Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blinders are for Horses

“I’m done,” the least invested child of my class told me, racing past to put his poster on the finished pile.

I held out an arm. “What about all that white space?”

“You said I could have some if it was intentional!”

“Is that intentional?”


“Because it looks like you just got bored.”

He grinned sheepishly at me, quickly admitting, “I did get bored.”

“And it looks like it,” I replied, turning him back towards his seat. “Color in the background and then you can be done.”

When the students get older, the arguments get harder. Third graders sort of accept your answers for what they are, but middle schoolers start to become pedantic and make “On-Paper” rebuttals that can stump you if you don’t fully know why—or are willing to admit the truth about why—you believe what you believe.

Adults can be just as bad. “Artistic vision” makes me want to beat someone with a keyboard. Not because their tastes differ from mine, but because so many half-assed pieces are stunted by that excuse. It’s not that you create something “ugly” and are proud of it; it’s when you’re new to what you do and don’t challenge yourself. When something looks unfinished, or is painfully dull, and it’s claimed to be the vision in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes that “finished” look is actually just an arbitrary restriction of professionalism; a singular method society demands even though many other options work just as well. There are associations, like the papyrus or comic sans font—even Times New Roman for hell’s sake—that come off as amateurish simply because the average Joe has access to it. There are cultural traditions, like ties are formal because ties are formal, which, one day, someone decided to buck the rule and created a new association—ties are for punk rock. The rule made way for a contradiction; the impact is caused by the breaking of the expectation. It begs the question: What is innovative and changing convention versus what is a mere amateur who doesn’t know how to do it correctly?

And more importantly, what do we do with the untalented artist who claimed his poor execution was just above our plebian imagination?

I should mention at this point I’m currently tranq’d out by anti-anxiety medication. For a long time when confronted with (what I considered) a poorly skilled soul who cried “vision!” I told myself to mind my own business and stop getting worked up—that focusing on the quality of my own skillsets is what will bring me satisfaction and yield results. But when you’re constantly looping into fight or flight mode, already feeling hot with pent up rage, this can be hard to do. Now that I’m synthetically calm, it’s easy for me to say the obvious: Don’t argue with bullshit artists. Worry about your own bullshit if you want to improve.

As I work with people of all ages, I find that the real trick to speedy development is simply looking to what they avoid. There are areas that don’t draw our interest, that we’re not practiced in, that we cut corners with, or ignore all together. These spots, blindspots as I refer to them, are easy to enhance on their own, and enhancing those will improve the broader picture in turn.

It’s a fairly quick and fun process if the artist is willing to a) acknowledge it is being unfairly ignored b) actually do something about it. Even a little something.

This might be the white of the paper on the drawing. It might that you don’t have a clue what women characters are thinking when a man awkwardly hits on them. It may be you zone out during action sequences, or don’t care about building a world that’s unlike what others have already seen, or that you find several different camera angles a waste of everyone time. It may be shadow, color, or just making your straight lines actually straight. In fact, it could be pretty much anything, and you may care so little about it you won’t even notice you haven’t touched it.

Sometimes, seeing these things can be difficult, even for the willing; on occasion they’re small and subtle, or it’s not a question you even thought to ask. You don’t always know what you don’t know. Which is one of the best reasons to get outside feedback. But, really, I’ve often found that most people are consciously bracing against a solution they’re already afraid of, a problem they’re denying, or a convention they’ve rejected that, if they just experimented a little, would open up a world of options.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the same old arguments with children that I have been fighting all my life. Not just with my peers or my students, but even with myself. It’s the real question for every artist. Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just being a lazy bullshitter?

We all have those moments when we can’t decide if it’s good enough, or the time we knew it wasn’t but couldn’t pinpoint why. In these times, I’ve realized there’s an easy question to ask yourself:

Is there a part of the story that I’m avoiding because I don’t know how to do it right?

And, as I say to my students, if the answer’s yes, there’s an easy solution.

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