Learning the great unclench

Saying that I’m “self taught” as an artist feels obnoxious to me, and it’s only semi-true. 

Did I ever take any formal classes on technique and composition? No. I feel conflicted about that – I wish I had some shared language and knowledge about basic painting techniques so I could connect with other artists and understand the nuts and bolts a little better and more formally. But, I don’t wish it enough to take a painting class, at least not right now. 

“Self taught” invokes that kind of solo it alone, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, sickness is a state of mind type of very western mindset that I think has partial value in terms of personal responsibility but is also grossly incomplete. While I by and large learned painting technique through painstaking trial and error, my parents bought me my notebooks and pencils when I was a kid and encouraged my drawing. My friend and art mentor suggested I try my hand at painting since I seemed to like drawing so much. My school gave me supplies and time to focus on painting. Many peers, friends, and strangers took time to examine my art, give me feedback, and even buy my work. 

I’m always learning, both from the paintings themselves and from my community at large. Recently, I’ve been thinking about a friend’s practice of “unclenching”. Yep, think butt cheeks and fists: that squeezing, holding on tight, tense feeling that also seems to settle in my shoulders.

Deep in a painting, especially during that “murky middle”, I get tense easily. It’s the fear talking. The fear of not being able to complete this painting, or this part looking wrong. I’ll get exposed for the non-artist I really am: not schooled, no real skills.

(That’s the tension-causing clench voice in the back of my mind talking).

In these moments, I have to remind myself to relax. No, really: physically take a deep breath and bring my shoulders down from my ears. Feel my belly breathing in and out. Wiggle my legs and arms; roll my head. It all comes down to that breath; feeling it and breathing it slowly and relaxed.

It helps the process of painting feel better. And, I think it makes for better paintings: there is better flow when I relax. I trust myself to take the right steps, even if on canvas the brushstroke marks I’m leaving don’t look quite right yet. I can feel that there is a bigger picture and I just have to keep going along and trying to feel good moment to moment, versus stressing about what’s just happened or what’s next.

So, yes, in a way I’m self taught. But also, absolutely not. This “unclenching” comment, completely unrelated to painting and dropped casually by a friend, has stuck with me and helped make me a better (and happier) artist.

Nothing says “loosening up” like bright pink lipstick while painting, right? Also – you can see we were in New Mexico when this pic was taken! All up in Georgia O’Keefe’s old haunts; it was pretty spectacular and a good place to relax and take in amazing scenery.

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