purpleflowersWhen I teach art in elementary  school I always hear negative comments.  “I can’t draw.”  “I don’t know how to do this.” “It’s ugly (what they’re drawing).” I can relate to these comments. Every artist has had these thoughts. I’ve had these thoughts and I’m no different. Maybe you don’t even have to say these things to yourself. I’ve seen people look at a painting and say, “A monkey could do better than that.” People will step up the plate and help you be critical of yourself. The negative voice outside of you also lives inside your head and is alive and well.

Let’s overcome this.

Here’s what I tell my students.

I cut to the heart of what is going on. They look at what I drew and theirs does not look like it. I say. All you kids, I don’t want you to draw like me. Don’t compare your drawing to your class mate’s drawing. If everyone drew the same how boring of a world would it be? That’s the beauty of art. Everybody does their own thing and that’s what makes it interesting.”  Do it your way. The most important person is you. Please yourself first. Please other people second.  If you want.  You aren’t obligated to please other people. Right here and now. Let’s give ourselves permission to not please other people when we do art. In personal expression here’s the thing: do the best you can right where you are today. Be like Scarlet O’Hara. Tomorrow is another day. You can do something today and then you can keep going tomorrow.

(By the way, I’m not talking about commercial art. In commercial art you have to please your boss and that’s the deal you sign up for to make a living.)

In art there’s no right or wrong. Is there right or wrong in arithmetic? Yes. One plus one always equals two. Two plus two always equals four.  Art is very cool. There is no right or wrong in art and that’s the beauty of it.


If they’re particularly stuck I will show them how to get unstuck. There’s always a way. I sit down and show them step by step how to build their drawing. What did you want to do? How is it not measuring up to what you wanted to do? Art is getting something in your head and then breaking it down into steps of how to make what you have in your head appear like magic on the paper. (Yes, it’s magic all right. Making something from nothing.) Only pure abstract artists are uncontrolled. Only artists in New York or Los Angeles and other places, who are trying to amaze themselves, gallery owners and prospective buyers, are doing things without a plan. But guess what? They actually have a plan. It just doesn’t look like it. I’m letting you in on a secret. Don’t tell.

Sometimes after many years of practice some artists develop a facility that allows them to be 100% free and spontaneous and still end up with something good. Picasso was 100% free. His studio was littered with thousands of drawings that he drew in the spur f the moment on crappy, non-archival paper. He drew on anything. He just did stuff and put it down. You can, too. If you want. There are no rules.

So I ask you.

What art would you like to do but haven’t done? Why haven’t you done it? Do you tell yourself you don’t have time to do it? Do you tell yourself it costs too much? Think of all the reasons you can’t do it. I’m here to tell you none of those reasons are any good.

If you don’t have enough money, do your art project on a smaller scale. If you don’t have enough time, do it a little bit at a time. Five minutes max. Two minutes. One minute. I’m here to tell you the reason you haven’t done it is your mind has made up a reason. Your mind has habit grooves. Ideas are water that flow down these habit grooves in the same old way we have always been doing things.  So if you’ve always wanted to try watercolor but find yourself on the couch watching TV every night it’s because you’ve been laying on the couch more than you’ve been getting up to try watercolor. This is the point where I want you to understand that you don’t have to beat yourself up by telling yourself there’s something wrong with you for not doing what you want. Blame your habitual brain.

The way to overcome it is to act like a baby. Babies take a step and fall down. How many times did you start to walk when you were a baby and fell down but you got up and started over until now you walk just fine! We all need to cultivate our baby minds.

For some of you being perfect is important. If you’re afraid of not doing it very well I’d like to say No One Was Ever Good When They Started Out! Think about your baby self trying to learn how to walk. Embrace your baby-ness in this! When you make something and you don’t like it, crumble it up and throw it away. So what? Start over.

Please go online or to the store and buy your materials. When you’re in Wal-Mart go to the art section and buy student grade watercolor paper and watercolors. Those kind that we all had in grade school. The ones that come in a little tray. Then sit them on your table and wait. Don’t try. Wait. Set it all up so it’s all ready. Look at images. Look at pictures that thrill you. Or make stuff up in your mind. Then one day surprise yourself and go over to the table, open everything up and just make some marks on the paper. Get the feel of it. Don’t even try to paint anything. It doesn’t matter. You’re a baby learning how to walk. In between the other stuff you do all day go over and make some more marks. Just do it long enough to get a feel for the paint. Pretty soon you’ll be branching out and walking. You’ve made some new grooves in your brain.


Recently I decided that I was going to try something I haven’t really done much of before. I have been enjoying and doing portraiture, objects and animals for most of my life. I haven’t been a big fan of landscape. Trees have been my particular nemesis. Too many details! Ridiculous number of leaves! And yet when I go to some galleries I see luscious landscapes that just thrill me to my core. I love the California Colorists.


Selden Connor Gile is one. He wasn’t bothered by details. Why am I stuck in being bothered by details?

I’ve also been fascinated by Fauvism. They were a group of early twentieth-century artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. Les Fauves comes from a French word meaning “wild beasts”.

Paul Gauguin is a good example of Fauvist painter.

So I decided it was time that I try landscape. I decided that I would take my own advice and ease into it by painting simple shapes. With color. This is how I started with pastels  ten years ago. I took a class at Albany Adult School and the teacher brought fruit to the class which we were supposed to draw. The challenge was that the fruit was all one color. At least to the person who does not “see”. They “look” and they see one color. If you really look you will see that the lemon is not really yellow but all sorts of colors. So that’s what I did. I drew what I saw. All sorts of colors.

It was fun because I decided that I was not intent on impressing anybody but myself. Just like I said before. I did not care about the outcome.  After a couple weeks one of my fellow students came up to me as I was drawing and said “Your drawing gets up off the page and SINGS.” What a compliment! I put red next to green, yellow next to purple.

So with landscape I’m going to try this same strategy. Color!

Once I get my legs under me I will move up to complicated landscapes. It won’t take long. I really don’t care if I goof up.

I used color straight from the tube for almost all parts of the painting except where I needed a pastel hue and then I added a bit of white. White also helps with opacity. Just for your information I never use black. Until I get better I’m going to give life to my paintings by only using color. You can use purple or burnt umber instead of black.

4 thoughts on “Permission”

  1. What you say is exactly the right thing. This is the way I teach my piano students. Some have had teachers that start them at book One until ten years later they are playing classical piano. There is nothing wrong with that – but they were never shown how to create, and that mistakes are not always mistakes, but they “fear” hitting a bad note. They never learned how to feel. I’m a professional player. Most piano teachers took lessons but didn’t go beyond. You can find a lot of my music on my blog: I’m recording a soundtrack for a book writing.

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