As I browsed through the various workshops offered during this year’s “Sketchbook Revival”, one in particular caught my attention. It was titled Gold and Graphite Reverie, taught by Ida Andersen Lang.
NOTE: This program is available — free — through April 30, 2022. The link above will take you there.
I made sure I was prepared with quinacridone gold and Payne’s gray watercolors, although I learned later that I didn’t need those specific hues. I could have used any gold watercolor, or any metallic watercolor I chose, and I could have worked with water-soluble graphite instead of the Payne’s gray. The idea of having multiple options and using whatever you have has been a large part of what Sketchbook Revival 2022 was all about. The focus is on simply making art — wherever you are, using whatever materials are available. That’s a good approach to art, really.
Of course, another aspect of art is our attitude, and while I was excited almost to the point of giddiness at the thought of using gold and graphite — or gold and gray as I chose to do — I was also a bit apprehensive. Could I really succeed? When it comes to art projects, I always have my doubts.
I followed along with each workshop day by day, eagerly anticipating the Gold and Graphite Reverie. And then, I came to that session. All the apprehensions hit me.
We would be doing a portrait. Oh, no! I’d had such high hopes, and suddenly my spirits went crashing. I’m not good at drawing portraits. This workshop would be just one more disappointment, after all. With a sigh, I took a break from the studio and went upstairs to have lunch before working up the courage to watch the demonstration.
Suddenly I heard a voice inside my head. “Let’s pretend,” it said.
I thought then about how often I approach an art class or workshop from a place of intimidation. I go in knowing that I lack the necessary skills, that my efforts won’t measure up to what’s expected of me. Even now, after nearly seven years of learning to draw, I still lack confidence. I’m not an artist, not a real artist, that is.
I thought, too, of how different this attitude is to my approach in other creative areas. With writing, I’ve never faltered, never worried incessantly over whether I could or couldn’t complete an assignment or writing project. Writing is simply something I do, something I have always done, and something to which I’ve never given a second thought. It’s just part of who I am. When I was writing novels, I just sat down and wrote. If an editor requested any change, I just sat down and did that, too. There was no intimidation, no worry about failing, no judgment about whether my “performance” would be acceptable. I always approached writing with the expectation that I would do well.
With music, too, I’ve never doubted my ability to perform. Of course I’ve had years and years of practice behind my piano performances. Maybe I was gifted with a certain natural ability but that wasn’t enough. To perform well required a lot of study, a lot of technical drills, scales in four octaves in parallel and contrary motions, arpeggios in every different key — major and minor — and in every different inversion. None of this intimidated me. I found it exhilarating.
But art was a different story. From my earliest attempts to create art, I was dismissed as a bit of a hopeless case. I couldn’t draw, did not do well with scissors, and let’s not even talk about glue and paste, please. I was good only at making big messes, and I was repeatedly reminded that I just was not an artist, that I had no artistic ability. Fair enough, I didn’t.
But as I sat there eating lunch on this particular morning, I chewed on a few thoughts, as well, wondering what it would be like if — just once — I could approach an art project from that same point of casual confidence, that same sense of expecting not to fail but to actually succeed. How would it feel to walk into an art workshop truly believing — actually knowing — that whatever I did would be good enough? I’ve never had that feeling before.
And then, that voice came again. “Let’s pretend,” it said.
Just once, let’s pretend that you are really an artist, that you have some natural gift, that you have reason to be confident of your abilities. Just this one time, let’s pretend that whatever you create in this workshop will be good. It will be different from anyone else’s creation. It will be unique. And it will be good, because you are an artist, and you have every right to be confident in what you draw and paint.
Yes! “Let’s pretend,” I whispered back.
I returned to my studio, imagining myself as a successful art student, one whose ability was recognized and acknowledge by others. I expected myself to succeed, and here it gets a bit interesting. By expecting to succeed, I was opening myself up to possibilities. I wasn’t saying that what I created had to be perfect. It just had to be mine, to reflect my own artistry, and because I was pretending to be an artist, whatever I created would be art. I realized that in the past, I’d approached art projects believing that failure was likely and success was impossible. Now, by pretending, I was able to see how it felt to turn that around, to go into a project knowing that success was the only possible outcome and that failure simply couldn’t happen.
I could not fail.
Oh, my goodness! What an awesome feeling came over me.
Throughout the workshop, I maintained that attitude of pretense. I picked up my pencils and confidently drew along with the instructor to create a fanciful portrait. Since I knew I couldn’t fail, it was easy to do. I didn’t worry about getting it right. I just did what I was expected to do. I drew a face.
I liked what I was seeing, and even more, I loved what I was feeling. Whatever I drew would be art because I was — or at least I was pretending to be — an artist. I didn’t have to concern myself with perfection, and I didn’t have to even think about failing. I just had to be there and do what I’d come there to do. And that’s what I did.
The finished watercolor is far from perfect, but it’s also far from a failure. It amazed me to realize how different it felt to approach art from a place of confidence. How empowering it was to truly believe in myself as an artist.
That’s what happened, you see. I began by playing a game of “Let’s Pretend”, but at some point the pretense became real. Somewhere during this workshop I stopped imagining myself as an artist and actually allowed myself to be one.
This was one of those “defining moments” in the course of my art journey. I now know what it feels like to be a real artist. I’ve now had the thrill of approaching an art project from a point of absolute confidence. And I’ve seen how this thought process affects my performance, making art more enjoyable and the outcome more satisfying.
It reminded me a bit of that song from The King and I… you know, the one about feeling afraid and whistling a happy tune. Or maybe that reference is a bit “too old”. Maybe you’re not familiar with the song and its lyrics:
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well
I think I fooled myself that day. I fooled myself into believing that for a moment, at least, I actually was a real artist. Oh, I loved that feeling. I hope I can fool myself again and again.