Bouquet of orange and purple irises
BLOG Year of learning to love myself

Discovering Freedom in Learning to Draw and Paint

“I don’t have that talent,” is what I used to say when the topic of drawing came up. I believed that you were either born able to draw or you weren’t. If forced to draw, I stuck to stick figures and other childhood shapes.

Three years ago, at the age of 44, however, I thought it would be fun to learn to paint. Perhaps underneath I thought I had some undiscovered talent. I hadn’t anticipated when I started classes, though, how physically difficult it would be to put pen/pencil/charcoal/paint to paper. I found myself paralyzed, staring at the blank canvas. Whatever I put down would look horrible and everyone in class would witness it. Why had I thought this would be fun? Nonetheless, I told myself to just put down a line, any line. It didn’t matter where I started, I just needed to start.

As I continued taking more drawing and then painting classes, I believed I was the worst in class. Often, even in my beginning classes, I was the only true beginner. Most of the other students had drawn or painted for years growing up, but fell away, and were now returning. When I took breaks during class, I looked at other students’ work and compared myself. Perhaps I had been right about drawing being a talent one was born with and I didn’t have it. Yet, I reminded myself that I wasn’t doing this to impress anyone else. I was doing it to learn something new and have fun.

Just as I became more comfortable putting pen to paper, the teacher told us to draw without looking at our drawing. What?! And then he said we had to draw the object in a minute, then thirty seconds. No way! I knew whatever I put down would be completely unrecognizable. Nonetheless, I forced my hand to the paper and did it.

Pushing myself this way turned out to be incredibly freeing. It gave me permission to let go of trying to control the outcome. Surprisingly, I saw cool elements in some of these drawings. I discovered that in the freedom to explore, I can stumble across something great.

As I improved, fellow students occasionally complimented my work. I tried to believe them. The teachers always found something positive to say, even while they gave me suggestions on how to improve the piece. Those kind words pushed me to continue. Maybe I wasn’t such a loser at this drawing thing after all.

I had not anticipated that learning to draw and paint would be such an instrumental tool in learning to release any notion of a “right” way to get to a destination. 

My favorite teachers have been those that pushed me to let go of preconceived ideas of how I was supposed to draw or paint and try new techniques. I had one that didn’t allow any lines whatsoever; we could only shade throughout the page and my drawings were horrible. Until they weren’t. Working this way freed me from seeing objects as outlines, but instead, as variations of light and dark.

Other teachers pushed me to draw only negative space — the spaces in between the objects. Again, my drawings began messily, but the technique taught me to see the physical world in a way that what wasn’t there mattered as much as what was.

Other instructors had different experiments for me to try. I discovered that only in daring to try something completely new, even when I would almost undoubtedly “fail” in any sense I thought of as success in the past, did I learn new techniques that made my work more dynamic and interesting.

My work kept improving until I had pieces I wanted to show friends outside of class. I often felt like a kid coming home from school, eager to show my housemate my latest project so she could tell me how great I was. I started displaying some of the pieces I felt most excited about in my home. When friends visited they were often enthusiastic.

Author’s rendition of Mute by Emma Tingard

I dreamed of becoming good enough to sell my paintings. As if the only measure of my success could be how much someone would pay me for it. This attitude, however, stifled my ability to put marks and colors down on the canvas just to try them out. Again and again, I found myself disappointed in my paintings. Fortunately, I quickly realized that it was okay to enjoy drawing and painting just for the fun of it. I went into my modernist techniques class with the idea of trying out whatever new method we learned just to see what would happen. 

Bouquet of orange and purple irises
Painting by Author

When I let go of trying to make my painting replicate what I saw, and opened myself to my feelings and instinct as to what the painting needed, I ended up with my favorite piece that I’ve painted to date.

I also discovered a love of abstract expressionism, which was based solely on instinct and feeling rather than any attempt to recreate a specific object. More than any other of my paintings, I’ve had the most fun showing it to and discussing it with friends. I love to hear what it evokes for them.

I now encourage everyone to learn something new. Even better if it’s a skill to which you’ve said, “I’d love to ____, but I don’t have any talent.” Let go of the idea that you have to be successful and embrace the fact that you will probably flop in the beginning. I have to reconquer my fear every time I draw or paint. Doing so has helped me to learn in all parts of my life to take more risks and surrender the idea that the illusion of control will improve the outcome. In fact, it’s when I experiment that I often obtain the most exciting results.

Also published on Medium.

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  1. Marvelous and inspiring! Lovely evolution in those works – I wonder where you will go next, and hope you will enjoy finding out.

    1. nosaintjennifer says:

      Thanks Ted!

  2. Laura says:

    My daughter’s choir teacher always said, “Anyone can learn to sing. Anyone. You just have to practice a little at it.” You’ve shown here that this also applies to visual art. This is one of my favorite blog posts of yours. Very inspiring!

    1. nosaintjennifer says:

      Thanks Laura!

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