Bad Art

My Grade 12 students showed up at my studio for their after school art class and announced they had to create a ‘bad piece of art’. Their art teacher had assigned this their first homework of the semester, and I have to say we all got pretty excited about it!

“So what makes a piece of art really bad?” I asked them. Very quickly, a long list of criteria emerged. We started with the obvious: bad technique. The painting might be bad because the artist didn’t have the technical ability to execute the work to a high enough standard. But, we decided, it would be narrow minded of us to reject a painting based solely on that criteria. After all, an image could be poorly executed but still convey such a profound meaning or provoke such a strong emotion that it becomes good art.

Bad Art created by one of my students. Showcasing bad technic and unnecessary emotional shock value.

That led us to the next criteria: meaning. Does good art have to convey meaning in an effective way? Does it have to have meaning that is worth expressing? A lot of interior decorators would probably claim that good art doesn’t have to convey any meaning at all. It can just be a pretty picture. But who decides what relevant meaning is? Personally, I prefer art that tells a story, that expresses something more profound than just a pretty image. But ‘meaning’ is a very subjective term. In fact, after some thought, my students decided that, in the context of their homework, purposely creating artwork without meaning is deliberately inserting meaning!

And what about the perpetually misunderstood contemporary art world? At every turn of human history, artists have created work that was rejected, misunderstood or ignored by their contemporaries. Art, being exploratory in nature, should stretch the viewer’s understanding. A lot of people don’t appreciate the work shown in today’s contemporary galleries and would promptly judge it as bad art or, not art at all. I believe we should look at every piece of art with an open mind, and ask ourselves what the artist was trying to communicate, and did he/she succeed in conveying a new idea? Inevitably, I will either come to feel that I understand the artist’s meaning, or I won’t. But this is my own personal reaction to the work. The key words here are “personal” and “feel”, because all of us have our own personal idea about what is good art and what is bad art.

Sculpture 1 created by one of my students inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

Our discussion went on for a while. We talked about ‘motel art’ and ‘thrift store art’, and that discussion steered us toward the idea of value. Is bad art simply artwork that has no value to anyone, be it emotional value or financial value? Motels and most hotels will spend as little as possible on the art they display and will try to appeal to the widest audience. Their intention is to make people feel comfortable in their rooms. As for the thrift stores, the art you will find there was deemed valueless by whomever dropped it off. However, you might be lucky enough to find a real gem that was tossed by someone who couldn’t recognize art if he was standing in the Louvre!

We had a great class talking about artistic value – emotional, financial or otherwise. And in the end, perceived lack of value, although not perfect, may be the closest we came to defining bad art.

Sculpture 2 inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

Finally though, we all got down to work and one of my students decided to go for a poorly executed painting with an easy shock factor. Her painting depicts giant bugs crawling into an eye socket. She’s one of my most precise and detailed painters, so I was impressed with her self control as she deliberately failed to create excellent work. Another of the students presented with the same challenge spent a large portion of the class looking for an unpleasing colour combination. That was harder than you might think. Colours have a way of being interesting in their relationship with each other. She did succeed though, and we all agreed that the colours she settled upon during class are a very sad combination. Yet when she brought her sculptures to class the following week, all of us agreed that they were too interesting to be bad.

After two hours spent on the subject, we all agreed that intentionally creating bad art is not an easy task. We predicted that the high school class critique will conclude that most of the students didn’t succeed in their assignment. Most of them will have created something that is, in some way, and to someone, good art! Good enough, perhaps, to earn a spot at the MOBA (The Museumof Bad Art in Boston), that prides itself on collecting “art that is too bad to be ignored”. It’s an eclectic and delightful collection. Created in 1993, the MOAB was an instant success and its fame grows day by day. Roaming through their website, you can’t help but find the collection both fascinating and funny, although I’d have to say most of the work is very poorly executed.

Breathe and watch your posture… or your painting will suffer!

I suppose every seasoned artist knows this, but it always comes as a surprise to my new students when I say, “Watch your posture and remember to breathe”.

Dream, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

“And what does breathing and standing straight have to do with painting?” they ask. “A whole lot more than you might think,” I say. Painting is about being in the flow, finding a groove and letting the work manifest itself. It’s a place where our worries, our self-consciousness and our self-deprecation need to be set aside to leave room for unedited self-expression. Our bodies tend to carry all of our worries and negative emotions. Our muscles are tensed, our backs are slouched forward and we hold our breath too often, especially when concentration is required. All those can greatly affect the flow of your paintbrush and keep you stuck in an ineffective state of mind.

Breathing steadily and peacefully while painting helps you relax and bring your mind into a state of presence. It allows you to connect with your work, to see it better and to respond to it as it evolves. A painting isn’t something you can entirely plan ahead. You can make a few initial decisions, but after that, every brush stroke is a decision that is made in relation to what’s already on the canvas. So to make all these little decisions, you have to be present in every moment.  

Pensive, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

Painting is as much a physical act as it is an intellectual process. One thing is abundantly clear: whatever you do with your body while you paint affects your intellectual process. Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I have bad posture while painting, my mind goes to a place of impatience. I start rushing the work so I can get out of that uncomfortable position. Good posture, which is not the same as restful posture, is primordial to a sustained painting practice. If you want to be able to paint for hours on end, you need to learn to stand or sit the right way. Painting is an active state. You shouldn’t let your body be too comfortable. Your body needs to be engaged in the process. Personally, I paint standing up. This has a few advantages: it forces me to be physically engaged, it helps me keep a better posture and it saves me from getting lazy.

Every time I’ve tried painting from a sitting position, (usually because I’m tired), it didn’t work for me.   The simple truth is that I need to have my canvas standing straight up in front of me to avoid distortions of the image. I also need to be able to step away from the canvas frequently so I can get a complete view of the image. It’s so incredibly tempting for most of us to focus on one area of the canvas, forgetting the big picture. Painting sitting down can only work for really small formats where you have an easy overview of your work.

Second, I find that sitting induces a state of laziness that shows in the work. Although you never want to be in a rush to finish your work, you do want to keep yourself in an active enough state that motivates you to make all those small decisions that a painting requires.

Breathe, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

And finally, sitting down is conducive to bad posture. If you are going to choose to paint sitting down, you need to be very mindful of what you do with your body and with your breath. It’s easy to slouch while sitting, but most of us don’t notice we are doing it. And poor posture in any position is conducive to poor breathing.

The art of manliness, in their blog titled The Ultimate Guide to Posture goes through the art of good posture very thoroughly. They talk about the benefits of good posture, and teach us how to achieve it while standing or sitting. And they provide corrective exercises to counter years of bad posture.

My advice? Take their advice: straighten up, breathe, and paint!

Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.

In the Moon Again: the power of daydreaming

As my young students were finishing their art lesson last Wednesday, one of the moms arrived at my studio to pick up her daughter. We chatted as the kids collected their belongings and trickled out the door but, as her daughter stayed focused on her artwork, I could hear the impatience in her voice when she said “Can you please pick up the pace a bit?” She laughingly explained, “No matter what the occasion, my daughter is always the last one ready to leave.”

Photo credit Jean Wallace

Yes, I thought, this kid really does live in her head and she’s perfectly happy there. But she’s also one of my most focused and clear minded students when it comes to painting with intention and finishing her artwork. Watching her at that moment, however, reminded me of my own childhood, and I could hear my mom saying “t’es encore dans la lune”!  You’re in the moon again – a poetic French expression perfectly describing that peaceful daydreaming state of mind. I must confess I was very good at it.


But then, of course, I grew up. I learned to ‘make the most of my waking hours’, and put my brain to ‘useful tasks’. Now though, I wonder. Am I really doing myself a favour? What if daydreaming offers powers of its own? Shouldn’t I tap into that?

Business Insider, in their blog called Here’s How To Daydream Your Way To Success, say that “History is full of high-achieving daydreamers: Einstein, Newton, and the Bronte sisters all lived much of their lives in their imaginations.” But there are right and wrong ways to daydream. They go on to explain the different styles of daydreaming as defined by Scott Barry Kaufman in “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” at Psychology Today:

First style: “Poor attention control daydreaming. It’s characterized by easy distractibility and difficulty concentrating on either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought,”

Second style: “Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming. It features unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear of failure, and obsessive, hostile, and aggressive fantasies about others.”

Neither of those styles is constructive, and both can have serious negative impacts in most aspects of one’s life.

Third style: “The best kind of daydreaming is Positive-constructive daydreaming. It’s associated with openness to experience and reflects a drive to explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations. Good daydreaming is linked to happiness, success and creativity.”

Daydreaming, as long as it’s done right, is a place where we can rehearse scenarios about our lives without any real consequences. But one must have a clear goal in mind, make sure to focus on positive thoughts, and brush away the obsessive and negative thoughts.”

Details from Longing for lazy days. Acrylic painting

As an artist, I believe that daydreaming is an important part of the process. It’s a place where I can plan a work of art without wasting materials. I can imagine new ideas. I can move subjects around in my mind. I can effortlessly visualize colours and movements. I can make changes without spending a dime.   And best of all, I have access to this tool anywhere and almost any time. I can daydream as I walk my dog, or when I’m in a boring meeting, or loading the dishwasher, or shovelling the walkway. It is my most powerful, portable and accessible creative tool and I use it as much as possible.

Detail from recently finished work

The subconscious mind is willing to go where our controlled thinking refuses to. While daydreaming, I can turn my project over to my subconscious brain and let it do its creative work. When I relinquish control and let my mind wander, suddenly the answer to whatever was blocking the process just shows up and all that’s left to do is to run with it.

This is what Brain Pickings, in their blog called A 5 Step Technique for Producing Ideas, call the “seemingly serendipitous A-ha! Moment. Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. But for this moment to occur, the stage has to have been set up during daydreaming.”

“T’es encore dans la lune?” Good for you!

The Psychology of Painting:  what, exactly, are we scared of?

Yesterday I started my Adult Painting fall-session class.  Within that group, I had three students who were completely new to painting.  Although this makes my life easy because there is so much I can teach them technically, the process comes with an undeniable hurdle.  Somehow I have to find a way to help them overcome their terror of putting paint to paper. Adults, many adults, are scared absolutely rigid.  You can see it in their body language.  Their shoulders tense up, they sigh, they apologize for taking up my time, they actually say they’re terrified.

It’s just paint we are talking about here.  There are absolutely no consequences if you try and fail.  It’s just a little paint and a canvas.  No big deal.  Let’s try it again.

The cliff, photo credit Josée raymondWhat, exactly, are we scared of?

Maybe it’s all about facing the unknown.  A blank canvas can be intimidating.  I’ve been painting for years and yes, sometimes starting a new canvas is akin to jumping off a cliff.  There’s always the possibility of failure and, on the way there, of feeling completely inadequate.  But with experience comes the excitement that maybe this one will perfectly realize the idea I had for it, and that it will convey exactly what I hope.

Sometimes it does!  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But the world doesn’t end either way because there is always more paint and another canvas… and another idea.

The kids I teach, especially the little ones, don’t pay attention to those fears.  I suppose they know very well that anything worth doing is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.  My youngest son, Joshua, was so desperate to play with his older brothers that even before he learned to walk he learned to climb up onto the back of the family room couch so he could launch himself through the air into the thick of their wrestling. Fear was never an obstacle.

My little students are just as gutsy about trying art.  They just assume they can do anything they try – so they do.  And, by the time they’re 13 or 14, they’re competent enough to feel reasonably confident.  They’re not trapped in fear so it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to set them free to let go of expectations and just play.

Skinny Artist talks about this in his blog 11 Things That Scare Creative Artists (and what to do about it)  He says, “When we were children we heard praise about our creations all the time. People are encouraging when we are children. People make us believe we can do anything. People don’t expect children to draw or paint a perfect picture. They’re supportive and realize that the kid’s skills need time to develop.”

Art is one of those things that requires a long-term commitment in order to develop the physical and intellectual abilities necessary to get the results we aspire to.  So, when we become adults, if we haven’t invested the time to become a great painter, then we are not.  A new painter is pretty much guaranteed failure, frustration and road blocks.  He can’t see his way through by himself.

So what does a painter do about fear?  Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Accept that you will fail and embrace the growth opportunities that come with that. Making the wrong colour and painting a really ugly cloud teaches you what not to do and puts you on the road to knowing how to correct it. As Dan, from Art Business Advice says in his blog  Overcoming the Fear of Failure: a Guide for Artists, “Failure is not an endpoint, folks, it’s the mid-point. It’s life’s educational tool, and we need it. Many of us have simply forgotten that fact in our transition from kids to adults.”
  1. Ask for help. But not from people who don’t know the first thing about painting.  A good painter can quickly guide you out of a dead end.  But your neighbor who has never painted will most likely lead you astray, discourage you and dismiss your inner voice.  I’ve had so many students show up to class completely discouraged after having consulted people around them about how to ‘fix’ their paintings.  Art loving non-artists somehow know when a painting works; it’s a natural instinct that most people have.  But when a painting doesn’t work, they have no idea how to fix it, so don’t ask them.
  1. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a child who’s just learning to paint. Avoid self-deprecating speeches, both inwardly and out loud. Laugh at your mistakes; a bad painting is usually really funny.  And pat yourself on the back when you have done well – even if it’s only a small thing.
  1. Throw your expectations out the window. They will be of no help in your learning process and only make you feel like you have not met them.  At the risk of repeating myself, if you are a new painter, you will not meet your own expectations.  That is guaranteed.
  1. Let go of perfection. I am very, very uncomfortable with the concept of perfection. In a world in a constant state of change, how can anything ever be perfect? It’s an unrealistic concept that can paralyze the most capable of us.
  1. Breathe! Many of my new students actually hold their breath when they paint. It should feel sort of like meditating or yoga.  The better you breathe, the better you paint.
  1. Watch your posture. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.  Keeping your body in a naturally comfortable and relaxed position will keep your mind in a naturally comfortable and relaxed state.  And that is the number one ingredient in a good painting.
  2. Give it time. Becoming a good painter is a long journey. It requires you to form new neurons and new physical abilities.  Your hand has to learn to respond to your brain in new ways.  Your muscles need to develop the stamina to hold and move the brush freely.  Your mind has to learn how to look at the world, and how to look at every painting with the eyes of a painter.  It takes countless hours of practice.
  1. Above all: don’t be discouraged.  It’s a journey that will feed your soul at every step.  Painting is a powerful act.  It will stop time for you.  In life, with its constant disproportionate pressure to perform, we all need time to pause once in a while.  Painting will do that for you.

Above all, ENJOY!