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Becoming an Artist


When I started painting, it was frustrating. I could see pictures in my head, but they never came out how I saw them inside. I had no brush control, no drawing skills and not much pigment mixing abilities. In short, I didn't start out being an artist.

I've always painted. I can remember painting in the back of Tony Couch's workshops as a kid when my mother took lessons. That was a great experience I'll always remember at least parts of, though I must have been under five at the time. Really nice of him to let me stay.

So my mother, also an artist, always made sure I had tons of paints and paper. The good stuff too, as long as I really painted on it and didn't waste it. And I didn't. I used to spend days on a single painting, everything spread out around me on her studio floor. She even gave me her old drafting table to work on. I had all the tools I needed. But I was still frustrated and kept asking my mother what I was doing wrong.

I didn't understand how to put the pictures in my head on the paper.

So my mother gave me the most valuable piece of advice I've ever received.

Paint 100 paintings and then ask again.

That's what I needed. I needed to spend less time worrying about painting and actually painting. Practicing with intention, always looking critically for mistakes I could improve with the next painting.

Watercolor is an unforgiving medium, after all. Too many mistakes and you're better off restarting. With oil, you can change the entire composition and value pattern with impunity. That's why the best artists have always sketched in watercolor. It shows every mistake. Watercolor also allows for happy accidents, which give life to paintings. Accidents are more deliberate in oils.

I realized I needed to learn to draw, not a natural thing for me. So I sold pen and ink drawings of people's houses. Home Portraits, I think I called them. There is no client pickier than someone who loves their home and wants to send out Christmas cards with that image.

Odd, I just realized I've never drawn my home. Christmas cards, perhaps?

So I drew a lot. And I painted a lot. And I did various work for interior designers, also very picky. (You don't want a color even a tinge off what you agreed on or they will make you do it over. And over and over until it's right.)

I was actually making a living as an artist.
But I still didn't feel like an artist.

I couldn't get the pictures in my head out on the paper. Sure, they'd look alright. But they didn't have the feelings I wanted.

Then I painted this painting. I think I actually used a ballet manual for the figures. Sad.

It finally worked. I could finally get the pictures out of my head on to the paper.

It's been about 20 years since I painted this and I still love it. I paint better now, of course. I should hope I do! And I certainly hope I paint better 20 years from now.

So that's the moment I knew I was an artist. The moment I could get the picture in my head on the paper.

And yes, I still have that painting.

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