I am not an artist.
I mean, please; I don’t want people messaging me or commenting and being like, “if you create art, you’re an artist!” I support that whole-heartedly. But there are people who create art on a whim, for fun and personal enjoyment, and then there are people who have studied art for years and understand it on a technical level.
These people may both, validly, identify as artists, but they come at art from wholly different backgrounds and perspectives. One of them applies to me; the other does not.
I’ve discovered — or rediscovered, rather — in the last few years that I really like painting. On the one hand, it can be fun and relaxing, and on the other it can be challenging and surprising. I like that versatility; it ensures that it’s never boring.
It also ensures that as my ambition grows, so, potentially can my frustration.
This week, I decided to paint portraits using a photo reference with the intention of being photo-faithful (I won’t say photo-realistic (that’s aiming way too high), but I want the colors and values to hold true). This means instead of the fantastic skin colors most of my paintings have (of my last four portraits, three have had blue or green skin), I’m attempting to paint relatively true to life (Caucasian) skin.
I hadn’t anticipated how challenging form shadows on skin would be.
My instinct when faced with a challenge is, unfortunately, to quit. To pack it all in, say “fuck it, guess I suck,” and abandon the project, but not before having a small mental meltdown — usually a messy crying jag followed by lethargy and self-loathing.
No, this isn’t healthy, and no, I’m not proud of it (but it’s all part of being neurodivergent). So I’m working hard to change my reactions.
It’s slow going.
Today, for instance, I am in a bad place, mentally — anxiety is riding high, I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed with my house work, the tentative nature of my work assignment in September, GISH on Saturday, and the struggles I’ve been having with my painting. I wish I was one of those people who could compartmentalize their entire life, so that the emotions and anxiety afflicting them in one area doesn’t bleed over to the others, and I’ve more or less got that mastered when it comes to work — my work necessitates I absolutely throw myself into it, so I rarely have time or breathing room to perseverate on my personal problems, but once I’m at home and able to kind of unmask, I just lose it. Absolutely everything bubbles to the surface and the worries and anxieties from every aspect of life just leech into and infect one another.
Usually, I sink into a shame spiral. And honestly, I can’t promise I won’t, because I feel it pulling at me. I really, really just want to curl up and cry and not touch a paintbrush (or a vacuum, or a mop, or another person) again, ever, for all of eternity. But I’m fighting that urge, this time.
As I was saying, I am working on a painting that I am excited about, that is both something I’m hyped about because of the subject matter, because it’s my first time fully working off a photo-reference, because it’s the first time I’m painting something with a ready-made audience. I’m already putting a lot of pressure on myself with this project. And then, like I said, I had to do something I’ve not really done — paint form shadow on truish-to-life Caucasian skin.
And holy hell, was it hard. I repainted literally at least fourteen time, until it was a caked on, crusty mess. I went in with a wet wash, went in with thick strokes, went in with blocks of color, went in feathering colors as I went. I couldn’t make it work. The more desperately I tried to make it work, the more impatient I became, and the sloppier my efforts were.
Finally I had to stop and step back.
Instead of throwing my canvas in the trash, I washed it (I know, weird? But I’ve done it before; it got all the caked on acrylic off and still left the outline and a surprising amount of the initial wet wash, so I don’t have to start totally from scratch), and put it aside to dry.
And then I went online and Googled how to create form shadows with acryllic.
What??? Crazy, right? I problem-solved. Instead of just blasting ahead or giving up entirely, I admitted I didn’t know something, and took productive steps toward remedying that problem. Holy shit, guys, did you know that you’re supposed to use a color complementary to your base to create a natural form shadow? Like, if you’re painting with yellows, your shadows should be, like, purples? What? Why did no one tell me?? I don’t remember that in studio class when I was still taking art in school, just a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, still creating shadows with grays and blacks. Why was this not taught to me?
That’s really the question, though, isn’t it?
I need to be gentler with myself. I need to be less scornful of myself when I realize I can’t/don’t know how to do something, and instead of being self-loathing and beating myself up for not knowing, I should remember, well, I was never told. Or to put at least some of the onus on my shoulders, I never asked. But I was never expected to just “know.” I am insanely lucky to live in a time when, now that I know there is a gap in my knowledge or skill, I have nearly unlimited resources to draw from and fill that gap.
The canvas is drying in the living room as I type this. I don’t know that I’ll be prepared to tackle it in the morning (too much else still weighing on my mind), but there’s still more research to be done, anyway. I also need to remember, learning and planning in still doing; it still counts. It’s still work.