Painting, Teaching, and the Emotive Self
Having spent a summer tracking more closely than usual my own emotional currents, I have a fuller awareness of mood during the process of painting.
A few days ago I was working in my studio, sharing the time and space with my student Sara. Often I speak up during painting sessions or workshops when something in my process seems relevant or instructive, so I did that when I noticed my own emotional response to the piece I had on the easel, just brushing in the first layer. I had started with the most obvious elements, dark buildings and street in a sunset moment in Boston’s South End, with streetlights and headlights and a large vertical expanse of sky above.
I work back and forth on adjoining shapes rather than drawing lines to establish the composition of a piece, a process which feels exploratory and almost sculptural. I was working away on the angles at the top of the row houses, switching back to the sky color every so often to work the edge from the other side. Before long, I started to work upward into the fabulous clouds, wading into the sky itself, and as I did so I noticed that my chest opened up and I felt noticeably more buoyant—and excited.
I hadn’t even realized that working the tight angles of the buildings was making me feel a little tightly wound myself until I moved into a highly interpretive area. A sky needs to look “right”, but that could be any number of ways, whereas (in my style of painting, at least) a building needs to have right angles and perspective—no getting around it.
So I learned something by tracking emotions that sometimes, in my habit of attending closely to my purpose, I have not been bringing into my conscious mind. A small thing—to deliberately work broadly back and forth when I have a more restrictive element on my canvas (usually man-made) along with more interpretive areas—to mix up the harder work with the pure fun. A contribution, though, this realization, to my process.
Being aware of these currents relates closely to my ability to identify with the frustrations and satisfactions of my students. Particularly in a workshop, with hours every day spent in a kind of hothouse environment, mood can swing back and forth, with subtle permutations, a number of times every day.
I appreciate living in an age where people are often very open and self-aware, never perceiving it as “TMI” when my students share their fears, frustration, and sometimes even a certain desolation when the piece is not working out. While we all have adult perspective—this is just s painting!—we are also submerging ourselves in a process that we hope is going to be rich and complex, with beautiful visual feedback. So, when a student finds herself wrestling with something ugly, boring, or out-of-control (in her own opinion), the mood can plummet.
As teacher, I can only do a few things, but they are important. One is to validate the emotion. Not only is it valid because they are experiencing it, but it is also universal to have these feelings—at times—while making art.
Next, to trouble-shoot the painting, moving away from emotion and into the practical/visual realm. The discussion begins with any elements or aspects to the student’s painting that I can identify that are quite interesting or beautiful. I have to honor the opinion of the student if she disagrees with me and can’t see the good of those areas, but just the fact that I see something I like shifts the mood a bit. The conversation then moves on to what’s next, either to resolve the painting in question, or to begin a new one—a new direction or new beginnings inspiring hope and a sense of purpose.
Since I teach the technique of working in layers, I sometimes have to push a bit to encourage a student to go a little further in tweaking the first layer, advocating for moving past the first emotional edge of wanting to be done with it. This is usually well-received, since I know well what can and should be accomplished in the first layer (composition established, shapes and edges scrutinized and adjusted, color laid in) so there is good reason to forge ahead. I always try to not be lazy, to not leave shape and drawing details for the second layer, to solve everything possible in the first. I encourage students to do the same, but understand and accept it if they decide that they just really need to put this one aside and move on to a new piece, honoring their own feelings. Then, they can return to the piece after it has dried with fresh energy.
This points to a well-understood phenomenon of mood—that moving ahead with purpose on a task that is in the plan is often the best way to mitigate or shift negative feelings.
It also points to a basic conundrum of life—that feeling good is everything, our interior life being where we truly live; and yet, if we dwell on that emotional stew, we will often not feel good. Action invigorates, soothes, creates memory and builds synapses. It is not just a distraction.
This dance between the physical present—your painting and its demands—and the interior reality of feelings is a big part of painting and teaching both —being able to move back and forth between the two exigencies.