I’m sure I’ve written this blog post a hundred times. There may be unfinished paragraphs skulking in Scrivener and I may have touched on it a couple of years ago in another blog post, but in reality, I have composed it over and over in my head.
Sometimes it feels too scary to actually type the words. Not that I’m thinking my writing is profound, on the contrary, I’m concerned that I won’t be able to convey the message adequately and it feels important.
It’s the talent thing and if you know me and you’re sighing well I’m sorry, but yes, again.
Not long ago, I read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and, I’m not going to use the ‘changed my life’ cliche, but it was one of several pivotal moments that have happened to me in the last 3 years. If you want to know how your brain works and how you can become talented it is definitely worth a read. I can’t précis the whole thing but I’d like to relate one of the stories.
A group of children were monitored before and during the time that they began to have music lessons. After a couple of months, their progress was checked. As you would expect some were doing really well, some not so good and most were in the middle of that bell curve. The researchers looked closely to find any common factors shared between the ones who were excelling. They looked at things like the amount of practice they did, their home environment, anything they could think of that might influence their musical ability. They could find nothing. None of the factors they anticipated had any effect at all. Until bingo! They found it. Before they had started music lessons all the children were asked a question. How long do you see yourself playing music? Most kids shrugged, “Dunno”, but when pressed they came up with answers that ranged from, until the end of the term, to a couple of years, and forever. The researchers were amazed to find that all these answers sat perfectly aligned on the bell curve! The kids who saw themselves as musicians and playing forever, were head and shoulders above the rest, sometimes by as much as 400% even if they practiced less! The kids who had decided their music career would only last until the end of term were the same kids who were falling behind. The only common factor was the attitude to learning music before they had even picked up an instrument. That story has stuck with me because it is just so powerful. This is not some sort of mysterious, ethereal thing, it’s attitude!
So where am I going with this? I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive people around who have encouraged me to draw and paint. Every now and again someone on social media will say ‘You’re so talented’, which is kind and lovely but it also carries some weight. Sometimes the unspoken part of that statement says, ‘You’re lucky, you can just do this stuff, I could never do it. You’re talented, you were born with this “gift”, I wasn’t.’
I know how this works, I’ve said it many times myself. I’ve told someone they have a talent I don’t have, felt a little bit envious, sighed and went back to watching a box set on Netflix or whatever. But let me tell you about what happened to me. I started to draw, by accident. My art background is zero. I wanted to take art at school simply because I was lazy and it seemed an easy option. I wasn’t allowed to take the exams because my work was so bad – I wasn’t a talented kid! My adult life was spent happily stating that I couldn’t draw a straight line and although I was interested in crafts, I steered well away from ‘art’. (Side note: there are very few times that a straight line’ is required in art but when it is we have this new fangled technology called a ruler!)
Fast forward to 2014. I was 59 years old. Going off-piste one day on a visit to Youtubeland I discovered art journalling. It looked like fun, you didn’t have to actually draw or paint anything recognisable, you could splash paint about and glue pictures from magazines. From there I did a couple of courses (shout outs to Tamara Laporte and Effy Wild) and I painted figures and faces. Wonderful, non-judgemental tutors and communities, step by step instructions et voila. It was fun.
Then I did the ICAD thing (index card a day – shoutout to Daisy Yellow) and a pivotal moment. I think one of the daily prompts must have been ‘eye’. I hunted on You Tube for ‘how to draw an eye’ and found a step by step tutorial. I followed along and OMG, I had just drawn a recognisable, not bad looking, eye. And this was an ‘aha’ moment. These techniques could be learned! Then I drew an elephant, again from instructions and it worked! I was so excited, “I could learn to draw” and there was no stopping me. I joined groups. Someone recommended a book by Danny Gregory. I bought it and threw it aside almost immediately. It had rules! You couldn’t use a pencil! I had just started learning how to draw graphite portraits, so it was ditched. Later, much later, I came back to it and understood that you need to learn some rules to break them, or you’re just not ready for that particular avenue at that time and it’s all okay. I joined Sketchbook Skool founded by Danny and Koojse and wow, more pivotal moments as amazing tutors from all over the world opened my eyes and freed up my pen (and pencil!). I joined drawing memes and came up with my own to test myself. I drew 100 faces, one every day to see if it improved my technique and guess what? It did! For the last three years, I’ve drawn nearly every day, I’ve worked at it and studied hard. I try not to compare myself to others and I absolutely LOVE what I’m doing. About two years ago I discovered Photoshop Artistry and the other fabulous courses run by Sebastian Michaels. What a revelation! I was able to combine my sketches with textures or use photos to create imaginative new works. Then I started to struggle, thinking I was going wrong because I was doing so many different things at the same time. Should I focus purely on sketching, painting and analog art or switch to digital and concentrate on learning all the skills required for that medium. What to do, what to do? This week demonstrated that pivotal moments are not done with me yet. I’ve been taking part in Imagining, the latest Sketchbook Skool Course and our last tutor was the amazing Stefan G. Bucher. Check him out, his work is incredible and he does a lot..a lot of different things, all sorts of diverse projects. He validated the idea that it’s okay NOT to focus on one thing and he’s made a living from it, albeit he’s had to make some sacrifices. I’m so lucky that I don’t have to make money from my art and I’m getting used to the idea that I can go wherever my creativity wants to lead me! Why focus on one thing? Exciting!
The two images I’ve posted above are both of my husband, Graham. I did the first in 2014 as part of my 100 Faces project. I remember feeling proud of it; it was a massive improvement on previous portraits. The second image I did this morning and I’m also really pleased with it. In two years time I hope I can do another….and another. You can see where I’m going with this, right?
So when someone tells me I’m talented with the undertone that they couldn’t do it, you can see the temptation is to sit them down and gently tell them that, yes, yes, no really, you can. If we get past that the next line is usually “I’m too busy”. Sometimes this is a genuine belief that there is not enough time in the day to take 5 minutes out to draw something, anything. I learnt a lot about busy when I studied for my Open University degree and was totally in awe of the women with three kids under school age who wrote their essays in short bursts at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning. And they got their degrees. If you really want to do something you will find the time. Then the argument can shift to, “Well I’m too busy doing other things I prefer.” That’s fine, that’s an ‘I don’t want to’ rather than ‘I can’t’. Different. Occasionally there is the “I’m too busy” remark that can really mean ‘What I do is so much more important than your little scribblings”. But hey, for those just nod and smile, nod and smile.
Lately, I’m not afraid to say ‘I’m an artist’ with no apologies or adding amateur into the mix. Apart from my immediate (and very lovely) family and friends, social media has been the biggest catalyst for my artistic achievements and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have continued without the support of Facebook friends and groups. Inspirational, supportive and non-judgemental, art groups are amazing and always with the message….yes, you can! Of course in ‘real life’ I’ve had a few people who’ve mocked and/or made passive-aggressive sarcastic remarks about my work and all I can say to them, under my breath and in a very artistic and considered way is fuck right off!
Edited: January 4th 2019 just to say this is still a thing. Don’t be put off by your inner (or outer!) critic. Adding my latest portrait of my lovely husband (the main blog picture) hoping to prove my point!
Edited: First published October 2017 at www.paulajeffery.com