I have been a visual artist for decades. My large acrylic paintings have been showing and selling. It was getting to a point, though, where making art was becoming a technical task rather than an exploratory pleasure. A class in oil painting popped up at the gallery. It was exactly what I was looking for: a new medium, a new style, a new way of seeing.
I had no expectations of success. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know what kind of brushes to use or how to mix the paint. It was a thrill.
Right away, I got a few simple tips that were easy to apply. I learned about choosing brushes and how best to clean them. I started to draw more accurately. I experimented with lighting and “shadow mapping.” I tried mixing paint with different mediums. I made a few small paintings that weren’t terrible. They seemed like happy accidents.
After a month of class, I hit a wall. My paintings looked like blobs. I worked and re-worked an image that would have been easy to make using my old techniques. I tried another idea, but it was a disaster. It became painful to put color on my palette or brush to canvas.
I refurbished old brushes and straightened my studio. I re-surfaced the canvases I had ruined. I looked at art suppliers’ websites. I painted nothing. I thought about abandoning these new ways and going back to what I knew. I even thought about not painting at all any more.
When I arrived at the next class, I told my teacher how I was feeling: immobilized and afraid. She listened and then told a story of a group of artists who were sharing their creative experiences online. They came up with a questionnaire to gather data about what emotions were happening during the painting process.
They discovered that when how you paint and how you want to paint are at the same level, you are happy. But because you are always learning, your technique improves. Soon after your technique improves, your expectations of what you want to accomplish increase. You are unhappy because of the gap. You work again to improve your technique. Happiness for a moment, but your rising expectations create yet another gap. The pattern repeats. “It’s okay to be unhappy,” she finished. “It means that you are growing.”
“Of course,” I thought. I’m experiencing in real time a philosophy of learning that I have spoken about often in my own teaching.
The first phase of learning is blissful. Since you don’t even know that you don’t know what you don’t know, you can take pleasure in anything you do. This is the phase of unconscious incompetence. My first attempts are enjoyable and surprising. I put paint on the canvas and something that looks somewhat like a flower or vase or lemon emerges. Since I have no expectations, I feel like a success.
I learn a few things and move into the second phase: conscious incompetence. I put down a brushstroke that doesn’t work. I add more paint, and the colors turn to mud. I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know, because I have a glimmer of what is possible. This phase is agony.
The next is even more so. As I paint, I want to be free and direct and present in my brush strokes. Instead, my mind focuses on the skills I’m learning. My brushstrokes are too careful, the shadows too perfect. My painting looks academic, studied. This is the conscious competence phase of learning.
I flip back and forth between these two phases. When I think about how I’m painting, my spontaneity disappears. I slip back into old habits in order to feel more comfortable. But I don’t. At this precarious point, I need courage to stay in the discomfort of learning.
I want to move into the fourth phase: unconscious competence. This is another blissful state, where new habits are now ingrained. The mind isn’t worried about technique; the body is organically performing.
In certain areas of my oil painting study, I’ve achieved this. I can intuitively mix colors. I’m seeing value patterns. But the gulf is growing between my new skill level and my vision of what’s possible. I can let this gap debilitate me, or I can turn it into inspiration. I need courage to enter the cycle of learning again, knowing that each specific skill is going to pass through each phase.
If I know where I am in this process, I can identify my source of frustration. I can forgive myself for my anger and unhappiness and even for my desire to quit. As my new teacher puts it, “Painting is an exercise in being kind to yourself.” We could just as easily say, “Learning is an exercise in being kind to yourself.”
As I get on the balcony and watch myself learn about oil painting, I have a revelation about teaching. I have been talking about the phases of learning for years. I have been encouraging students to welcome their frustration as a part of moving forward. And now that I’m in the midst of it myself, I have even more empathy for anyone who is trying something new.
As educators, we must be kind to our students. We must treat learning as a fragile process fraught with despair. We must do everything we can to create an environment in which the courage to learn can flourish.
We must also keep learning. That is the only way we can truly understand the pathway to knowledge.