The perpetual beginner: I have started something new. I’m the newest student of Nick Leavey at the Salisbury Studios’ atelier school. The studios are in an old warehouse just off ‘Industries Road’ (I jest not), and my class takes place in a tin-roofed room stacked to the top with objects: all manner of white mug, salt cellar and bowl, Grecian heads, glass bottles and curvy-necked silverware. Small, muscular statues abound, easels are lined up across the room, individual still-life ‘booths’ constructed of milk crates and black cloth line the walls. Old couches dragged in off the street form the student-share-house-esque tea area.
Not having pursued art education before, I went without expectations. I brought my virgin oil paints and stiff new brushes, ready to at long last be taught something about art. In fact, I didn’t get to paint. The first technique to master is that of proportional drawing, and several measurement techniques. Unprepared, I busted out several charming still-lifes in pen, a little flustered at the easel, unused to working upright. I’m sure this is going to be a moment Nick and I will look back on and laugh.
The experience was something of a mind-fuck that left my head hurting and my hand feeling like a foot. Nick gleefully instructed, ‘Now you will do it my way,’ and demonstrated the angular stance, the positioning of the foot, the stiffened arm, held completely outstretched, the pencil gripped sideways with knuckles against the page. Nick praised the infinite variability of a pencil held in this way, the thickness of stroke to be achieved, the control, the efficiency of transforming the pencil to a measuring instrument. I whimpered, ‘Will I ever be able to make shapes again?’
The two very best things about this class are these: It is challenging. And there is real constructive criticism.
First, one is reduced to a child that doesn’t yet know how to grip a pencil. Can you remember that feeling? It is at once terrifying and liberating—you have no idea what to do or how you are going to approach it, but you are filled with a feeling of absolute potential, that you are on the cusp of something great: you are about to learn to draw. Remember learning to write, when you knew that soon you’d be able to document the fabulous fantasies your child-brain churned out? A class that completely floors you and takes away all of your skills to begin again at the beginning revives that excitement of the possibilities before you. It’s similar to what I experience at my ballet class. The antithesis of a natural dancer, I must do unfamiliar things with my limbs to produce a performance that to me is a foreign language. It is deeply satisfying to approach something completely unknown and to begin to grasp it.
Second, I tire of being the teacher’s pet. Praise has its place, and teachers must build the confidence of their students. The master, however, is not the teacher: the master is the craftsman possessing full knowledge of the craft, and his role is to perfect the technique of the student, not to prop up her ego. In my graphic design class, my teacher says, ‘Wow, you draw really good,’ and doesn’t feel able to offer any more feedback. At the studio, Nick waltzes by your easel and says, ‘this angle isn’t accurate. That’s what’s giving you trouble.’ The feeling in the wake of these words isn’t one of anger or despair at one’s failing, but of relief—the student cannot spot the error, but only has a vague perception that the piece is wrong. The master gently and swiftly gives the student the information needed to progress the drawing.
Somewhat bewildered by ‘Nick’s way,’ I was soothed when he said the magic ‘a-word.’ ‘I know this seems like the opposite of art, and it is a very analytical approach.’ And this is the key. I’ve felt in the dark for long enough, making do with guessing and getting by on people’s praise. But now I will cultivate the skills to approach my craft analytically and will grow a deeper understanding of my trade. Art need not be airy fairy—it can be as academic as any philosophy PhD.
* This is my second ugly lamp, fruit of my perpetual search for light-giving ornamentation of earlier times. (The first can be seen in the banner). I found it when dragging my mum around the antique centres when she and Dad visited a couple of weeks ago. It now illuminates an old chair that is part of a set inherited from my parents, inherited from my dad’s parents, partially recovered in roses by my mum, so it is happily homey and full of personal history.