When I was a child I was extremely skinny—not much in the way of extra fat anywhere. It wasn’t something I noticed much about myself until I started going to swim class, and in the beginners’ lessons found that I really didn’t float easily like the teacher said I would. I’d lean back, then tense up and sink. I barely squeaked by into the intermediate class, and my new teacher decided to demonstrate how the human body floats by throwing me into the deep end of the pool. I sank to the bottom and watched the wavering figures of the other kids look down at me for an uncomfortably long time before the teacher realized I wasn’t going to be coming up any time soon and dove in after me. It took a long time—years actually—before I was confident enough to finish learning how to swim. But when I finally did jump in and try swimming, encouraged by my great aunt, I found that it wasn’t as difficult or frightening as my memory of being thrown in the pool had made it out to be.
Preconceptions about the difficulty of learning a new skill can often make people feel unwilling or inadequate. An unpleasant first experience can sour things further. But taking that jump can pay off in more ways than one.
For years I’ve thought about learning to oil paint. But I kept putting it off because it seemed so intimidating. Only masters paint in oils, right? Don’t you need to learn more about color theory, more about composition, before trying it? There were lots of excuses to be found.
Then I decided go for it. I would start with acrylic paints and attend a color theory workshop. The woman who arrived to teach was rather scattered and halfway through the workshop we realized she was accidentally teaching a portrait workshop instead. But she did show how to work with oils, and after the day was through I had made up my mind to try oil painting myself. I enrolled in the next available class at the local art center.
It turned out that oil painting was remarkably similar to charcoal drawing: a medium that was easy to move about on the surface, easy to correct and rework. Unlike the fast-drying acrylics I had tried, oils remain wet enough to wipe off or blend or mix for a very long time, making it actually more forgiving than the acrylic paints I had assumed were an easier medium.
So far I’ve painted a few portraits, and used insights from the layering of colors that I learned in class in the illustration I did for the recent cover of G.K. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn.
Not all leaps work out. Once, before realizing how difficult it would be, I tried creating a digital illustration for a book cover in the program Adobe Illustrator. The end result looked terrible and was scrapped in favor of a new approach. But even that leap taught something: it taught me that I needed to learn much more before trying again. Since then I spent several weeks learning how to work in illustrator and have done several cover illustrations using the program.
Growing creatively means that there always has to be times of moving outside the comfort zone, taking that leap beyond what we already know. It also takes some humility: going beyond your area of expertise means being open to failure.
Previous posts by John Herreid on art and creativity:
Image: Oil paintings of family by John Herreid.