An overnight cold front swept in, taking our beautiful spring warmth to a sudden chilly, rainy, gray day. As I stare out over the porch, which is too wet and cold for writing this morning, I see subtle movements and the silhouettes of deer moving through the backwoods. I counted five this morning and have counted as many as 12 on some days. Quiet and graceful, they move through the land, alert at all times and skittish at the slightest sound, always ready in a split second to make a life-saving run. When I walk through my woods, there are paths they’ve worn, paths they typically follow, generation after generation, following the direction of their elders.
We too have pathways. In the past I’ve talked about how we tend to follow the pathways of our elders and often adopt patterns that live on for generations. It’s a rare person who invents their own pathway because that requires deliberate thought. And though the road less traveled involves more roadblocks, rougher paths, and more pioneering, it can make for a life of excitement, while the roads frequently traveled can lead to sameness and following the masses. The pathways you choose for life can be a walk through the woods, a climb up a difficult mountain, a country road, or a superhighway. Thankfully, in this country, we get to choose. It’s not that way in many other cultures, where your job or even your spouse is chosen for you.
Paths Art a Part of Learning
Sunday Coffee isn’t just for painters, but the subject slips into my words from time to time, though I try to offer thoughts that appeal to everyone. If you’ve been hanging around having coffee with me for a while, you know of my passion to teach people to paint because of the benefits we get: joy, confidence, distraction and stress reduction, creative use of our brains, new challenges, etc. Recently when I was talking about our veterans’ initiative, a psychiatric professional who reads this reinforced that there is hard evidence that art-making engages other parts of the brain and tends to give people great joy and the ability to cope with their issues.
It’s Not About Natural Talent
Sadly, culture has a misperception about painting and drawing, with people believing these are natural-born talents and that if they don’t have them, they never will. In fact, I used to believe that too. In third grade, the kid at the desk next to me could draw amazingly well, and I could not. Little did I know he had been practicing obsessively for years.
I find it odd that we don’t expect that of brain surgeons, lawyers, judges, architects, or even musicians. We know they have to apply a lifetime of study to master their professions, yet we don’t realize that also applies to artists. It’s this reason alone that millions who want to learn to paint or draw don’t do it. Almost daily, I encounter “I don’t have any talent. I can’t even draw a stick figure.” As a result, people never give it a shot.
Giving it a shot is an important starting point, but it isn’t enough. I’ve met too many people who tried painting or drawing and quit because they got discouraged too easily.
I started painting at the side of my mom, a painter, as a child, but gave it up for decades until in my late 30s I bought some supplies and tried to make some paintings — which were a disaster. Being self-taught isn’t the best road because it slows progress, and my wife recognized my need for lessons and bought me one for my 40th birthday. The instructor told me to “throw the paint on the canvas with big, sweeping strokes and express yourself.” When I told him I wanted to learn to paint real things, he told me, “No one does that anymore.” So I quit, discouraged.
A Magic Cab
Thankfully, later on I was stuck in a cab, and the driver, an artist, told me about a guy in the training lineage of the great French painter Gérôme. I walked into the class on a Saturday morning, saw the amazing work on the easels of the class members, told myself I could not do that, and turned around and walked away. But the instructor, Jack Jackson, called me back, and talked me into staying by saying I could be doing work at that level in 18 months or less. He then got me started on a project right then, and told me what the steps would be.
Step One, Step Two
The magic he used to get me interested and keep me interested was that he immediately engaged me in a project, teaching me how to grid a painting for copying. He then told me the path he would take me on. He told me I could go as fast as I wanted but had to master each step before he would take me to the next. He told me I’d have moments where I wanted to give up and that those moments should be embraced, because that’s where the breakthroughs come from. So instead of telling me it would be easy, he told me it would not be easy, but that I could do it, because it was in small steps I could easily master.
A Learning Tool
Everyone teaching anything should be doing this. Whether you’re teaching art or photography, muic, or anything else, the student needs to know it won’t be easy, but that they can master small steps at their own speed, and they will make great progress faster than they can imagine as long as they don’t give up when they get discouraged.
How many things have you given up because you had no hope?
How many things could you be doing today if someone had helped you understand the path?
Awkward at First
My guitar teacher, Steve, did this with my first lesson. He told me I’d feel clumsy and awkward, and that he’d felt this way too, but I could learn to play like him. He then played something amazing. He told me the path, told me how to deal with my frustration, and sure enough, he was right. At the start of last summer I was struggling, and by the end of the summer the project we worked on was flowing like hot lava. He helped me keep my eye on the future and helped me manage my expectations and my frustration.
Passion Isn’t Enough
Some of us, myself included, allow frustration to get in the way and we give up. Some of us, myself included, persisted in some cases, in spite of that frustration, and gained results. Part of that is driven by our level of passion. Yet passion alone isn’t enough. We need a path, and we need constant encouragement.
Whatever you and I want to learn in life, we should seek out the best of the best to teach us. The best are usually not a little better than others at their craft, but 10 times better. The best will demand more from us than those who are not the best. They will work us harder, challenge us more, expect more of us, and push us to perfection. I don’t want an easy path, I want the best path. I’m willing to put in the time and get through the frustration because I now understand that when you learn from the best, you become the best. It’s also how I choose my instructors for my events and videos. They don’t get invited in unless they possess great ability to give results to my customers.
How would things change if on day one of a class, an instructor laid out the path, the expectations, the frustrations, and the value of those frustrations?
Yes, it might turn off a few who are unwilling to put in the effort. Though unfortunate, the reality is that you don’t get much if you don’t put much in.
I can think of lots of friends who told me they started to draw or paint, or play music, or play sports, who would have stuck with it — if the path had been revealed.
Where can you reveal a path? Who that is under your guidance now needs to hear about the path before they opt out in frustration?
I’m planning to reveal the path we take people on in our own business. Though I need to define it in detail, it’s basically that I’ll teach you, the very beginner, how to draw, how to get to the next level of drawing, then the next. Then I’ll teach you about values, then shapes, then color, then edges, then how to paint. When you get here, you graduate to the next level. Then I’ll take you to a higher level, and then higher still, then once you’re at that level, I’ll teach you how to sell your art, how to build your career, starting with the simple things and then deepening your level of sophistication. I may even then take you into a personal coaching program to take you to the level of the most famous artists in the world.
Whatever that path ends up being, it will be a lot more detailed and clearer than what I’ve given here. The magic is that the student then will not have this overwhelming feeling of being at one level and seeing the high level and not believing they can master it. Yet if they know the steps, know what comes in between, and know we’re there with them when they get stuck or frustrated, they are more likely to stick with it.
Let’s ponder the idea of paths. And if your instructor does not provide you with the path, pass this on to them and ask, “Can you show me the path?” They all have it in their minds, in their curriculums. It’s just that most never share the path.
You and I can help a lot of people by revealing the path.
PS: When I brought this idea of pathways to my team, we had a realization that we can start building the path of expectations into everything we do. For years we’ve been teaching beginning plein air painting at our convention Basics Course, but this year we redefined it with a path in mind and more steps to make progress happen for the attendees, and then we added in mentors who will stick with the people in that course for the whole week on the days we go out painting. We think it will make a big difference. Fingers crossed. We’ll find out in April.
PPS: I’d like to do something a little unusual and honor someone today. Life is full of surprises, challenges, and special moments. We have no control. About five years ago, I announced a new event called Fall Color Week, and we held the first one in Maine. We had about 60 or 100 people, and we all made a lot of very good friends who remain close to this day. Some of us stay in touch all year through our private Facebook page and others just show up year after year, and we connect as old friends, as though we have been together all along. We paint together for a week, all day every day, we have our meals together, and we sit up at night to laugh, sing, paint portraits, or just chat. There are no lessons; it’s just a painting retreat that I host.
Some people drop out for a year or two, other new people come in every year, but we all become close and most everyone returns. When we had our first event, it was attended by a lady from California, probably in her mid-50s, named Theresa (Terry) Poplawski. She was a joy to be around, always had a giant smile on her face, and was a magnet to others. In fact, she and one of the other women in the group, Carolyn Carradine, became best friends, figured out they lived close together, and became painting buddies throughout the year. They always returned to Fall Color Week, and the Plein Air Convention too. A couple of weeks ago Carolyn informed me that Terry, who’d thought she was in perfect health, returned from our Fall Color trip in Banff and Lake Louise only to discover she had stage 4 cancer. As it turned out, it was her last painting trip. She passed away just last week. It all happened very quickly. She found out in November, fought like crazy to beat it, and was gone in early March.
We all become very close in these groups. I’ve made some of my best friends at these events, as have others. It’s always sad if someone can’t return for any reason. We all get busy. Sometimes it’s a health issue, a wedding or a family issue, or a financial issue. It’s sad when anyone does not return. But losing a family member like this is tough for us all. Yet, If I learned anything from Terry, it was that she embraced life and opportunity. It was not always easy for her to get to our events, because she too had a family and a life to manage, but she made it a priority to also do something for herself. She probably told herself she had plenty of time to do these things and could have said, “I’ll do it one day,” but instead she rewarded herself, and the result was rich experiences and friendships that made the last five years of her life even more special. And she made the last five years very special for the rest of us in the group. I’ll always remember that big grin of joy.
I’m going to honor Terry by framing a photo I took of her, and having it be on the table during Fall Color Week at Ghost Ranch this September. She is part of the family, and it won’t be the same without her. Terry Poplawski, you enriched our lives. May your path be rich and may you rest deeply in peace.