Here was an experienced teaching artist, whose work is admired, whose workshops are full, and whose reputation is assured, beginning Day 2 of the project by coolly erasing careful, delicate lines and overhauling her drawing without shedding a tear.
"The difference between somebody who draws well and somebody who stays the same and draws in an amateur way their whole life is the difference between the person who won't make changes and the person who is willing to make major changes deep into the life of their drawing," she said. "The person who's willing to make major changes deep into the drawing, even after they've invested several hours of work, is the person who's going to continue to get better and better and better."
I have found the initial drawing to be the hardest part of my work. Because so much depends on this framework of lines, I have tried to slow down and take the time to get it right. If I don't, my finished work will look bad, and it will be nearly impossible to fix. So I knew I had found an instructor whose approach I wanted to learn as I develop my own approach. Patience. Corrections. Method. Anxiety. Standards. Payoff.
No, I'm not looking for anxiety, but I've never found a way to avoid it while working out pictorial problems, and neither has Sadie Valeri.
She finds the middle stage of a painting to be a long, tough slog: after each session, the painting looks better, but it takes a number of sessions before it begins to look realistic. She doesn't do the detailed, fun work until the bigger value relationships and color passages are properly established. She tells herself that she only needs to advance the painting 50 percent closer to reality with each session, and that doubt and anxiety always accompany this stage. While I don't give myself this exact pep talk, I did feel the same anxiety in my studio earlier that day. My painting (a seashell) was looking far from refined, yet I had devoted the day's best energy to working on it. I told myself to remember the 50-percent idea.
Sadie's demonstration incorporates years of studying, years of studio practice, and years of teaching, all of which are apparent in her careful approach to her painting and explanation of common beginner mistakes. She takes a still-life painting from setup to completion, then suggests simple exercises for the student to undertake in preparing for a similar still-life painting.
Because it takes many hours to finish a painting using this method, some portions of the work weren't included in the video, some portions were shown in time lapse, and some portions were shown in real time with either music or voice-over narration. I'm wary of artists who rely too heavily on time-lapse video, because it makes the work appear faster and easier than it really is. But the balance between real-time video and time-lapse video didn't take away the sense that this is a laborious process, rife with trouble and corrections, and corrections, and corrections. I had wiped away a portion of my background three times that morning. I hated that. But while watching the video, I felt better about my lurching progress. The hours of doubt and fussing, the seemingly endless corrections are normal prices to pay for good work.
Sadie's finished painting, "Anchor in the Gale," is a highly refined image of a small cast-iron vase, a seashell, and a large wave of crumpled wax paper surrounding the other objects. Its beauty is in its semblance to reality, its ability to draw the viewer's attention to the loveliness that already exists in the world. The video, on the other hand, achieves something the painting alone cannot: it makes a student like me understand how normal it is to struggle. It makes it easier to persevere.