Katherine Weissman had no idea what to expect when she began taking a watercolor class. What she found was her own piece of sky.
I've been a word person my whole life. At 10 my idea of fun was browsing through Roget's Thesaurus and typing nature poems on my grandmother's pale green Smith-Corona manual. I won spelling bees in grade school. On a high school class trip I talked, embarrassingly, in my sleep: "I want to be a writer—a good writer."
Right now, though, I'm dreaming of cobalt blue and cadmium yellow, and my right index finger is callused where the brush has been. I've just spent five days at a watercolor class in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts—a little like camp, a little like doing finger paints or drugs. It was group ecstasy without an illegal substance in sight: all 15 of us high on shapes and colors and lines and designs. It was as if my brain, like a train, had suddenly switched tracks.
Letting another part of my psyche come out to play—the intuitive, unworried, messy part—was precisely what the teacher, Ann K. Lindsay, had intended. There I was on the first day, facing a rectangle of thick, pristine paper, armed with an unclouded water bottle and fresh paint, my brush poised, my body in fight-or-flight mode—and she yelled out: "Remember, think kindergarten! Maybe preschool!" I could only laugh, gulp, and go ahead.
Many art classes start with rules and how-tos; Lindsay begins by encouraging her students to trust their instincts and have fun. Interestingly, there is a physiological basis for this approach: The 1960s research of Nobel Prize–winning psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry established that the human brain has a dual nature—the verbal, analytical mode, located in the left hemisphere, and the visual, perceptual mode in the right. Applied to art education, this concept implies a mental shift that's liberating, exhilarating, and, especially at first, seriously awkward. The left hemisphere—rational, survival driven, impatient, hypercritical—is the boss; to gain access to right-brain mode, you have to be cagey.
The literary persona that patrols my psyche hadn't exactly put out the welcome mat for a different way of thinking. ("Fuzzy," it muttered. "No standards.") Painting was my way of sneaking into the right brain through a side door. Technical perfection and aesthetic judgments were not what this course was about. Whatever awful daubs I produced, nobody would call me a washout.
Notice how I slam myself in that last sentence. Saying that something is bad ("awful daubs") is the left brain's way of protecting and defending us, according to Lindsay—but, like an overprotective parent, it can be inhibiting. She urged us to stop calling ourselves names. She urged us to splash and spatter, literally to color outside the lines. "How much paint should I start with?" I asked as we began. "A lot!" said Lindsay. "First one to use up a whole tube gets a prize! And if you like something your neighbor is doing, try it. None of this 'no copying' stuff." She is the grade-school teacher we all should have had.
First we just wallowed in color, doing free-form paintings that used only two of the three primaries (red, blue, yellow) at a time, experimenting with wet paper (the paint blossoms and/or runs) and dry (more control). I found myself weirdly averse to red and yellow, crazy about red and blue, fond of swooping, rounded forms. I also found myself in a kind of ecstasy.
This is not to say that all fear and judgment instantly fled. Years of museumgoing and exposure to unnaturally perfect computer-generated graphics have made our artistic expectations cruelly high. But watercolor is forgiving, a medium of drips and bleeds and happy accidents; it is also blessedly low-tech. "Let yourselves be little kids here," Lindsay said. "You'll grow in your own way."
The left brain, Lindsay reminded us, is not some evil dictator; we need both modes to function fully and well. So after the initial play period, she brought orderly, analytic elements back into the process ("But no right or wrong, good or bad!") through charts that let us explore the gradations from one color to the next. I'd known forever that blue + yellow = green, but I was unprepared for the infinite and gorgeous variety I could produce with merely three primaries. Mixing colors is power of a deep, soul-satisfying sort. (Maybe the urge to make pictures is equally primal: Think of cave paintings.)
Why did this stir me so? Probably because left-brain logic (the charts) was converging with right-brain joy (the colors). The same thing happens when I see a rainbow: I know the event is scientifically explicable, yet it is still magical—an arc of light and color appearing out of nowhere. Something emerging out of nothing might be as close to a definition of creativity as we're going to get.
So far the class had remained in the sphere of the private self: Our pictures, in the best tradition of abstract expressionism, were pure invention. In the next phase we confronted an object—a piece of fruit, a flower—and reached the scary and electric point at which, as Lindsay put it, "outer and inner worlds come together."
I stared at my pear, sitting innocently on the table, and felt sick at the prospect of trying—and failing—to reproduce it. I had to remind myself that this class wasn't about being gifted or trained; it was about honesty—painting from the inside out. Don't get hung up on details, Lindsay told us; squint at those pears so that you see the underlying form, where it's light and where it's dark. My first effort was a conventional brownish yellow; with each succeeding attempt (four in all), I got more daring. The last, knocked out in a speedy 15 minutes, was an audacious yellow-orange, botanically incorrect but full of gusto.
Even more interesting was an exercise called blind contour drawing: For five minutes we gazed at an object—I did a stalk of foxglove—and drew without looking at what we were doing. Once I got past the urge to peek, the need to rush, and the fear that the drawing would be a big mess (these messages courtesy of the left side of the brain—thanks a lot!), the process was mesmerizing and meditative, truly an altered state. And my sketch, while not a faithful rendition of the foxglove, was strangely beautiful and pure. It got the essence of the flower.
The more I drew and painted, the more I felt this stillness, this out-of-timeness. Other people faded and so did noises—it was just me, the paper, the moving pencil, the ever mutating colors. It's odd that such a mental state is described as a "trance" or "reverie." It was more like the awakening of a part of me that had been dozing for years.
You know the line from "Amazing Grace"—"Was blind, but now I see?" That's how I felt as the days went by. I looked at things around me not only with greater attention but also with a sense of being able to reflect and refract the natural world through my own lens. In my mind I painted and repainted everything from a pinecone to a cloud. By the next-to-last day, I was aching to take my art outside.
It had rained in the morning, but now the sky was hot and blue, the hills were green—or rather, greens, a million of them—and the lake brimmed with bright ripples and mirrored trees. Our class sat (damply) on the grass, laid out our things, and squinted at the horizon. Then it struck me: Beyond a few ideas about doing a sky, Lindsay hadn't demonstrated anything about landscapes. This was the Outward Bound of painting. We were on our own.
It was surprising how little I panicked, how quickly I became absorbed. A friendly, slobbering dog joined me for a while, adding serendipitous water spots. And then I stopped and looked at my picture. I hated it. Now what?
"Process, not product" is a creativity cliché that can be blamed for a lot of macramé plant holders and bad pottery, but it is also a great truth. Lindsay: "You think a painting is awful when it's simply not finished yet. You're in the middle. You have to go through the dark wood, the mucky place, to get somewhere—you have to keep going back to intuition."
When I showed Lindsay the landscape, trying my hardest not to be negative, she asked what I thought it needed. "It's bland," I said.
"More definition?" she said, and, yes, I could see that the trees on the near side of the lake could be delineated more sharply. But I also saw that my sky was good and my greens were deep, and I realized that I was happy wandering in the dark wood. I wasn't lost; I was found. I stopped hating the picture and went to work.
Katherine Weissman writes essays and fiction and is an ardent student of piano, ballet, and painting. She lives in New York.