If I were an art teacher — which I’ll never be — the first thing I would teach my students is that all art is illusion. That fact probably seems obvious to most people. It wasn’t obvious to me when I began learning to draw. It was actually quite some time before I came across that simple truth. Once I grasped it and understood it, my art journey became much easier.
Now, in recent weeks, I’m coming to understand another aspect of art that I’m finding to be equally important. Art is not only an illusion, it is also an experience. My art time has now become a spiritual time, a time of meditation and peacefulness, a time of quiet mindfulness that renews my heart and soul. It’s a time of communion with nature, and in that communion I have found a wondrous new sense of artistic freedom.
I’ve been very pleased lately to see genuine improvement in my artwork, and I’m loving this more “New Age”, zen-like, almost mystical approach to painting. It began, I think, as I looked at different landscapes — both paintings and photographs — and wondered why certain scenes appealed to me and others didn’t. Was it the colors? Was it the composition? Was it the mood or atmosphere? Through this practice, I came to understand that art isn’t merely viewed. Art is meant to be experienced by those who see it.
Again, that simple truth is probably obvious to most people. I suppose I’ve always understood it from a viewer’s perspective. It was only recently, however, that I came to see that art is also an experience for the artist.
I remember getting lost in the moment as I sat at the park drawing the trunk of a tree. Time ceased to matter. I took great pleasure in the simple act of making lines, feeling the pencil move over the paper, thinking of the texture and colors of the tree’s bark, wondering about its growth, almost imagining I could hear its voice whispering to me.
Sounds hokey, maybe, but it was a true spiritual experience for me, one that I will always remember.
I’m now beginning to see — and embrace — the truth that art simply is what it is, and what it is is a creative experience. Within the experience there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, no supposed to, or have to. There may be guidelines, but we can wander far away from them and still create a work of art. Art is illusion, art is subjective, and art is truly an experience both for the artist and for those who view the art. Knowing this has given me a wonderful new sense of artistic freedom.
Early on Saturday morning, we drove to our city park where one of our older grandsons was fishing in the Kids’ Fishing Derby. I brought along my sketchbook, of course, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be. On other trips to the park, I’d been awed by a beautiful view of the lake from one particular point. I quickly sketched the scene, and I do want to do an oil painting of it soon.
But after sketching the scene, I wanted to do more. My husband was making a trip home to pick up a few snacks, so I asked him to bring my watercolors. I already had a watercolor pad and a set of waterbrushes in my traveling “artist bag”.
When he returned with my Koi watercolor set, I took another look at the scene, focusing — as I so often do — on a tall, leafy tree. I didn’t concern myself with how the tree should look as a completed watercolor. I didn’t wonder how a real watercolor artist would approach the painting. I just let myself get lost again in the moment. I allowed myself to enjoy the experience of creating a watercolor — no matter what the result might be.
I played with color. I dabbled here and there. I thought again of that important lesson I’d learned from plein air painting: It’s not about painting what I see. It’s about painting what I feel.
What I felt that morning was sunlight and laughter, bright colors, and kids all around me having fun. I felt bright and sunny and colorful. I had fun making different brushstrokes.
But then as I finished the painting, I lost that zen-like magic in the moment. Sad to say, the logical, follow-the-rules part of my brain kicked into gear. I needed to add in shadow. I should show the algae on the water. I should…I should…I should…
Well, I shouldn’t have touched it! Unfortunately I listened to my analytical side and piddled around until the painting lost a lot of the joy and liveliness it had first possessed.
It’s another lesson learned for me. Enjoy the experience and don’t question it. Even now, that’s a tough lesson. I want so much to share this simple watercolor because of the joy and freedom I felt while painting it, yet that nagging voice is saying “Oh, it’s such a childish picture. Why would you want anyone to see it?”
I want to be able to answer that voice. I want to say, “Hey, it’s not about judging my work here. It’s about sharing an experience. It’s about taking what I felt and expressing that with lines and colors. Who cares if it’s ‘good’ or not?”
Besides, even I have to admit, it’s better than most of my watercolors, so whether you like it or not, it doesn’t matter. This simple tree at the lake speaks to me. It speaks to me about the joy of a sunny morning, about life, about who I am. And that’s what art should do, isn’t it?