Monday Morning Art School: overcoming barriers to learning

“I wish I could paint, but…” What’s standing in your way?

Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

Yesterday, our pastor listed these five common barriers to adult learning:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of balance (juggling commitments)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of a supportive community

Lack of time is especially true of young parents and people starting in their careers. Having once been there myself, I empathize. But before you give up, consider how much time you spend on sports, social media, television, or shopping.

The Dooryard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

We all start with exactly the same number of hours, but we choose to use them in different ways. If you are passionate about art, you can draw even when it’s impossible to get out the easel and paint. If you can’t commit to a class, buy a book. If you want to sing, spend ten minutes a day practicing scales, or sing while you drive. At the end of a year, you’ll still be one year older, but you’ll have something to show for it.

That segues neatly into the question of balance. In my thirties and forties, I was an overly-avid volunteer. Looking back on it, I would have been more helpful to society if I’d just concentrated on painting. There are other people who are just as out of whack about their careers or their kids’ sports.

The ability to waste time is a healthy trait of the young, and it is closely tied to mental flexibility. We have to practice it, or we lose it. If you can’t stand change, ask yourself why—and then do something about it. Your ability as a lifelong learner depends on it.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

You might think motivation is never an issue for artists, but inspiration ebbs and flows there as in everything else. Counterintuitively, creativity and flexibility work best if they’re on a stable framework. I keep a routine and schedule so that my body and mind are ready to start work at the same time every day. The details of my studio time are less important than that I was there. Decide on how much time you can commit to learning your new skill, and then stick to that, even if it’s only ten minutes a day.

Community is underrated in our atomized modern society. It provides mutual support, new ideas and happiness. Kids naturally have this (when they’re in school). But adult learners need community as well. One of the things I love about plein air painting is the community of fellow artists.

Bend in the Road, by Carol L. Douglas, available. And, yes, the theme of all these paintings is aloneness.

I am a synthetic learner—I never have new ideas; I just recast what I hear and see in different ways. Other people are my primary resource. Having taught for many years, I think this is quite common. It’s very rare for humans to achieve greatness in isolation.

I’m doing a FREE Zoom workshop on Friday, October 2 at 5 PM. Consider it Happy Hour, and join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them? Join us for a free-ranging discussion.

While this is in advance of my Find your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in November in Tallahassee, everyone is welcome. There’s absolutely no charge or obligation. Signups are already brisk, so register soon!

Perfectly pure art

It’s not about money, and nobody gets to say whether it’s good or bad. Too bad more art isn’t like NaNoWriMo.
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, c. 1670–71, Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Ireland
November might be our month to express gratitude, but it’s also NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. My third daughter has been participating since she was in high school. Now, her younger brother also spends the month of November writing a novel.
“I might as well do it while I still can,” is their rationale. That reflects a sad view of adulthood in America. Young people see their mid-twenties as the end of all self-actualization, when in truth it ought to be just the beginning.
I’ve mostly interacted with NaNoWriMo as a mom. My kids knew that, “I can’t rake leaves, Mom, I’m short on my word count,” stood a pretty good chance of working.
Occasionally one of my older friends takes a swing at NaNoWriMo. This year it’s a retired religious who’s in palliative care in Jerusalem. She’s the survivor of two different cancers, breast and adult Ewing sarcoma, and she has lots of professional experience writing and editing. It’s been interesting to watch her struggle with the NaNoWriMo challenge.
Paul Alexis Reading to Émile Zola, 1869–1870, Paul Cézanne, Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo
Since 2006, almost 400 NaNoWriMo novels have been picked up and published by publishing houses. These include the best-seller Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. More have been successfully self-published. (A complete list is available here.) Recently, winners have received five free, paperback proof copies of their manuscripts that they can use for marketing. They’re also encouraged to do revisions in a “Now What?” month, where published authors help them polish up their work for submission.
NaNoWriMo focuses on the doing, not the quality of the results. A winner is a person who completes their 50,000-word work in the one-month window. “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too,” says their website.
The participation rate is huge. This year, 441,184 people are participating, from all over the globe. There will be about 40,000 winners. These people will write 1,667 words a day, every day, for thirty days straight. That’s a lot of words. It supports what art teachers often say: inspiration lies in methodical disciplined action, not in some mad flash of genius.
As with so much other crowd-sourcing, NaNoWriMo was only possible after the development of the internet diffused the power of traditional publishing. It’s popular with young people. I expect that their tastes and style, coupled with this engine of quick distribution, will create a period of great achievement in literature.
Young Man Writing, 1650-1675, Jacob van Oost, Musée d’arts de Nantes
I don’t need to read my son’s story; he’s already told it to me. As he talked, I smiled at his vocabulary and word structure. He’s always been good with language, but I’m sure these forays into forced-march fiction have influenced how he thinks and speaks.
Complete works don’t just fall out of your head onto the paper, whether they’re painted or written. They’re clawed out in great chunks, then endlessly revised. Painting or writing may be intensely satisfying but they’re also hard work.
We humans love to spin stories, and we love to hear them. I love NaNoWriMo because it celebrates that inventive human spirit. I love it because it’s never been mostly about the business of art, but about the simple joy of creativity. I love it because nobody’s appointed themselves the arbiter of what’s good or bad. Too bad more art isn’t like that.

The knotty question of brilliance

If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t grind yourself into dust and expect to get good work done, either.

American Eagle at Owl’s Head (unfinished), by Carol L. Douglas

Friday I woke up profoundly uninspired. My back has been out, and I’ve been taking a mild narcotic. That makes it possible for me to stand upright, but it also reduces my interest in staying upright. Anyways, being in pain is exhausting.

My studio has been a mess, because I’ve been finishing a set of bookcases in it. Normally, this would have been a job for the garage, but it’s still too cold for paint to properly cure. The sky was dismal, and it was following a series of dismal days.

A cluttered workspace throws me, and these bookshelves were in the way.

At 11 AM, I curled up on the couch and took a nap. But I’m really too Puritan for that. I believe that days off should be doled out judiciously. The difference between success and failure in a competitive field is hard work. It is too easy for artists to fool themselves into thinking they’re working when they’re off task.

So at noon I was back at my easel doing what my friend Sari Gaby calls ‘border work.’ That’s all the background and edges that must be painted thoughtfully but are not central. In the process of limning out the clouds, I realized I wanted Owl’s Head shrouded in one of those localized rains so common on the coast. While it’s only 250 miles as the crow flies from Kittery to Eastport, there are 5,500 miles of Maine coast. That convoluted border between earth and sea has an intoxicating effect on Mother Nature, so it can be pouring in Camden when neighboring Lincolnville is fine.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, copy after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1558.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder had a genius for putting the action of the painting somewhere in the background. It’s a great trick to keep the viewer engaged. One has to hunt to find Icarus in the painting above. (That’s a fact remarked on by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, among others. I’ve appended their poems on the subject here.) While I won’t go as far as dropping Icarus from the sky, I happily embraced the sea change in the weather. That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me had I taken the rest of the day off.

This problem of inspiration is not unique to artists. My husband told me he’s been pondering a software problem for four weeks. “Last night the code came to me, I tried it, and it worked perfectly,” he said on Saturday.
Of course, he didn’t spend those four weeks waiting on his muse. He still puts in more than forty hours a week.
There has to be a balance. If you wait around for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. On the other hand, you can’t work seven days and grind yourself into fine dust and expect to get good work done, either.