I may be a writer but I have never considered myself to be an artist. In fact my drawing skills are appalling and I can’t even make my handwriting stick to the lines on a page. At school, my art teacher actually told me that in no way was I to study the subject. Yet, for some reason, last year, I kept bumping into Daniella Rubinovitz. There was no way I could ignore the fact that she was an artist because she always attends networking events wearing her paint-spattered navy blue overalls. Anyway, by early December, when I had seen her twice in the same week I took this as a sign that I needed to attend one of her workshops in Amsterdam. Held on a Saturday afternoon, under the eaves of an old school, the class called Inner Images fascinated me.
“Discover inner images through a playful usage of clay, charcoal and paint. After an exercise with clay, you will continue to draw and paint with both your left and right hand (on large format paper),” read the course description. I bit the bullet and booked.
Our first task was to close our eyes and meditate on a sticky, grey ball of clay. I did not enjoy the feeling of the clay in my hands one bit. It felt dirty, like mud, or worse. I found myself shaping it into a wheel, trying to smooth its rough edges and make something that felt cleaner to the touch. It was fascinating to focus on the sense of touch like this, a rare thing for a visual person like me. I learned that I was more of a perfectionist than I realized.
The painting exercise that followed was even more interesting. With no guidelines, nothing to copy and the instruction to paint with our hands on huge canvasses I was terrified. What? No rules? No end in mind? No goal? This was unusual for me. Then the penny dropped. When I teach my students to speedwrite, using stream of consciousness writing, I too give them no guide, no rules. I tell them to ‘just go’. Many find that just as difficult and daunting as I did that day, faced with a blank sheet and three blobs of primary coloured acrylic paint on an old square of formica.
To start with, I had a goal. I would try to paint a landscape. Yet the colours were wrong, the things I tried to depict did not look as I intended. I tried to mix my favourite azure blue and spread it with my fingers over the paper. My hands became thick with paint. Pressing my fingers into blue and white paint that was thick as soft butter made my flesh crawl. I had paint under my fingernails, up my arms, on my face where I’d scratched my chin thoughtfully and in my hair. The harder I tried, the bigger a mess I made. I looked round the room at the other artists. Everyone’s work looked better than mine. And my hands were filthy.
‘Daniella!’ I called. ‘I need help. Mine’s rubbish.’
‘Use a pallet knife to scrape off the layers you don’t like,’ she suggested. So I did. Just as writers have to delete sections of text that don’t work, I could take away bits of my painting.
‘Try this,’ she offered, holding up a cardboard frame. ‘Look at your painting through this. Look through the left eye and then the right. Find a part of the painting that you do like and work with that.’ And she walked away.
Daniella had still not told me what to paint. She’d told me how to see and how to take away. I wanted to be told what to paint. I wanted to be told which bits she liked. Instead I was on my own. But, you know, the frame helped. I did find sections that I liked. Then, disaster.
‘’You have fifteen minutes left,’ Daniella called out.
I panicked. Mine was still terrible. I stood back and looked at the bluey whitey greeny muddle on the paper and the thought came to me that it might benefit from some bright red. I got some red on my fists, closed my eyes and let them land wherever they wanted. I allowed my hands to move instinctively. Not too bad. I stood back and thought, now it needs some black. I daubed on a bit of black and again it was not too bad. With five minutes left I stopped thinking about what I was trying to do and just followed my instinct. I grinned inside. So, this was what losing control was like, was it? I liked it. I was being brave and bold and for once in my creative life I truly had no goal in mind. And, do you know what? I quite like my painting.
Daniella’s workshop opened my mind to how it must feel for any new writer faced with a blank page and told to ‘just write anything’. It’s so long since I felt vulnerable and exposed with a piece of paper, a pen and a deadline, that I now embrace such opportunities and dive in headlong. With art I am a rookie. Out of my comfort zone I felt uncomfortable and stupid. Yet, when I let go, at last, ignored the fact that I did not like my hands being dirty, abandoned any goal, did what felt natural, took away what looked bad and followed my instinct the result was, in my eyes, the best it could be. And, of course, it was what happened in the last 15 minutes that was best of all.
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