Do you have a special day, or moment when you knew you were going to try to become an artist?
When I think back to When did I start? I remember the year I bought a sumi ink-stone and brush after receiving a gift of Haiku poetry with Sumi-e illustrations. My five year old daughter was in kindergarten, her older brother in 2nd grade, and on the afternoons I could get my two-year old to nap, I sat by the window and try to paint the white birches and black Japanese pines that were in our back yard.
I made card after card, alternating the pines and the birches. I sent them out with the usual notes. The positive response to these hand-painted cards made me think I might, well… do a little more.
Next up was a church bizarre. I had little packages of my hand-painted cards. A half hour after the bizarre opened all of my cards were gone!
It wasn’t long before I tired of making the same images and found a printer. I boxed up sets of 10 images and found that almost any day I decided to visit gift shops, they were interested in having some. Wow!
Another important moment in my answer to when did you start taking yourself seriously as an artist was one afternoon when I first discovered that all of the kids were accounted for — my daughter was at a friend’s, the older son was at school and the non-napper was asleep.
“I have to do SOMETHING just for me!” I exclaimed. I dragged out the watercolors i hadn’t used in about 6 years and painted a painting from a newpaper photo I liked. I put it on the refrigerator and when my husband came home that evening, he said, “I see you haven’t lost your talent.”
Gulp. I replied that I didn’t know he thought I had any. I had met him during college when I was painting in watercolors and majoring in the History of Art. When I graduated from college it seemed that it (making paintings) had all been done and done so well that I couldn’t imagine what I could add.
After teaching elementary school for four years and having the three kids, it had been quite a while since I even thought of making a painting.
Since that time, I have discovered (rule #1): We paint, or make art, not because of what has been made before but because there is something inside us that won’t ever be expressed if we don’t.
I think that the practice with ink and a brush — another kind of drawing –is a very good way to connect with the artist that dwells within. The thick-thin of the line, learning the right amount of pressure, trying it again and again and again — not being satisfied with just this one, reducing an idea to its essence are all lessons from Sumi-e. And they all translate directly into watercolor. Rule #2 is keep it simple and be willing to try again and again and again.
I understood that rule about three years after the initial Sumi-e birches and black Japanese pines. By now my oldest was in 5th grade and was in the midst of his first all-nighter getting a paper finished.
I sat up with him. (And that was the last time I sat up with an all nighter.) While I did, I worked on a project I had agreed to do for his sister’s 2nd grade teacher — to illustrate all of the kinds of cereal grain.
When it came to rice, I became involved with a little bird and a rice plant. I tried the bird this way and that. I tried the rice plant with flowers, with grains, and — finally — as you see it on the left. Just a suggestion of the plant. By the time I did this one I was inside the rice plant. I knew it (and the bird) every which way. I could use as few strokes as needed.
Don’t be in a hurry about making your art. #3 Paint/draw what you know or (saying it another way) get to know what you paint and draw. Take the time it takes to make it. It is in the going…
Several yeas after the birches and pine, my Christmas card was this one of the raccoon and little man. Inside I said:
Two strangers in the woods did meet and separate ways then went
But who can tell what that encounter meant?
From my house to yours, across the miles and years…
With that thought, let me wish you the happiest of holiday seasons.
© Caroline Buchanan, 2011