The most important words I ever heard during my arts education was, “ Sorry kid. Ya can’t paint.”
Those words came from a teacher who did a lot in the way of mentoring me an illustrator even though it took me half a decade to realize it and five years more to realize he was right; I can’t paint.
I remember the day very clearly, I dragged in an enormous (for me) 24x36 inch canvas and a box full of brushes and oils to my illustration class. I sat down and began to work on what would surely be the best thing I ever made and would elevate me to the pinnacle of cool art kids. As my teacher made his rounds and slowly approached and came to a stop about 3 feet from my painting, he called me over to stand next to him. He says,” You see how the torso is a lot wider on the right and the left was sorta crammed into the corner..?” I assured him that I had taken plenty of reference and it was indeed correct. He must be mistaken. And instead of arguing with me he looked at me flatly and said those magic words, “Sorry kid, you can’t paint. Not everyone is a painter. Some people are “drawers”.
When I first enrolled for his class, I was warned that he was a brutal teacher in his directness, but if you got along with him and he liked your work he would be a great teacher to have in your corner. But I was also warned that he made students cry. Even quit.
I was very confident back then.
I was both well-liked and my drawings were always praised by him. So of course I thought I was invincible and could do anything. (Honestly it probably has more to do with the male ego of a 20 year old). The moment I felt my lip quiver I knew this was the moment I had feared; I’m not good enough and he knows it. This thought stuck with me for ten years and it’s given me a sharp and cruel perspective on my work. I look at my best as another step in a constant work-in-progress that will most assuredly end in my self-destruction (I’m so dramatic in my head).
But that’s not the point of this post. This isn’t about hard work and determination making someone better at their craft. It’s not about the pursuit of mastery. It’s about wasting time proving someone wrong. This is about the realization I had today, almost ten years later, while sitting on the toilet; “Oh damn. I really can’t paint.”
I’ve been struggling as an artist for a long time now. Whether that was with the look of my work or its content. Even finding an audience has been a struggle and clients even more so. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve the problems of my career and after a conversation with my loving wife, who has also been trying to problem-solve my failing art career, I hit the answer. I’ve been trying to prove my mentor wrong for almost a decade. When all he was trying to do was to get e to do what I clearly (to him) loved to do. I created technique after technique trying to prove to him that I could indeed paint. I never stopped to think for a moment what I truly loved to do. About what came natural to me. Until today. I love my pen and ink work. I love drawing and I am the happiest when I can do it. When I allow myself time away from “painting” to do it. I don’t paint in my sketchbook like painters do, I DRAW. In ink.
He knew it. He knew before I did. Every artist he ever showed me was a drawer. Every influence I’ve ever had is a drawer. My mentor is a drawer and collage artist. In fact the “painting” I do now is more like his collage technique than anything else (and is still mostly DRAWING). I need to be very clear, this is not his fault. He has been one of the best mentors anyone could ask for, even while I was being a petulant child about my art. Even through the obligatory existential crisis every artist goes through. He has shown me nothing but support in my work even when I didn’t think he was being supportive. And I think he was right to love my drawings. Someone needed to love them, I sure as shit didn’t. Not then. Though, I do now. I also find that deep within that love is neglect. Like taking a loved one for granted and realizing it in perfect clarity for the first time.
Joe was never trying to diminish me as an artist, but he had a perspective on my work he felt I needed to see too. That’s a teachers job. I’ve made plenty of paintings I feel went right or were even successful. But I’ve never been happier than when I draw. I’ve never felt more like myself.
I’ve had many teachers and only two people I call mentor (I’m lucky that way). They both saw something in my drawing that I didn’t. While this post is largely about a moment with one of them this is definitely written in appreciation of them both. Here’s to you guys, Joe and George. And thanks to anyone who reads this mess of a post. I’ll go back into my hole now with my pen and paper.