Do Things that Challenge the Way You See

 When I first moved to Charleston, I decided I wanted to learn how to paint.

There’s something so creatively inspiring about this place — the sunshine, the novelty of the palm trees mixed with the mire of the pluff mud. The colors of the houses on Rainbow Row — and all throughout Charleston, really. It’s such a beautiful town.

It’s also full of artists. I saw their work on Instagram before I came, and studied to internalize the style in their paintings — because it quickly became apparent to me that there’s so much here to learn from, and to teach, and so many questions I have to learn how to answer.

But in my small hand, you have to call you in, you’re still in the credits.

It was a conviction loosely held. I harbored no aspirations of being an artist, only a deep desire to hold brushes in my hands and feel paint beneath them, and see the color spread across the page, and to endeavor to see the shapes I saw in my head manifest themselves on paper.

First tries were rough, but they improved. I was artistically inclined growing up, so the medium was familiar, though rusty — like driving a car after a long time off the road. You know how to do it, but it feels a little foreign, like your muscles have to close their eyes and recall before they can begin.

Faces started to emerge from the color, as I started to get a feeling for the planes — what lines needed to go where to make them feel real.

The difference between a real face and a contrived one is stark. You look at a painting and you know immediately — either it is or it isn’t. It’s true or it’s not.

Like the Hemingway quote — “write the truest sentence you know.” The same holds true for painting (or, truly, for all forms of art) — paint the truest thing you can see.

This form of instruction — or perhaps permission — is terrifying and liberating all at once. Terrifying, because the expectations are clear (and frightening, if you don’t know how to capture the truth). Liberating, because it truly sets you free. You don’t have to worry about being creative, or inspired, or gifted — those all come later. In the interim, just focus on the truth.

And so I did. And I discovered something that I’d known once, but that I had forgotten — that the finished painting is only a fraction of the benefit derived from the practice, and that the ways it shifts your vision are the majority of what you’re taking away with you — because to paint the truth, you have to see it.

I started painting because I wanted to learn how to make something beautiful. I stayed because I wanted to learn how to see.

At the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, instructors require you to take a minimum of one other class in an entirely different medium.

People come to the Writer’s Workshop to learn how to write. Their instructors make them go and study something else.

Counterproductive?

No — an inobvious means to the desired end. To be good at your art, you have to learn to understand it from all angles — including via sister mediums.

When you want to be a writer and you study theater, you learn about conveying characters in an entirely different light. As a writer, your main end is to describe how a character appears, visually, to the outside world — or to describe in precise terms how it feels to be that character. As an actor, your job is to feel what it feels like to be that character, and to embody the nuance in the way the character carries itself in the world.

Understanding what it feels like to be someone else gives you an edge when you go back and try to describe it to someone else later. It makes you a better writer.

When you learn how to paint portraits, you learn to see the planes of the human face in a way you wouldn’t see them as a passive bystander — where the light refracts, where the shadows fall and curve, where the color darkens or turns pale. The shape of the eyes. The arch of the lips.

When you learn to paint landscapes, you see the nuance of color in a way you wouldn’t if the landscape was just a backdrop to be walked through, while your mind was somewhere else. So many passionate shades of green.

It’s akin to a woman learning how to do her makeup — as she learns how to use highlighter and bronzer, her face becomes a series of lines and angles, rather than something focused outward. It’s beautiful.

It doesn’t matter what you’re pursuing — learning to see from new angles makes you sharper and smarter. It hones senses that are usually left untouched, and it pushes you to continue growing, rather than staying still.

Learn a new art form. Challenge yourself to choose one that’s far separate from your medium of choice. But learn to see, and learn to see in a way that’s different than the way that’s grown accustomed to seeing.

 

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