Thursday, August 27, 2015

One of my best teachers

     I thought I couldn't wait to get in that painting class.           I used to stand outside the door and look in and dream of the day I could be a student in that class, with those old oak easels and leaded glass windows on the third floor of the old art building. Not to mention that wonderful fragrance of linseed oil, always present in the painting studio.
Now I was there, and it felt hopeless. My professor, the venerable Dr. Murphy, would take great interest in the work of a few of her students. The ones who knew what they were doing. But with me, she would come up behind,  watch me paint for a moment, and say the same thing every time.

 "Well, finish this one and go on to the next one."

Intimidating. Frustrating. Even embarrassing. Truth is I didn't know what I was doing, and I needed someone to teach me.

But I slogged on, moving from one amateur looking painting to the next, hoping to improve, hoping to one day hear something more from my teacher.

Then it happened.

I was in a smaller studio space, still on the third floor, next to a big window that looked out onto the wooded art terrace. I was painting a brown tree trunk, concentrating on the patterns made by the light coming through leaves. Again, she watched for a few moments, then said, "See that tree out the window?' I want you to go downstairs and go outside and take a good look at the bark of that tree. Then come back up here and tell me what colors you see."

I did what she told me to do. Lo and behold, I did not see brown! I saw reds, blues, greens, beautiful grey violets, ruddy oranges and earthy yellows. Tints and shades of every hue, each one variegated and blending into the next.

     I went back upstairs with a fresh perspective and a new respect for color. First thing I did was put away the tube of brown paint. I used the three primary colors in new ways, daring and coaxing them to become tree bark. 

It's been 38 years since I sat in Dr. Murphy's painting class and learned to paint. Her well-worn advice to "finish this one and start the next one", is some of the best advice I ever heard when it comes to painting. You have to paint and paint and paint to learn how to paint. You have to observe, sketch, plan, design, yes, all that. But mostly you have to paint.

So these memories have come back vividly to me, since I have started my painting series from the cabin in the woods. All those tree bark colors, grayed down and subtle yet rich and inviting, are silently reminding me of my first attempts at painting. 
So, here are a few detail shots from my painting series, which is otherwise off the radar until further notice. 

Notice all the color in the tree bark?!

Every color but brown!

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments, but I can't unless you leave them here. 


  1. That's such a great lesson! I really love the story. The watercolors look amazing. I can't wait to see the whole paintings. Maybe put a cat in there too.

  2. My favorite teacher was my drawing teacher in art college. He was always opening our minds to keep us from just being literal. One day he brought in an article from Vogue magazine, the title of which was "Who or what is the Dreamer within you, and to whom is the Dreamer speaking?" Has affected me my whole life.

  3. Love the lesson learned. Adding all the colors really brings a sense of life to your work. Beautiful!