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One of the best gems of creativity and problem-solving advice I have ever received was given to me as I stood at a battered, drip-encrusted easel in a grimy painting studio at Brigham Young University.
My professor at the time hesitated to give demonstrations, and left our canvases alone so that we could develop a style of our own. What little he had done to demonstrate and tutor our tastes I absorbed like a sponge. He taught us to savor the color variations of Cezanne, to learn from the indirect painting techniques of old masters, and rejoice in the thickly daring impasto of Carl Bloch, while also encouraging us to seek inspiration in the strangest of postmodern pop art.
Many Sorrows (Bathsheba) by Elspeth Young
Having imbibed what I could, I stood behind my easel undaunted at translating the still life in front of me into a masterpiece. That is, until I really got started.
It was assignment number two—a still life painted alla prima—and things had gone just fine through the under-layers of monochromatic turpentine-paint-sketching. But as soon as I began laying down the first patches of color on top of my monochromatic sketch, I felt like I was drowning.
Frustrated and discouraged, I raised my hand. (It would be the first and the last time I would ask for help in that class.) I waited, as the professor approached, confident the lifeguard would save me. Then, expressing my doubts about the colors I was using, I expected some formula or blinding insight that would solve my problem for me. "It just doesn't look right," I moaned. He responded: "Sometimes life is just hard," and then strolled away.
Stunned, I stood motionless in his wake. What kind of an answer is that! After all, I was paying him to teach me, wasn't I?
Not long afterward. he returned to my easel. Looking over my shoulder, he said, "Just add the contrasting colors, of the fabric you are painting, next to what you've already painted, and the colors you've laid in will probably look just right. You know, if you look at anything hard enough, you can figure it out." And, once more, he walked away.
I painted the green drapery next to the metal object he was talking about. He was right! The brassy tones I'd painted first simply wanted context.
My creative crisis was over, but he had given me much more than I had asked for in that moment of dismay. I didn't ask any more questions that semester. I didn't need to. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but in that simple phrase, he had given me the key to any and all mental blocks as a studio artist: Lonely and hard, "tough" as such work might be: "If you look at anything hard enough, you can figure it out."
That morsel of wisdom has remained with me ever since. It has been my companion through many an artwork—through afternoons when the shape of a child's cheek was incomprehensible; on bright snowy mornings when the still life in front of me was wrapped in a hue I could not put my finger on; and on days when a composition's design simply sat down and refused to cooperate. Translated into every-day creative struggles, what he was really saying was that when the painting-chips are down, it's time to look harder, dig deeper, and strive longer in the quest for answers, believing not only that there is an answer, but that youcan discover it.
At times when I've wanted to turn back on the quest for completion and quality, his simple words flash across my mind, and, interestingly enough, it usually takes only one more "look" to figure out what to do; perhaps because what is really needed at such times is the sheer courage that comes from hope.