Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Taking a Painting Class...In Homer!

There are certain groups of people of Homer that are endearing (or annoying, if you've been here too long!):  the casual xtra tuffs crew, the ultra liberals to the very conservatives, the environmental activists, the uber athletes, the adventure-seekers, the fishermen....and the artsy crew.  While my family rubs elbows with members of all these groups daily, we don't deeply identify with any of these groups ourselves, nor are we immersed in them.  Knowing how strong the arts are in Homer, I was a bit nervous about taking a painting class at the local college, Kachemak Bay Campus.  But the urge to paint has been lying dormant in me with brief flare-ups when I've taken two informal community-education-type painting classes over the past 7 years.  This was a big step:  a college class, 5 hours a week for 15 weeks in class plus more outside-of-class painting as well.  I screwed up my courage and dove in!

The students range ages 18 to 84, with the beginning, intermediate and advanced classes all combined into this one class to meet enrollment requirements, so the experience level is varied.  Some had painted before, some had not.  Some are prolific painters (like the 84-year-old grandma--she seems to do a painting a day and she is good!), while others appear to mostly come to class and paint. Some had worked with other mediums (this is an oil, water-based oil or acrylic class).  Some just had experience drawing.  Some have space at home to paint, while others take advantage of the open studio hours (most every weekday, all day!) and do their out-of-class painting on campus.  Everyone came in with supplies they already pulled together, and we got a primer on what we "had" to have and what we could use a substitute for (like paper plates instead of a palette or plywood for canvases) and pros and cons of each. 

The instructor is Asia Freeman.  You have to check out her website at to know that she is an awesome painter (eek!  What am I doing here?!).  My first introduction to Asia was over Christmas when my son and I were wandering around the Anchorage Museum's Art Gallery and came across a couple of Asia's painting's.  I had no idea who she was, but I recognized the name and knew she was from Homer.  First class I finally put a face with the name and realized I'd seen her around town and my son was classmates with her son (small town....).   Having an active artist as an instructor makes for great richness in understanding the questions we are faced with:  cost of supplies, where to order them, alternative supplies, and on and on.  Both Asia's mother and grandmother were art teachers, and in fact her mother designed the art room (pictured below) on campus.  Asia's roots in the arts in Homer run deep.  She is also the director of Bunnell Street Gallery (, a non-profit whose mission is "To nurture and present innovative art of exceptional quality in all media for diverse audiences," so many local "artsy" activities are brought up and we have been encouraged to get involved in the art community of Homer.

The art studio at Kachemak Bay Campus.  Couldn't capture the amazing view of mountains out the window!

First class we were each given some white gesso, some black acrylic paint, a blank sheet of canvas and a 2" chip paintbrush like you get at the hardware store.  Instructions:  PAINT!  My stomach flip-flopping and hands sweating, I started painting.  Uh, that one went to the trash.  I truly couldn't stand it.  My next one, though, is lots of people's favorite:  the crazy toaster.  Still-lives, in black and white, with a 2" chip brush.  Geez.  What a way to start!

My first painting of the semester--black and white acrylic still life of a toaster.

Ok--so the toaster is misshapen and there are so many things wrong with it--but that cord is quite interesting the way it is squiggling all over the place, and even a misshapen toaster can be interesting! 

So we moved on to wipe-outs, to single color paintings in different shades or hues, to a single color with that color's complementary color, and then adding more color (still doing still lives.....) and then RELIEF!  Time for landscapes!  Except that the landscape was restricted to the view out the window.  This is, after all, Homer in the winter.  There were days that the view out the window was visible less than an hour before it got dark.  Other days the clouds were whipping by and the sun was playing hide and seek so every time we looked out the window what we were painting looked different--and it's all about light so how to paint what's always changing?  How many scenes can you find out the window?  Innumerable, I discovered.  We jockeyed for position each class period--some up close to the window, some way back.  We'd have to scootch here or there as our view was obstructed.  It's a messy process....but it is beautiful Homer...!  Our class alone probably painted at least 15-20 views out that window in the past several weeks--and each was special and had its own flavor.

I was tired of jockeying for position, and I was tired of the view that kept changing and tired of that particular view so I started looking through my Alaska photos for pictures I would like to paint and found one of Turnagain Arm that is my favorite (both the picture and my painting--it's in my blog somewhere from last May or June), and another in Cooper Landing overlooking Kenai Lake.  I set up my iPad next to my canvas and painted from that.  Not ideal, but this is practice anyways, right?  And the conditions outside are so less than ideal....

Then Asia announced the paintings that struck terror in more than a few hearts:  portraits.  But she let us cheat.  We could start with a landscape with a small (tiny!) figure in it, and each painting the figures should be larger.  Tuesday I began a self-portrait, not wanting to massacre a painting of someone else and make them feel awful that I massacred them.  Someone painted me:  they did a nice job at capturing my essence as I painted (hunched shoulders, hair flying in every direction...).

In a few weeks we have the Kachemak Bay Campus student art showcase.  We pick the one or two paintings we most want to show and it is displayed for 3 weeks in the KBC commons.  I both want and don't want to have something displayed.  Part of me doesn't want to have people walking by my painting thinking, "She sucks as a painter!"  Part of me is darned proud of having done this.  How many people paint?  Well, lots in Homer, but most people cut off the possibility of their being any good before even trying it.  For years I've coached my students in learning positive communication skills: "How many times did you fall before you learned to walk?  Thousands?  Keep at it--keep practicing.  It does get better.  Don't expect it to be perfect right away."  I try to remind myself of that.  Some days are better than others.

My at-home painting studio.  If I turn around I have a stunning view of Grewinck Glacier I need to paint someday.

Now it's Thursday afternoon and I am blogging about painting rather than painting.  My stuff is all set up in my at-home studio, in the cabin opposite my office desk.  I will paint today....even when I'm cringing and thinking, "This looks awful" or thinking, "I need some exercise" or "I'm about I get something to eat?"  Like my urge to write, painting pulls me in.  I wish I could explain it.  It is a skill to develop, but it also changes the way I see the world.  I notice light on things. I observe subtle colors.  I take in how things are put together...and how they exist in relation to other things.  I'm in my infancy of pulling out the essence of what I see and trying to convey that on canvas.

A mish-mash sampling of my paintings from this semester, in no particular order. 

I've learned about painting, but also about seeing.  I've learned about brushes and paint and canvases.  I've learned about great artists.  I've learned what it's like to share one room with 11 other painters.  I've learned to notice what I like in others' paintings, and to share feedback tactfully.  I've learned to be gentle with myself.

Taking this class reminds me of my favorite quotes by Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr.:

One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.

Once this class is over in a month, I may not pick up a paintbrush again for awhile, but the things I've learned will continue to reverberate in me.  I am a different person, and it is a journey worth taking.


Maynard Pearson said...

I always wanted to take a painting class, but was too scared I was not good enough.

Michelle Waclawski said...

I say go for it! I didn't think I was any good either. It's more about expressing yourself than being good I think.