I’ve kind of always been “that girl who does art.” I first heard someone refer to me as that while in elementary school, likely because I spent more time doodling in my notebooks than taking real notes.
Some of my earliest memories are of coloring books and crayons, hours spent at our old coffee table on my knees, crouched over some kind of childish masterpiece while a Disney movie played in the background.
My mom encouraged my sisters and I at a young age to be as creative as we wanted to be. She filled my childhood with colored pencils, markers, paint, clay …pretty much most mediums were allowed. Sometimes even glitter. I filled endless pages of landscapes with little perspective and whatever animal was my favorite at the time. There were a lot of turtles and yellow dogs.
As time went by it somehow came to my awareness that art was something I was actually kind of good at. A lot of this was due to my mom’s encouragement.
On several occasions she took my sisters and I to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and we spent ages looking at old paintings and sculptures. I specifically recall enjoying the impressionist wing as she told us about famous painters while we stared at Monet’s Grainstack, Sun in the Mist and Van Gogh’s Olive Trees. It provided a lot of fuel for creativity.
At one point in 5th grade my pastel drawing of an elephant in a jungle was picked to be hung temporarily in a hospital as part of an elementary school art themed gallery. I got a neat little plaque with my name on it and was psyched beyond all reason. Unfortunately, as the drawing was being transported back to the school it became lost and was never seen again, likely stolen and sold on the black market for millions.
But it was at that point in my childhood when it occurred to me that being an artist was a real job and that, obviously, that’s what I wanted to be someday. Spoiler alert: I am not a real full time artist now, but it’s something I love even if it’s not my main profession. I still doodle on every scrap of paper I get my hands on. Nothing is safe.
Moving into high school I explored different mediums and crammed in as many art classes as my schedule would allow. It was around this time that I started dragging a sketchbook of some sort with me. It started with the margins of my notes, then crappy notebooks, then real sketchbooks filled with “edgy” drawings of roses with thorns and lyrics from My Chemical Romance songs.
Side note – nothing was ever more annoying or invasive than when random people in school would see me drawing in class and interrupt with a, “CaN yOU dRAw Me??” If/when they got all salty when the answer was no, the reasons were: A) I probably barely knew you, why the heck would I want to draw your face? And B) if you weren’t going to pay me for my time spent drawing then why even ask? Please for the love of God. If you’re going to ask someone to draw something for you offer to pay them. It’s a job and it takes a lot of time and practice. </rant>
Thankfully, the art classes I was enrolled in forced me to learn about actual techniques and gave challenging projects.. And, even more thankfully, I grew out of my emo phase by the end of my sophomore year and successfully avoided getting pressured into drawing some dumb classmate’s face.
Taking AP (Advanced Placement) Art History my senior year was easily my most interesting class in high school. Those
paintings I saw as a kid at the MIA barely scraped the surface of what was out there. I absorbed as much as possible from that class and memorized hundreds of paintings, sculptures, buildings and names. In one year we covered ancient Sumerian to modern day. Some people would think this is a unique type of torture, but I was hooked and only saw how much we had evolved and how giant the world’s art culture really was.
Our class even got the opportunity to travel to France and Italy to study art history for 10 days. I opted to do this instead of saving up for a car and it was 1000% worth it. Who needs to drive places anyway?
And so I bopped along into college and was thrilled beyond all reason to meet other, like minded, artsy people. Somehow I wound up going into Communications, but I held on to an art minor and took plenty of studio classes.
A few learning moments stood out to me from those years, the main one coming from my Drawing II professor. His name was Bob. He was a very casual hipster kind of guy who biked to class regardless of how snowy out it was and who played a lot of Bon Iver during class.
“Look for the colors that are not there.”
He dropped this bit of sage advice as we started getting into using Prismacolor pastels, and with a limited color range to work with in our sets we had to find creative ways to blend what we had to match the colors in the massive still life set up in the center of the room. It was daunting as all hell.
He used the example of snow. When looking at snow in different lights, it is never just white. There are blues, grays, purples, pinks, and golds mixed in there too. It became a game for me, to look at something perceived as one color and find the ways that it blended and shaded to become something different. I still do this when I drive places, which is probably dangerous.
After leaving college the real art blocks began. No longer was I receiving instruction or critique from classmates and professors. It was all on me to assign things to myself and decide if it was “good” or not.
You know when you look at a small child’s drawing and it makes no sense because they put whatever the heck they want down on paper? They are carefree with where they throw down lines and with what colors they choose. That is something I now envy.
The thing about art is constantly chasing an intrinsic desire to do better than whatever was created last. Those lines could be more symmetrical. That proportion is off. That shading doesn’t make sense when placed there. It’s an endless self-critique.
The annoying thing is that I am no longer in school and can literally work on whatever project my heart desires and still there is a feeling of self-doubt. When people go through my sketchbook my heart starts beating super fast because I’m low key panicking about what people will think. I want all of the drawings and scribbles to be perfect, and that is impossible. The logical part of me knows that drawing, painting, and other creative things simply make me happy. Why should I worry about what other people think of my art? It is mine. I put my hours and love into it, and I make it what I want it to be.
There is always a small prickle of fear though. Perhaps it is my own anxiety. Or maybe it’s the way that we all have this mindset of comparison where we see other people’s work and want to be as good as them.
That is the blessing and the curse of having social media at our fingertips, and is also why I am so bad at posting on Instagram. It is the best way to see other people’s work and the best way to compare ourselves to them. It is the same with going to a museum and looking at famous works of art. It is simply unrealistic to try to compare to them.
There are times when an art block kicks in and my brain cannot comprehend what to do next. Sometimes my sketchbook remains unopened for a few weeks. It’s times like that when the thought of Bob, coffee thermos in hand, pops into my head chanting, “look for the colors that are not there,” which leads to the shapes and designs that are or are not there. This may only make sense to me, but usually that gives enough inspiration start up again.
Plus, if I go too long without doodling something it gets, I don’t know, weird. Like pressure inside to let an idea out, similar to a bottle of pop that has been shaken. I’ll get hooked on a cool geometric shape or find some weird little object around the house to sketch that leads to other, better ideas. Then it’s five hours later and I won’t have eaten or moved or looked at my phone, but it’s okay because a little piece of me is now sitting on my desk, a hard copy of a thought that actually became something.
It’s not a thing that I do professionally; it’s simply for fun. Occasionally I’ll do a commission and sell a few things or give pieces away as gifts. It’s not a unique or rare talent, but I like to think that the things I make are unique in their own way. I still drag around a sketchbook in my purse.
I guess I’ll stick to being that girl who does art. What else is there to be?
Renee Brown is a freelance writer living in Southern Minnesota who really does have more interests than being a member of her generation, but you’d have to ask her about that. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JinjahSnap.
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