Sunday, November 04, 2012

Doing things the hard way

Well, I've finished my first painting class. It was incredibly difficult, and really was a matter of being thrown into something without knowing what I was doing. When you're learning something new, completely from scratch, as an adult, it can be tremendously frustrating and that frustration of course adds to one's difficulties. Adults are used to being good at things, and for the most part we've got to this stage in our lives pretty comfortably just with whatever set of skills we acquired in youth and it can be hard to convince our brains that the pain and trouble of learning something new is worthwhile. Especially in the midst of the pain and trouble.

I'm fairly pleased with the result. Not that the painting itself is worth looking at as a piece of work (no, you're not getting pics, sorry) but because it shows a clear progression from not-having-a-clew to starting-to-get-the-gist. It's painful, but really quite a satisfying experience to actually feel the new grooves being ground into your synapses. Though I was, at stages, ready to bang my head on the floor over it, I'm very happy I tried it and am ready to launch into the next one and take it to the next stage.

One of the things that I appreciate about it is learning colour mixing. I wouldn't know myself, having never studied art anywhere else, but apparently other teaching methods don't include this skill. One is simply expected to buy lots and lots of different tubes of colours and learn to put them together on the palette. But Andrea's method is called the Limited Palette, and involves starting with the same set of primary colours (not Primary Colours, which is a related but separate physics-thing) Lead or Flake White, Yellow Ochre, Red Oxide, Cobalt Blue, Alizerin Crimson and Black Ivory. These six are arranged along the top edge of the palette, and from them, a set of secondary colours, green, purple, the light shades of green, pink, lavender, light ochre and light blue that you use with the primaries to create the shades matched to the model.

I spent nearly a whole class doing nothing but mixing colours, trying to match them to the skin tones of our model, and hardly putting anything on the painting.

James Gurney (the Dinotopia guy) writes here an interesting blog post about the value of putting away all the tubes of secondary colours and learning to mix your own. It wasn't until recently that I realised how rare it is for an art course to take it for granted that you learn to mix your own. (Another sign of the cultural apocalypse, the result of the 20th century Asteroid.)

In general, I think I've come to accept that the best way to do nearly anything is the hard way. For one thing, learning, for example, to sew and draft patterns by hand, or bake "from scratch" or cook from whole-food ingredients, means you will always have the skills and knowledge at your disposal and will just be generally better equipped to handle life. If you go through life only buying clothes read-made, cooking only opening packages, your choices in life are forever limited and your experience and enjoyment of life are narrowed.

But the other great value of doing things the hard way, at least at the beginning, is that difficult things, time consuming things, stop being intimidating. Tasks in life seem less like obstacles and more like interesting journeys. It makes all of life into a vast, grand and fascinating experiment. If you've committed to making yourself a new blouse by first drafting the pattern from sketches, then creating a muslin sloper mock-up for fitting, then putting the blouse together by hand stitching without a machine, doing bound button holes, welt pockets or properly sealed french or flat-felled seams, or even a little embroidery around the cuffs and collar, really don't seem like that much extra trouble. You've committed to doing it the hard way anyway, so why not go the extra mile?

When you have been trained, or later in life trained yourself, to stop struggling against the threat of difficulties and attack them eagerly as challenges, life ceases to be a struggle or a slog. Fear of life was crippling to me for many years, and I can't tell you what a relief it is to no longer be afraid of things.

Or at least, to know concretely that when you are afraid, it can be handled, that troubles, though frightening, don't have to be crippling. Or at least-at least, if you ever are temporarily crippled by fears and insecurities, it becomes possible to bounce back and struggle forward and overcome. It gives you courage, in short. Particularly if you know that most of the time the difficulties you are facing are freely chosen, not imposed. It certainly makes the ones that are imposed against your will easier to handle.

I've read somewhere that the easy road leads to perdition, and that it is a hard and narrow way that leads to salvation. I can well believe this, since it seems to be verifiable in the natural realm as well.

I read a few books by a psychologist on human evil many years ago, and he applied a principle of mental health to the ancient conundrum. He says that progress in psychotherapy can only be made once the patient starts to accept the primary rule of life: that it is difficult. Problems can only become useful once one has lost the notion that everything in life ought by rights to be easy and smooth going all the time. People fight all their lives to try to make things as easy for themselves as possible, and this is perfectly natural and a good thing. But once comfort becomes the primary concern, cowardice becomes our only reaction to every difficulty.

It's another of the pervasive Fantasies of modern life, that it has to be easy and smooth all the time. One that will send us mad and make us into demons. But getting to the point of willingly or even eagerly embracing suffering is the work of a lifetime. Personally, my many temper tantrums when things don't go my way show clearly how much more life I will require to get there.



Anonymous said...

When I started to learn a little iconography, my favourite part was mixing the colours which sounds pretty similar to what you were doing. Very enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

He says that progress in psychotherapy can only be made once the patient starts to accept the primary rule of life: that it is difficult.


Anonymous said...

Division of labor is the basis of civilization. Stop turning into a hippie. - Karen