Sometimes I wish I were a real, true artist. I’m not, and I never will be. I do call myself “an artist” now, and I do a lot of things artists do. I draw. I paint. I play. I take part in art clubs and exhibitions, and I’ve even got a nice collection of awards, including a first place finish. So, yes, I think it’s all right if I call myself “an artist”. But, when it comes right down to it, I’m not a real, true artist.
Here’s why. Real, true, honest-to-goodness artists have two things that I don’t have: talent and training.
Now, I do understand that “art” is a learned skill. I’m living proof of that. But I know, too, that some people are simply born with a natural talent for art. These are the people who become real, true artists. These are the people who attend art schools. These are the people who take their natural talents and develop them through ateliers, studio work, and classes with the finest art teachers in the country.
My training — such as it’s been — is nothing like art school. I’ve learned the basics, I can recite the elements of art, and I know the fundamental principles of drawing and painting. I’ve taught myself through books, online classes, workshops, and video tutorials. And, all said, I’ve done fairly well, going from someone who truly couldn’t draw a straight line — even with a ruler — to an award-winning landscape painter in the course of only a few years.
But, none of that makes me a real, true artist, and thank goodness for that! As much as I might sometimes think, “Oh, I wish I’d learned to draw earlier so that I could have gone to art school,” I count it as good fortune that I never had the art school experience.
I recall being shocked when one of the most talented artists I’ve ever known advised me straight out that if I wanted to be an artist, not to ever go to art school. Art school, she warned, would “knock that idea right out of you.” She was speaking from personal experience, and I’ve heard other artists say the same thing.
But then, there are those who thrive in art school, those who patiently listen to every lecture, practice every line a thousand times, and learn to use all the elements of art in ways that leave the rest of us gasping. One such real, true artist is Tony Curanaj.
Now, I don’t know him personally. I know him only through a Craftsy class I’m taking. It’s The Oil Painter’s Handbook. His website describes his art as “still life, figurative, landscape and interior paintings by a contemporary realist painter.” He is an incredible artist. He is, to say it again, a real, true artist.
Over the last few days — I took advantage of Crafty’s special one year membership for $2.49 — I’ve watched as Curanaj has carefully drawn a still life arrangement. This is the project for the class. Here is the reference photo.
It’s a daunting assignment in some respects. In other respects, perhaps not so formidable. It’s an image that I think I could successfully draw. Not to perfection, but to a reasonably good and recognizable illustration.
The class assignment begins not with a canvas, but with a large drawing pad. Curanaj uses a 16″ x 24″ sheet for this drawing. His paper, of course, is meticulously taped into place on a nice, vertical easel. The instructions are for us to follow along, duplicating his efforts on our own.
I don’t have any 16″ x 24″ drawing paper, and I wouldn’t want to use it if I had it. I don’t have any large drawing paper, nor do I have the sort of easel he’s using. Yes, I do have an easel, but it’s currently in use, it’s in another area of the studio, and no, Mr. Curanaj, I’m not cleaning it off and dragging it over here.
What did I do instead? Well, while the instructor was slowly and carefully drawing out the arrangement on his 16″ x 24″ sheet of drawing paper, I rushed right through this first step — or skipped right over it, I guess — to draw my still life arrangement directly on the canvas panel I chose to use. I didn’t go all the way to a full 16″ x 24″ size, but I did select a larger than usual panel — 16″ x 20″.
So, you see, already I’m not being a very good student. I’m not following directions.
I’ll admit that I struggled with the drawing. I tried it once, felt it was too out of proportion, and I erased it all. I next tried creating a grid for the photo reference and a corresponding grid for my canvas, but forget that idea! I tried. I really tried my best! But after at least an hour — or more — of sheer frustration, I gave that up and erased everything on the canvas again. My third try was by using “comparative measurement” methods, and I’m just not very good at it.
Yes, I completed my drawing. Yes, it sucks. Yes, I did my best. Honestly, I did. But the simple truth is, I’m not a real, true artist, and assignments like this are difficult for me. And all the while I was thinking how glad I was that this wasn’t a real assignment in a real art class, because obviously I’d end up with a very low grade.
But this is a grown-up version of playing school, a “pretend” sort of art class where I won’t be graded — thank goodness!
Let’s move on now to the next lesson. Here Mr. Curanaj showed a process of doing an oil transfer or a graphite transfer to get his lovely, highly-detailed drawing from his paper to his canvas. As I looked at his drawing and compared it to mine, I could only shake my head. Essentially my drawing was made up of contours — the outlines of a lemon, an urn (or something), a milk jug, a book, and a bowl. I’m not working from a real life set-up. I’m working from a photo reference. It’s hard to see all the little details. That’s my excuse, anyway. I could probably have added a bit more indication of where the lights and shadows should be, but, hey, that’s the sort of thing real, true artists do. Struggling, untalented artists like me do what we can and hope for the best.
At least I already had my drawing on the canvas, so in some ways I felt like I was a step ahead of the art game here. I watched as the instructor transferred his drawing, and all the while I was thinking, thank goodness I didn’t really have to do that! Transferring the drawing — with either method — was akin to completing the entire drawing all over again.
Once was enough for me. I would never have had patience enough to methodically go over it again, line by line. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Next came the underpainting process. We covered our canvases with a thin raw umber and then began the process of addition and subtraction. For highlighted areas, we used a rag to wipe away the stain we’d just applied. For shadowed area, we applied a bit more. At least that’s what we were supposed to do. Since my drawing was so very basic, I didn’t have clearly marked areas for highlights and shadows. I wiped away a few places. I added more raw umber to other places.
Oh, wait! I left out a crucial step. Once the drawing was transferred to the canvas, we were instructed to go over it once more, this time with ink. Are you kidding me? After all the frustration of drawing it in the first place, you want me to re-do it with a pen? At this point I was really, really glad that I’d “cheated” a bit and had been able to skip re-drawing it as part of the transfer process.
By this time, I wasn’t too optimistic about the outcome for my sad still life, so I grabbed the nearest ink-based writing and drawing implement I had. A big, thick Sharpie. Yep. I quickly and a bit carelessly went over my initial lines. You can clearly see them in my image.
And then I did the additive-subtractive underpainting with all the raw umber. Now, at this point, Mr. Curanaj’s underpainting bore a strong resemblance to an actual finished painting. Every highlight was accurately defined. Every shadow was in its proper place.
Not so with mine. Here, take a look.
Mine is a bit of a mess, but what can you expect from a really bad art student like me? I laugh as I write this. Please, don’t tell me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m actually considering it a badge of honor to see myself as the worst art student in the world. Were I in a real art class in a real art school… well, I’m sure someone would be talking to me, politely suggesting that maybe I should consider another course of study.
But, what next? Ah, a value study! I’ve been dutifully studying values, you know. Remember all that information about simplifying a scene, reducing values down to three — or maybe four? I guess that idea isn’t taught at real art schools. It’s certainly not advocated by Tony Curanaj.
For the next lesson in this still life class, he began by — guess what — drawing the still life arrangement again. This time he did it on a slightly smaller scale, but yes. He drew it all again. And he then showed us how to mix grays. Uh, been there, done that, Mr. Curanaj. But while I was doing good to mix three or four values, he was slowly and oh, so very, very carefully mixing and matching nine different values — in addition to the black and white he was using. I when I say “mixing and matching”, I mean that quite literally. He used little “value chips” and a lot of eye-squinting to be sure every value was as closely-matched to its numerical equivalent as is humanly possible.
Nine values? Really? Well, actually, by the time he was through painting his smaller “value study” — which he would be using as notes for the actual painting — he was speaking of shades and tints “in-between” the nine he’d created, so theoretically this man was working with eighteen different values!
That, you see, is what real, true artists do.
This is why I’m very glad that I’m not a real, true artist. This is why I’m quite happy to be if not the worst art student in the world, at least one in the bottom half of any art class.
As I tuned in today to Craftsy and watched Tony Curanaj complete his value study, I was certain that in the next lesson we would actually begin to paint. Apparently not. Before signing off on the lesson, he mentioned that next we would be doing another small study — the same still life — only this time using our value notes as a guide to work on developing our colors.
So, he’s drawn the arrangement once. He’s drawn it again to create a transfer. He’s drawn it a third time to do the actual transfer from paper to canvas. He’s drawn it a fourth time to “ink over” the lines. He’s drawn it with thinned paint and a process of adding and subtracting to make an underpainting — that’s the fifth time. Then, for a sixth time, he’s drawn the arrangement and painted it with a range of eighteen possible values. Coming up, he’s going to draw the same still-life for the seventh time.
I’m going to sit back, and I’m going to watch. Being a terrible art student gives me the right to do that. I’m not an honors student in an art school. I’m not even a reasonably good art student in art school. I’m just an old woman who decided to learn to draw, and while I am interested in becoming a better artist, Tony Curanaj has taught me one thing for sure. I don’t ever want to be a real, true artist. I don’t ever want to painstakingly labor over a painting in the way he approaches his art.
I’m an awful art student, and thank goodness for that!