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What Paint Night Taught Me About Art

I wanted to title this post something like Art as a Social Activity or something like The Bliss of Ignorance. It reminded me of a sort of Miyagi-esque lesson about the relationship between practice, discipline, and what it means to do karate. Wait.

Last night I painted in a room full of people that I like to call friends. They might not be so generous with that term, but, nonetheless, we sat together in a room in our faculty building with garbage bags on the tables. There were snacks and art supplies provided. Somebody DJ’ed. This event was hosted by our department’s student association, of which I am a part. I had been trying to drag people out to pait night, since it was the best and most attended event of last year. At first they were reluctant, but I bent over backwards to get them there. And so they and others that I had never met were present at paint night.

It took me twenty years to start to understand art despite having an artist for a father. I have seen and heard enough drawing and painting advice and instruction to fill at least a small yet informative book. If only I could remember it! What follows is an amateur’s reflection on the paint night process.

Art is a social activity. The last time somebody told me what art was (a week ago) it was about ‘making the invisible visible.’ What will I bring to light tonight? Art is social because it is done by artists. Let’s pretend to ignore the elephants and machines in the room. Artists do things other than art. You’ve heard the phrase starving artist? Well, artists eat. While they go about doing that, they run into the rest of the world, they even socialize if you can call it that (sorry eccentrics). It is a gift to be surrounded by people you like, one that not a lot of artists necessarily experience. At paint night, I was lucky enough to enjoy the company and it was a while before I sat down to paint.

The first thing I learned from my father about painting was that everything is composed of smaller, easier to understand shapes. Fingers are cylinders and palms are pentagons. A model is drawn of the object based on these underlying shapes, it is triangulated with perspective, with light, color, form, space, all that jazz. After a while, in theory, the painter ends up with something they can be proud of.

If I write anything like I paint then I would start with people instead of shapes. The first person I had to introduce was ‘Matt’ and by his friends’ estimation, he is not much of an artist. Though he displays his last paint night adventure proudly, it is nothing more than a colorful gibberish, they say. My other friends had no clue that I was a doomed artist, and they inspired me with their humor. They made me feel that there was something there to be made. Of course, it was in their likeness, but I saw that it could be done according to my rules. I knew I wanted certain colors, I had gathered a feeling and an image. I was ready.

The first thing that dies when I strike the page is everything I thought the painting was going to be. When my friends imagined what a painting was it was a landscape, or a portrait, or a still-life. Above all, the painting should reproduce reality, it seemed. I love realist painting, and I admire those who are skilled enough to paint what is visible.

My painting is not like that. I have my image and my feeling. My image is always mistranslated onto the page as a result of my ineptitude (and ambition). I am useless as a painter and lack talent. Instead of being frustrated by this, I embrace it and with that embrace comes bliss. My ignorance is my bliss. I know very little of what other artists feel while they work, but I felt overwhelming joy and excitement. I exclaimed expletives when I added my neighbor’s newly minted blue to my gloomy grey patchwork. I was surprisingly satisfied by a plethora of playful purple plops, mesmerized by the motions of meddling mauve middles until it all became a couch on a cloud over a carapace. Needless to say I loved every second of it. The painting was dedicated to my friend.

If it weren’t for paint night, I would not get to paint. Paint nights make relationships visible while at the same time changing, and maybe deepening, those relationships. The paintings can live on elsewhere, they can be paintings of your friends, of your home or of faraway places. You can show off your talents or sit back and relax. It’s all good. It should be a space that isn’t occupied by the critic, that nasty academic voice. It would only be another sharpest tool in the shed, anyway. I discovered that my ‘method’ embraces ignorance and encourages surprise, it tries to put people in the mix. Think of it like an antidote to the critic. I may not be able to produce a canonical work, but with this method I think it’s possible to live the art that is coming through, and experience the emergence of beauty in relating… Or something.


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