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But… That’s the Good Stuff!

July 22, 2014

I am a frugal artist. I make my own stretcher frames from hardware store lumber and pull my own canvases. I buy the cloth from fabric stores rather than art suppliers. I am the type of artist that believes “gesso” is an Italian word that means “overpriced house paint.”

While I take pride in my DIY cost-cutting measures, I sometimes find that I tend to immediately lose inspiration when presented with the rare opportunity to use top-notch, quality art supplies. I immediately put on my kid gloves, start overthinking my every move, and keep reminding myself, “but…but… this is the good stuff.” In other words, I get performance anxiety.

Artist Jillian Long at work

Artist Jillian Long at work

As a kid, I would have no problem making art on notebook paper, deposit slips, gum wrappers, and church bulletins – but I locked up when it came time to put something down in an actual artist’s sketchbook. And I’m not talking about those really nice Moleskin journals like the Impressionists used, I’m talking about a five-dollar-for-seventy-five-pages sketchpad from Wal-Mart (tear out pages optional). I saw the sketchpad as some means to show a progression, or an archive of quality work. I was ashamed to put anything in there that would not be a successful attempt, and usually ended up with an empty sketchbook, with as many as five years passing between one page to the next.
I’d like to say that I’m cured of my sketchpad anxiety and have filled countless pages of thousands of journals, but I’m still the same way. I always feel like the sketchbooks (being a proper art supply) are solely for my good ideas, and I hesitate to use them – preferring rather to scrawl my ideas on loose bits of paper that get lost in the shuffle.

My seven-year-old daughter, Jillian – an aspiring, creative kid in her own right – is the exact opposite of my careful reservation. She is driven to create and has no qualms about obliterating a sketchbook in a couple days, filling every page front and back. She may use ten pages just drawing cat faces in different styles – some with stripes, some with big eyes, some with crazy teeth, etc. When I used a new box of crayons I did so with care, trying to keep the points sharp and paper neat, but Jillian will probably lose three or four of them in the back seat of the van on the way home because she can’t wait to start creating with her supplies.

I think that she’s aware that not every piece will be a major work of art, and I even see her strike out some drawings with an X before immediately jumping into the next attempt.

Why can’t I be more like that? She simply doesn’t care what others might think of her drawings. She knows she’s getting better with every attempt and she just keeps going. She doesn’t pout or get angst-ridden when things don’t go the way she pictured them in her mind, she just whips that quick X through it and goes on to another. She’s not doing art to make anyone happy but herself. I asked her why she makes so much art and she said, “because it’s my talent.”

That’s what separates kids-as-artists from adults-as-artists. Kids simply cannot fail because they don’t know it’s even possible to fail. They simply do their best, but remain aware that they will get better. As adults, we tend to think of our skills as always being at the absolute pinnacle of our ability without realizing we’ve got a lot further to go.

The next time you’re faced with the challenge of a brand new set of oil paints, a sharpened array of new colored pencils, a fresh block of marble, a blank canvas, a shiny new guitar, or even a new five-dollars-for-seventy-five-pages sketchbook – don’t get hung up by thinking, “but…that’s the good stuff.” Start by thinking, “but… I’M the good stuff.”

Remember that art supplies are nothing more than tools. They are meant to be used and abused. They are at your service. Even if you are a frugal artist like myself, you can take great comfort in knowing that they will always make more, and although it may pain you to do so, you can always buy more. Your best work is always ahead of you and well worth the investment.

Brandon LongBrandon Long
Programming Director
brandonlong@communityartscenter.net

This article first appeared in the July 2014 Artists ONLY! enewsletter, which includes art tips, inspiration and must-see exhibits, as well as local and national calls to artists. Sign up now for Artists ONLY! or other updates from the Community Arts Center.