lighten this area and darken that one,” or, “change the angle of this line,” or, “develop the detail more here, make it less sharp there.” I also get told to stand back a lot, and not hold my brush like it’s a pencil (my teacher, a very accomplished artist herself, manages to convey her ideas with humor and compassion, a talent in and of itself). I do get compliments, too, not just constructive criticism.

I just love sunflowers. This is my third painting, again done from one of my photos.
I just love sunflowers. This is my third painting, again done from one of my photos.

But it’s like learning a whole new language – the alphabet of art – and how to put all the elements together to structure something complete and comprehensible: To create good, clear visual words and phrases; then move up to sentences and paragraphs; until finally one is fluent in a new, visual lexicon. Then you can create work that speaks not only for you, but also communicates well enough so that anyone who hears you understands.

Moving forward with my own work, that’s the plan: Not to squirrel it away, or hide it until it’s complete in my eyes, but to ask for a response, for critique, to make sure I’m making progress in saying (or learning how to say) what it is I want to communicate. And that’s part of the purpose behind this blog. Like writers, I don’t think visual artists should be expected to – or expect themselves to – create solely in a vacuum. It’s healthy to stay open to some editing, to ask, “Well, what do you think?” and not feel like we are being disloyal to ourselves in making the request. That’s how we can grow, as artists and as people.

So like my fellow painting class student, no matter how good I might get someday I hope there will always be someone with something to teach me, about myself and art, and that I am always willing and open to keep learning this lovely, intoxicating language.