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Switching it up-playing with other mediums to strengthen your painting skills

I cannot overstate the importance of play.

As a professional art teacher, I see many novice artists that take themselves so seriously and measure their worth by the success (and failure) of their most recent painting. We are in it for the long haul! We cannot take ourselves, or our work so seriously, or we will stifle our growth. Yes, we block our artistic growth with perfectionism.

When I teach a beginning class, I include an element of "instant gratification" and fun to each class to make it more playful. This is something I learned from having to meet the learning standards with grade school children. You cannot go by the book, or fit learning into a box, you have to make it fun and creative or it just doesn't stick.

This is because our brains are hardwired when we are children. We learn how society works, then we act it out with teddy bear tea parties and plastic army men. As adults, we have an idea of what we want to paint, or want the painting to look like, and we usually fall short of that ideal, without recognizing the repeatable lessons we learned trying to get there.

Long story short-it wasn't fun, didn't excite the creative part or our brain, and open a new neural pathway that we could use again to get there. We didn't learn.

So what happens when you play?

When you play, you allow yourself to have fun. There is a tingle in your brain because this is exciting. You are engaged in the process, and lose track of time. This is creativity, being on the Right Side of your Brain (nod to Betty Edward's and her excellent book) and you are LEARNING!

We learn when we are teachable. Teachable is being, giving yourself permission to fail, to try again, and to do something new and possibly for the first time. Can you recall the last time you gave yourself permission to fail?

Most of us are so highly competitive that there is never a break. Each thing we do has to show growth, be better than the last, and sometimes even be better than HER'S or HIS! Just stop it! Don't take yourself so damn seriously! Its being too hard on yourself and no one should have to live with that kind of pressure!

Plus, you burn out. If you are always "on" meaning on top of your game, on point, en garde, you are going to burn yourself right out before you reach your full potential. I started competing professionally in plein air events in 2005 in an International Plein Air Paint Out in Niagara Falls Canada.

Since then, I have watched my friends and colleagues become famous, successful, featured in national magazines and achieve almost all the goals I have set for myself. It shows me that it can be done, and that I too can do it, and that it will take me a bit longer. I am in it for the long haul. I need to keep my energy up and my eyes on the prize (nod to MLK and importance of perseverance).

So how does one as serious as me actually play?

Play can take many forms for us serious adults. I play when I kayak, boat, bicycle, make a craft project (which I do constantly), camp, explore a new place, stalk the cat, or rearrange the furniture.

As a professional artist, I take play very seriously. When you are a professional at what most people consider a hobby, then you kinda take the "play" out of it. I have to add the play back in. I want it always to be fun. I look forward to painting like a kid looks forward to opening gifts on Christmas morning.

What keeps it play to me is constant experimentation. Not only with pastel (my drug of choice) but also with other mediums. I suck at other mediums, so I have no problem giving myself permission to fail! Its ok for pastelist to not be so hot at acrylic, or oil, etc. But by trying these mediums, and the different techniques involved in painting with them, I look at a subject a different way, I create new neural pathways and I learn!

This kind of play, makes me a better and stronger artist. I come back to pastel with superpowers I didn't know I had! This week, I challenged myself to demonstrate palette knife painting in oil for my Plein Air Adventure class. In my beginning acrylic classes, we were also using a palette knife.

Plein Air Adventure setting up at Sand Key to paint with palette knives.

If you have never used a palette knife to paint with, it's sort of like painting with frosting and a butter knife. You can't get much detail, and the paint does what it wants to despite your best efforts contrary. You really have to go with the flow.

This helps break down the ego and make me teachable.

My painting and the subject. Note the texture-much like frosting on a cake. This is a real challenge for a pastelist who is used to not having texture!

By doing something familiar a different way, my brain associates this with play. Using the knife taught me to make bold strokes, thick with texture and multiple colors on the knife at the same time. How does this affect my pastel work?

This is the finished oil painting-very unlike me! You know how detailed I usually am!

The palette knife influenced me when I worked on this pastel later the same day. Note the bold side strokes with the pastel, the deep application of pigment and the multiple colors in each stroke. The underpainting was done the same day as the palette knife painting but the birds were added later.

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1 Comment

I can relate to the “play” factor, having been a Pre-K and K teacher for 25 years! It was great at first with playtime being in the curriculum, but later was almost taken out by the so-called experts...never mind the perspective of the frustrating 😡 I was able to still keep it in my classroom, by shutting my door, and letting my kids be themselves in play, in arts and in everything else! I just couldn’t see myself as that teacher, sticking to the beliefs in making a difference through play were too strong! I luved my career, however I did suffer 3 breakdowns because of my perfectionism and workaholism! Don’t get me wrong, I did not expect…

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