Down the Rabbit Hole: Intro

My siblings and I were taught piano as young children.  Our teacher was an elderly lady named Miss Sutphen.  She lived in a grand old Victorian home in Somerville, NJ.  Long, sheer curtains moved gently in the breeze beside the overstuffed chair in the sitting room where I waited to be called into the living room for my lesson.  I hadn't practiced more than the mandatory fifteen minutes a day.  It didn't matter.  I would be awarded a star anyway.  Twelve stars and I earned yet another little plaster bust of a composer.  I hated those little busts, knowing I hadn't really earned them.  The only one I liked was the one of a young Franz Liszt, terribly handsome. I loved music and I loved hearing the piano played ... most of the time. I didn't even mind practicing except that I wasn't learning what I wanted to learn.  I wanted to learn how to make up my own music.  I wanted to learn music theory, though I didn't know that was what to call it.  I wasn't interested in playing other people's music, I wanted to play my own.  If Miss Sutphen would teach me music theory, I would practice at least an hour or more a day.  She didn't.  She wouldn't.  She assumed I wouldn't understand.

At the time, I didn't know that this would be the pattern of my life, the desire to acquire skills so that I could go my own way and discover the very basics of why something works the way it does, why there's either harmony or disharmony, cohesiveness or fragmentation.  It didn't matter whether I was watching a dance, a movie, a theatrical performance or observing the assorted buildings along a New York City street. I wanted to know what made it sing to me and why. If it didn't sing, what was throwing it off.  I wanted to create harmonies and rhythms to express the way I saw the world around me and the world that swirled inside my head.  In order to do that, I needed to learn the very basics of construction, regardless of the field of study.

Since drawing and painting was the most challenging for me, that is the one I chose to pursue.  Early on, I knew that I wanted a lifetime of learning in a field that would challenge me forever.  Artists were magicians in my mind and I wanted to be able to create magic of my own. 

Having chosen the one area where I was the least competent meant that nothing came easily. I wasn't considered talented when it came to art. My parents felt it would be a terrible waste of money to invest in art lessons.  I learned from books and drew inspiration from illustrated children's books.  

Fortunately, my parents often brought the family into New York City to visit museums, the Museum of Natural History and various art museums.  A seed that would lay dormant for a couple of decades was planted while being rushed through the "my first grader can do that" rooms filled with modern art of the abstract impressionists.  It wasn't just my parents who voiced their opinion about the quality of such art.  I still hear that comment at least once when lost in a trance standing in front of a magnificent exploration of colors and shapes by Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers ...

Though my parents saw no talent in me as an artist, they always supported my efforts.  For that, I am eternally grateful.  

I'm impatient.  Just as I wanted to learn how to invent my own music, I wanted to learn how to let loose the artist I knew was within me, the one who wanted to create a painting that would take on a life of its own, never appearing the same way twice, always revealing something more to the viewer if the viewer took time to step into the painting and explore.  Lines, shapes and values were the first of the skills I was able to add to my artist's toolbox.  Color was a thorn in my side.  Even after multiple solo exhibitions and years of painting, color was not one of the skills in my toolbox.

I tried ... 

I read every book on color that I could put my hands on.  I made color wheels, color charts, color swatches.  I tried to understand why different artists used different palettes. I tried different palettes.  I memorized formulas for mixing pigments to create a perfect copper color for a kettle, a perfect green for an aloe plant, a perfect red for an old tractor.  Unfortunately, there was no internet and I couldn't watch fabulous tutorials and watch how artists actually applied their skills.  I had only their words and their personal points of view.  I didn't really want to paint like the artists who wrote the books I studied, I wanted to know what they knew and move on from there.

As I had one bad experience after another, I made mental notes so that I would remember, if I ever did teach an art course, the things I definitely WOULD NOT DO!

  The first on the list is:

1. I will never set up a still life in a beginner's drawing or painting class and say "Draw this still life".

What a preposterous way to begin a class, to ask someone who has never drawn, or drawn very little, to even know how to approach a pile of assorted shapes, colors and textures on a table:

cloth

grasses

silver

glass

fruit

vase

In my mind, that's a perfect way to ensure that half the class will never again sign up for an art class of any kind.

My reason for teaching is to have the opportunity to unleash each student's inner creativity and to nurture each student's unique journey into that space of balance and joy that I know is there for them.  It is not for me to dictate a style, a method or a way of seeing.  I can only help to open my students' eyes to new approaches from which they must pick and choose those that work for them.  Though my students do learn to draw and to paint, what I really teach is "how to see".

Sorry for the very long ... VERY LONG introduction to this long, VERY LONG blog post.

In fact, I think it best if this becomes a multi-part blog post.  I have a great deal of territory to cover.  Down the Rabbit Hole has been inspired by a recent and ongoing dialogue between two of my online students, Carol, Vesta, and me.  The dialogue began with Carol's posting of two mandalas, a project in my Skillshare Class: Color Wheel Mandala Part II.  Below are Carol's Mandala #4 and Mandala #5.  The first pair of images is the way they appear on my computer monitor when I view them online.  The second pair of images are slightly tweaked in photoshop attempting to bring the grayness of the paper (and perhaps the overall neutralizing of the colors) back into a more realistic representation of her mandalas.  it is impossible for me to know what the originals look like and it's impossible for me to know how these will appear on your own monitor.

Over the next few days I will continue this blog post, providing you bite-size segments to digest before moving on to the next part of the answers to the questions they've asked me regarding the color palette Carol used for the two mandalas.

I'm grateful to both Carol and Vesta for giving me permission to post their images as well as their questions and comments in this series of blog posts.  They've led me back down one of the rabbit holes that led me astray so long ago.  My love for both science and  creative color play waged war with one another for thirty years after attending my first color theory class in the commercial art school back in the early 70's.  It's that thirty year war that gave me the foundation upon which I now stand, capable of presenting color theory in a way that nurtures everyone's inner artist, the one that may have been hiding for far too many years.  In 2008 I began reteaching myself color theory from the understanding of light waves.  It was not easy to reprogram a faulty method of mixing color pigments, the method I had been taught.  Unfortunately, that is a version of color theory still taught, leaving the unsuspecting student to turn to memorizing pigment names and formulas to eke out a bit of lively satisfactory color.

Yes ... I will be ranting a bit in the first few episodes of this blog post.  That being said, I don't regret my long journey.  It's given me the ability to reach so many more artists, even artists who, like me, have been professional artists for a very long time, without really being able to mix their pigments with intention, being able to predict the outcome and create the emotion and mood they desire. I'm grateful that I no longer have to wash so much watercolor paint down the sink and scrape to much oil paint off of my canvases.

Welcome to the glorious world of color exploration!!!

Thank you, Carol and Vesta.

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Chris Carter - Artist

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