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Face to Face With My Comfort Zone (part 2)

Now that I’ve got the itch to get back in the classroom I signed up for another workshop: “Making Faces with Charlie Levin”.

The months passed and boy was I excited! As the weekend drew nearer I began researching Charlie’s work and chatted anyone’s ear off who’d listen about my upcoming adventure. I had prepared extra boards to bring because I just knew I’d blow through them like popcorn. The day before the workshop I began researching portrait work that I found inspiring. For my reference material I had printed out a small collection of Francis Bacon’s self-portraits as well as one of my favorite paintings by Johannes Vermeer, “Girl With a Pearl Earring”. My proverbial bags were packed.

The next day driving to Wax Works West I had my radio on full blast, “I’M WALKIN’ ON SUNSHINE! WO-OAH!” When I arrived and smelled the delightful aroma of melted beeswax the butterflies in my stomach were flitting every which way. Man, I was pumped! After the usual meet and greet we were able to watch Charlie in action. She spoke about line work, seeing the face sculpturally in terms of facial planes, shading techniques, proportions, and how to use this information to define a specific face. After watching her translate this information into an encaustic painting I was chomping at the bit to get my hand in some wax (figuratively speaking of course). We were allowed to begin practicing the demonstrated techniques and loosen up. The picture above was my first piece of the day where I practiced integrating each technique. Yeah! Point for Jaya!

I also enjoyed working on thumbnail sketches. Multiple renderings of the same face helps you become very familiar with facial features, shapes, planes, shadows, etc…I easily forget how much I enjoy just sketching (note to self: do more of that). Initially we worked from high-contrast photos with dramatic lighting but eventually we sketched from very flat-looking, blurry photos as well. She touched on a point that I thought was very important: draw what you’re seeing verses what you think you see. I appreciated the challenge and was instructed to stick with the soft, blurry photos for my reference. Charlie handed me a very alien-looking out of focus photo of a child, “Try this one out!” I wasn’t fond of the image so I put it aside and found a soft-looking black and white image of a geisha. This one was also blurry and flat so I decided to practice from her.

I felt I was quite familiar with this geisha by the time we jumped into the wax. We continued with the thumbnail theme and worked on 3″x3″ Bristol paper. This was a challenge in of itself – I had never really sketched with wax before and I was using an Enkaustiko’s slanted bristle brush which was quickly becoming my new best friend. Working so small forced you to not get lost in the details. And don’t even think about fusing! I am the fuse queen – smooth seamless wax surfaces? Fuget about it! Charlie’s work is super textured with dynamic brushstrokes and she doesn’t worry about fusing her pieces. So for two days I put the torch on the back burner (pun intended) and embraced the textured brushstroke. What I learned from the geisha was that I was working too opaquely. I could build up layers of un-pigmented wax medium instead of just laying down WHITE. This was an eye-opening revelation. Take a closer look at the 3 geisha thumbnails. (left) My first attempt (middle) Charlie’s example (right) my second attempt. There are two sides to the coin with this type of layering. On the one side you can build up beautifully transparent layered highlights. On the flip side the build up creates a 3D effect. Did I mention how I covet the flat encaustic surface? By building up these layers I totally had to release the flat surface. Tough to do, but hey, I came here to learn so flat surface OUT THE WINDOW! Smooth brushstrokes OUT THE WINDOW! Fusing OUT THE WINDOW! Charlie came by and gave me some advice and instruction, “Why don’t you give this one a whirl?” Out comes the blurry alien child and once again I feel my blood pressure rising. I thought to myself, “I don’t like this picture. I don’t like babies. It’s not that I couldn’t paint this picture – I could paint it if I wanted to. I just don’t want to. I hate this picture!” Once again I put it aside.

“Sweet Little Bullet” detail. Gouache on panel. In my comfort zone.Encaustic studies. Out of my comfort zone.

Day 2: By this time I realized that my masterpiece study of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” wasn’t going to happen. I was also secretly disappointed that I hadn’t painted anything “pretty”, especially because I’m darn good at painting portraits and I know my way around encaustics! I can paint a rockin’ portrait! I teach encaustics – I should know how to do this stuff! What are the other students thinking when they look at my pieces? How come this is so hard?!

Ahhh there it is…My comfort zone!

Oh internal dialog how ridiculous you are, but thank you for being there to remind me that I need to get back on track. Let me summarize the above paragraph: I don’t know about you but artistically speaking I hold myself to a very high standard. I teach art so I should know what the heck I’m doing. This means I must produce “good” pieces. What does a good piece of art look like? Something produced with skill. What I had been working on was not skillful therefore it was “bad”. My encaustic comfort zone is creating smooth surfaces with calculated brushstrokes. When you are in your comfort zone there is no room to grow, I mean, why would you need to? You are already good at whatever it is that you’re doing. In your comfort zone you can paint pretty pictures ’till the cows come home. When you are out of your comfort zone it feels uncomfortable, unnatural, and awkward because you are in unfamiliar territory. Only then when you are faced with a challenge do you have the opportunity for personal growth, to learn new skills. It was at the beginning of day 2 that I realized I was way out of my comfort zone. Well about time – now I can get down to business!

My frame of mind changed instantly. I am in Charlie’s class and I am going to learn what Charlie has to teach how Charlie’s going to teach it. Where’s that alien baby head? I spent the remainder of the class practicing the same techniques, only this time I didn’t care if the final product looked “good”. I was really able to let loose. During the rest of the day I thought about the many parallels between taking this class and my own students. It was like a spotlight was flipped on: practice what you preach. A common quote of mine is “We are not here to re-create the Mona Lisa”. At the beginning of each of my classes or workshops I make it very clear that I could care less if you paint a beautiful picture. All that matters is that you understand the techniques. Mastering the techniques will allow you to paint a hundred beautiful paintings on your own outside of the classroom. This, of course, does not stop the attempt of painting something pretty. Soon the “frame-worthy” painting attempt takes over and technique takes a backseat. Some students come into class with an agenda (to paint a pretty picture to hang on the wall) and these students will have the toughest time. Here I am coming into this workshop with my Vermeer print out and my multitude of extra panels. Talk about an agenda!

Once I came face-to-face with my comfort zone I was able to recognize it and change my frame of mine, thus totally shifting my classroom experience. Something I wasn’t expecting to gain from this workshop was a renewed appreciation for my own students. Every class they come to I take it as my responsibility as a teacher to challenge them and in doing so provide them with room to grow. And they keep coming back! That says a lot about their bravery to face their own comfort zones. By the end of the “Making Faces” workshop I felt honored that my students keep coming back to paint un-pretty pictures. I can only hope that I am brave enough in my future learning experiences to continue to face my own comfort zone. Only in this way will I breakthrough to new artistic heights.

Thank you Charlie Levin!

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