This past Monday, I attended an introductory Gouache class at a local craft studio. Drawing and painting are activities that I’d conceivably like to do more of, but this desire is often jettisoned for other pursuits. But the course looked fun, and there’s no better way to get out of the house after spending all day in it than to attend a class. And I’m trying really hard to interact with the town, so…here I go. Let’s interact.
The class had only two other people in attendance – a woman a little older than myself, and a twelve-year-old girl. Her mother sat at the table next to us and watched us as we painted, reminding her daughter which brush she should use. I wore my mask on indoors, while no one else wore theirs. I had selected my skull mask to wear, which I’m sure left a wonderful first impression.
The instructor asked us our experience with painting before starting the class. I said, “I have experience but zero skill,” which elicited some chuckles. I wasn’t joking. While I know that skill comes with time and patience, anything I draw looks like a small child has prepared it instead, and that I just slapped my name on the bottom of it when it’s finished.
The instructor explained color theory and the properties of Gouache paints, and we practiced color mixing and brush techniques on scraps of watercolor paper. I took my time with the blending and brush strokes. Our instructor talked about overlapping progressively lighter colors to achieve depth, but when I tried it, it just looked like blunt strokes of unblended colors next to each other.
Afterward, we started working on the class project, a flower. The flowers had been pre-drawn before class and contoured to show where darker colors needed to be painted, a very gentle paint-by-numbers without the numbers. I was very slow and precious with my brush strokes and blending, but to no avail. Colors were left unblended. My strokes roughly shoved against the others like a mosh pit. I accidentally painted over spaces that should have been left blank.
I furtively stole glances at my classmates’ work. The other woman had beautifully blended her colors on her flower and painted confidently. The 12-year-old clearly had better fine motor skills than I did, based on her work.
“This is a good time to remind you all not to compare your work to other people’s,” my instructor announced. She picked up the painting she was working on with the class and a mock-up she’d prepared before. “Look how different they look. And this is from the same artist,” she said. “People are working with different brush strokes and techniques. You cannot compare yourself to others.”
I looked at my drawing. Based on my brush strokes, I must have been painting blindfolded. The instructor told us to take the painting stem by stem, considering how each stem would be illuminated by its light source and using that to guide our blending. I bit my lip. My shading choices did not represent illumination in any natural universe. I asked my instructor for help.
She looked at my drawing and paused. “That is looking good!” she said.
She guided me on ways to shade my painting to look more realistic, which I think was really helpful. I bent over my painting, hunching my back as I continued shading the leaves.
“I think it’s important to remind everyone that we get so caught up in the details” – she mimed hunching forward here – “that we forget to take a step back. Hold your painting away from you and you’ll be able to see what is missing.”
I held my painting away and grimaced.
“See?” my instructor exclaimed. “I know it’s hard, but it can look better far away.”
This is where you look at it and say, “Oh, how charming, a petal is blowing away in the wind!” And this is where I tell you, no, my sloppy ass got paint all over her hands and put an errant spot on the painting. But LET’S PRETEND IT’S A PETAL BLOWING AWAY IN THE WIND, YAYYYYYYY.
And from far away:
…maybe she’s right.
I think the lesson here is to give yourself grace as a beginner, that skill comes with practice, that you can’t compare yourself to other people at any point. But boy, is that easier said than done.