Art Beat: Think Like an Artist
Often, in various settings where I am teaching art workshops, I’ll hear the phrase “but I’m not an artist!” to which I always respond, “everyone is an artist, you just have to start thinking like one!”
If I were to describe in the simplest way how one can think like an artist, I would say it begins with embracing ambiguity, by confronting the unknown, and by using curiosity in creative ways to develop ideas and solutions.
As an abstract painter, I often have a clear idea of my concept and colour palette but hardly any clues about what form that concept will take. It isn’t until I put that first stroke of colour onto the canvas that my creativity unfolds with more intention. Even though I don’t know what the painting will ultimately look like, I have faith in the creative and spiritual process. And it is precisely this curious state of both knowing and not knowing which really excites me. I see it as a journey — an adventure — and I might even say that it’s the best part of the process for me. For most people, however, it is the most daunting moment to see a blank canvas staring back at them from their easels. I have witnessed this in many of my students — whether adolescents, teenagers, or adults — they experience a certain degree of discomfort with not knowing, and sometimes they remain stifled in this state. Other times, they are able to get past it to allow their creativity to flow.
As an art educator, it is this discomfort that I try to teach my students to work with — in the hopes that they not only create a work of art that will please them, but ultimately do so to be better equipped to face and manage the uncertainty and occasional instability of life.
Recently, I was able to experience this with a wonderful group of 14-16 year old teenage students enrolled in Camp Ramadan in Bethesda, MD. I was hired to lead an abstract painting class, and in a nutshell, our project involved selecting an inspirational quote by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, and interpreting it in a visual manner using paint on canvas. I eased the students in by introducing tools, colours, materials, and techniques, and then gave them plenty of time to openly explore. This was followed by a brainstorming and sketching session where we first selected adjectives to describe parts of our quotes and then discussed how we would paint the adjectives in a visual way. The final classes then involved the students working towards a completed painting.
The beginning of this process, like so many other classes, involved a lot of uncertainty, some quiet, blank stares and a bit of frustration. To remedy this, I would gently guide the student to think about what colour they were feeling, and encourage them to start by applying that colour on the canvas. The process would start to become lighter as students began to move from their outer states and connect with their inner ones. Conversations and comments amongst classmates would flow in and out of the painting process, and I would make sure there was little judgment or talk of art that was “good” or “bad.” I would often demonstrate techniques on student’s canvases, which excited them and helped build confidence in their own skills, and I saw their moods gradually transform from uncertain to spirited. Before they knew it, they had covered their canvases in colour and started recognizing expressions in their work.
The most moving element of it all for me was the transformation the students experienced from feeling lost to feeling more in control of their thoughts. They did it all by themselves — and experiencing it through the conduit of the arts made it all the more enjoyable.
Through this experience, I truly hope more adults will encourage themselves and the youth around them to think like an artist and practice facing uncertainty with more optimism and creativity, as certainly it will lead to many more life-learning moments!