Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Practicing for Spontaneity

by Kate Dardine

Normally I write about marketing your art in this space - but today I thought I'd share an adventure I had in my "other" life as a professional artist.

I recently was invited to participate in the Quick Draw at the 2010 Western Spirit Art Show in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And while by accepting, I knew I was throwing myself into uncharted waters, I felt I was up for the challenge. And I was. Until the week before the event. Then suddenly the doubts, the what-ifs, the pit-in-the-stomach “now what have I done” reality of what I’d agreed to hit me like a 747 during take off. Not only did I have to paint in front of an audience – and really, that part was ok – but then my piece, along with pieces from five other artists, would be auctioned off. Right after they were “finished.” A live auction I might add. Oh, and did I mention I had only 45 minutes, start to finish, to create this “masterpiece”?

So as I lay in bed at 3 am a week before I was surely going to be discovered as a fraud, I had an “ah-ha” moment. I could actually practice what I would paint. I checked the rules, and sure enough, there was no hidden clause that prevented me from practicing. I called up my gallery and asked if I might set up my easel in the gallery and practice the painting – I figured a little brush up in the fine art of answering questions while painting “under the gun” was in order. Luckily, the gallery manager enthusiastically agreed.

I decided to try to finish two paintings in two hours, 45 minutes each. The first painting – a new (and somewhat complicated) 12x12" composition, was in the ugly stage when my time keeper gleefully (a little too gleefully, I might add) signaled that my time was up. Hmmm. I figured I’d better try a different tack. Painting #2 was a simple composition I’d done before. That was the ticket! I was pretty much done before the “two minute warning.”

The night before the event, I painted that same painting one more time, in my studio, with my cell phone as my timer. No warning there – just paint fast and stop when the alarm goes off. Again, I found that I was finished before my time was up. Plus, having painted the same thing three times, I felt relaxed and confident that I’d be okay under pressure.

The night of the opening reception arrived, and I was still feeling oddly calm. I couldn’t tell if it was my hours of preparing or something akin to the calm people get when they know they are going to die.

A couple of hours before the event opened, the Quick Draw artists were ushered into the museum to set up easels. We were each assigned a wonderful volunteer whose only job was to be at our beck and call during the Quick Draw. Soon the museum filled with show staff, museum members, artists, patrons and guests.

A few minutes before the 7:00 “start”, we Quick Draw artists stood in front of our easels and empty canvasses, palettes ready, brushes in hand…and then, with a shout and an incredible adrenaline rush, we were off, the sound of thundering hooves pounding in my ears. Oh, maybe that was my heart beating! I painted in my key elements quickly, loosely, with the freedom of brushstroke that comes from familiarity. I could almost feel the breath of the other “horses” on the back of my neck…oh no, that was just the curious onlookers watching as I painted. At some point – maybe five or ten minutes into painting, time stood still, and my movements and brushstrokes slowed way down. I felt like I was in a dream…aware of people around me, hearing snippets of conversations, even answering questions, and my brush just kept moving over the canvas. I almost felt like a spectator myself – the decisions being made – lighter, darker, more intense, less intense, hard edge, soft edge – all came from a part of my brain that was just doing it – without the intrusion of my sometimes noisy analytical side.

By the time I heard the “ten more minutes” announcement I was nearly done. A few minor adjustments here and there, sign my name and step away from the easel. No time to pick things apart, find fault – nope, times up. Brushes down. Race is over.

As luck would have it, my piece was the first to be auctioned. Before I had time to get panicked over “will anyone bid?” people WERE bidding! And then it was sold, and the auctioneer was off to the next painting. At the end, my piece ended up being the highest bid piece that night - and for a while I was walking on that “they really like me” cloud that we artists walk on when we make a sale, get into a show, win an award. We have to enjoy that cloud while we can – soon enough it vaporizes in the reality of this emotional roller coaster we ride.

Could I have done the painting successfully without practicing? Maybe. But it would not have had the loose, expressive, spontaneous feel that this painting had. An important lesson was learned here: to be spontaneous takes a lot of study and practice!

Kate Dardine is the marketing director for Fine Print Imaging and a professional artist. You can see more of her work at