I’m Not an Artist – Part 1

People that know me well enough might not agree with this statement.  I hope that by the end of writing this that I will have convinced myself that it is not a true statement.  For those of you who do not know me as well, I will let you be the judge of the validity of that statement.

I guess the real basis upon which this statement can be made depends upon how you define the word artist.  I’ve never actually looked up the definition.  Maybe I always had a general idea of what an artist was and I knew I wasn’t one.  To me an artist was certainly someone who made a living creating art.  But I also knew that an artist could create art without being paid for it and it could still be considered art.  So in defining an artist, I need to understand what art is as well.   Not surprisingly I’ve never looked up that definition either.

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My idea was that being an artist or creating art took talent, creativity, and skills, all of which were traits that I did not recognize in myself.  At an early age, I recognized that I did not have the fine hand motor skills necessary to draw very well.  Whatever I attempted to draw, the outcome little resembled what I was drawing.  Even trying to learn to write cursive letters was frustrating because I never could form my letters or words to look as pretty or as graceful as the letters on the classroom wall chart.  And this was something that everyone had to learn how to do, artist or not.  Fortunately, I realized after grade school, that I could return to just printing letters and words and other than signing my name, I have not even attempted writing in cursive letters in over 40 years.

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This lack of hand motor skills possibly led to the development of my appreciation for all things precise: straight lines, perfect circles, smooth curves, goals I could never achieve on my own.  But with the aid of rulers, compasses, and protractors, I could overcome my limitations and draw things.  At an early age I can remember spending hours drawing two things mainly: cars and home floor plans.  I didn’t know how to draw in perspective so everything was two-dimensional.  This wasn’t a problem for drawing floor plans since I only drew top down images and my cars were always pictured from the side.  But I used to love to come up with unique layouts for the house dreaming one day I would design homes.  What fun!  And it wouldn’t even seem like a job.

In high school, when I was trying to figure out what to study in college, I actually took several tests designed to help someone identify their interests and abilities and match those with potential career opportunities.  According to the instructor when I took the test for whether or not I could be a good architect, I failed miserably.  When presented with a series of figures and asked to pick which would be next in the series, I never selected the appropriate answer.  And on top of that, he said that most homebuilders just built spec or “cookie cutter” homes and rarely hired someone to design a “one off” home.  My dream career was crushed.  When I asked what my tests did show, he said I had a strong interest in science, which I realized I did and which has led to a fulfilling and successful career of over thirty years.

So I wasn’t an artist, I was a scientist and I was proud to say that.  But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a love for art was dormant waiting to be discovered.  It tried to first blossom in college when in 1977 I took a photography class.  Being a chemistry major, I enjoyed learning the chemistry of developing film and the mechanics of printing photographs using darkroom techniques.  But it was my assignment to photograph “poverty” and my instructor’s comments that my photos merely showed trash and neglect that dashed my hopes of taking artist photos.  I guess I learned it was more than just recording images on film in a part of town where poverty existed if I wanted to capture poverty in a photo.  It was many years after I took this photo in North Memphis before “the art” in me began to resurface.

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I have been fortunate in my professional career to be able to travel internationally and on many of these trips I would visit art museums.  I loved seeing the beautiful paintings by many well-known artists and I was intrigued how an artist could paint such realistic looking paintings.  Some were so real, it was difficult to distinguish from a photograph.  These were real artists who definitely had the talent and skills to create striking art.  I would also occasionally visit modern art museums on these trips and I remember thinking two things.  One, just what was it that made modern art “art” and two anyone could that, even me.

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My first attempt at creating art grew from an appreciation for a painting I passed daily at work on my way to the cafeteria.  I was drawn to a modern painting of a couple of buildings.  Maybe this was a resurfacing of my adolescent love for architecture.  I admired the interesting colors and the straight lines and I thought, “I could do that” and I am going to try.  I knew aspiring artists often developed their skills painting other artist’s paintings.  But I knew I couldn’t sit in the hall at work all day attempting to paint this painting.  So I took a digital photo of it and took it home.  You can even see a reflection of me in the glass.

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I decided to make my version of the painting the same size as the original so I could judge how well I achieved my goal.  I printed out my photo and began to measure the dimensions of each of the features.  Knowing that I needed to accurately translate the building’s dimensions from an 8 X 10 photo to a 16 X 24 canvas, I pulled out my calculator and determined the proportions necessary to “blow up” the scale.  Using a ruler, I drew all the straight lines on a piece of paper to allow for any necessary corrections and then once I had the 16 X 24 drawing on paper, I redrew it on the canvas.

I knew with my hand skill limitations and my desire for precise straight lines that I was not going to be able to paint straight lines either.  So I used blue painter’s tape to block off a section at a time for painting.  I didn’t even try blending colors; I just used the paint right out of the tube.  While this can be a slow, tedious process, taping and painting and repeating, it allowed me to achieve my goal.  And I thought a fairly true rendition of a real piece of art.

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It was actually my wife that gave me the confidence to hang my painting on the wall.  For many years, she had been creating art and we had multiple paintings and quilts of hers hung on the walls in our home.  I felt safe since she had gotten numerous compliments on her art.  However, I was anxious as to what my sister would think, as I viewed her as a real artist, having trained, studied, and created art her whole life.

I don’t recall her exact comments but I know they were positive and encouraging.  The comment that I distinctly recall is that she urged me to paint another of my own creation.   I remember thinking, “Boy, you don’t know what it took for me just to paint this one which was only a copy.  Now you want me to create the design as well.  Wow that will be tough.”  But I was motivated and I was very pleased with the outcome of my first painting.  Even though this was just a copy, it was art.  But wait a minute, didn’t I say I wasn’t an artist?

5 responses to “I’m Not an Artist – Part 1

  1. I loooove this post! Thank you for giving us some insight into the beginnings of your creative process. I too know very well how it feels to think for years and years that you are not an artist. That kind of thinking takes a lot of time to overcome, and I am so glad you did. Also, I want to find your photography teacher and kick him! That was a beautiful photograph, and it pains me that professors often say things like that without considering their emotional impact, for years to come. Also, I never knew that you used to draw floor plans and wanted to be an architect!! Maybe that’s where Martin got it from! I love seeing that connection in your paintings, and I love your paintings so much. 🙂 What I think is the most marvelous thing of all is that I have known you my entire life, and I just learned something about you that I never knew. Thank you for sharing this treasure of a memory of you drawing floor plans and cars as a little boy! I am, and always have been, so proud of you, but today I am a little prouder still. 🙂 I love you!

  2. I love you too sweet little girl! Thanks for your so kind words. For a long time, I have wanted your mom and I to create our own version of Nanny and Granddaddy’s “The Black Book” to be able to tell you kids some of our story that you might not know. But with your mom’s encouragement for me to start a blog, I came to realize that I didn’t have to create a book. I could use modern technology and bring our story to life in a whole new way. So stay tuned. There are two more parts to this story and 25 more stories waiting in the wings.

  3. Yes, I agree with Krug that the way a teacher speaks to a student is very important. When I took my little painting class, I was so impressed at the way our teacher gave us feedback. She was honest, yet always positive, and never condescending or patronizing. Thanks for sharing your story with us, creative scientist. We’re all artists!

  4. Pingback: Phone Chair – Part I | onecreativescientist

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