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I am largely an autodidact, which is why it was out of character for me to find myself this Wednesday at a studio class on color and abstraction.

Along with seven other artists, our instructor was taking us through the first of four sessions meant to break our normal ways of working and thinking about mark making, color combinations and design construction.

It was demanding, but also exciting. I work with acrylics, so the drying time for the pigments is quick. The sudden need to spontaneously mix and apply the grays for the ground was different for me, bringing to my eyes a variety of shades that I would normally (perhaps never) find  when I mix all my colors before ever putting brush to canvas or board.

But it was going really well. As the instructor circled the studio, she stopped at my easel, telling me that the ground was already on the way to a painting, as in a Richard Diebenkorn arrangement.

I was loosening up. That feeling–and the results that followed–continued into further spontaneous and improvisational exercises on the canvas. Several classmates passed by, offering admiring comments. The instructor cycled back, saying that my mark making was adding shape and movement, and that the colors built off the constituent parts of the grays were harmonious.

Nice, right? Then, as I was continuing the process, over my right shoulder I heard a voice: “I liked it more at the beginning,” it said. “Right,” I responded without turning around. “I really liked the grays I put down before.” I continued to work in a way, but the spell of the session had been broken.

The appraisal came from the needy woman who was working behind me, and who had, without much of a pause, been moaning to the instructor about her dissatisfaction with her own work product.

When the inevitable public display and truth telling phase of the session arrived I could see why. After some thought, the kindest description of her canvas I can come up with is atrocious. It was something a fourth grader completely lacking talent might produce. I said nothing as I watched the instructor grope to find a kernel of value in the effort.

But as I was cleaning off my palette I began to think about that over-the-shoulder comment. I get critiqued regularly by my wife, who happens to have a degree in fine art from one of the country’s top colleges and has had a successful career in filmmaking. Sometimes I take the criticism well, sometimes not. But, as with others who have faced and commented on my work,  her critiques always revolve around something that has me thinking again about what I’m doing, and often enough lead to revisions.

My classmate, however, offered me nothing beyond a negative vibe. It reminded me of the scene early on in “My Dinner With Andre,” in which Wallace Shawn describes the little negative things that people say to each other. As I recall many years after having seen the movie, Shawn is exasperated at all the petty meanness of people that is regularly on display.

We all have been on both the receiving and giving ends of that kind of behavior, be it in the workplace or a social setting. Since I no longer need to tolerate it as the collateral damage of full-time employment, I avoid people and situations that have the likelihood of being gratuitously negative. So, at the next session, I will be sure to find an easel at the opposite side of the studio.

 

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