Here are a few words on self-criticism, for the benefit of my art students—and as a good reminder to myself.
Art is a technical skill that can be taught and improved with knowledge and practice. But it's also a creative activity, and that complicates everything about it. It means that no matter how accurate the rendering, each work of art will also display something of its creator's individual personality. Feelings and impressions are involved. We make choices, many of them unconscious, that shape the outcome of our piece. And that's just how it ought to be; otherwise, we would grow only in accuracy, not in artistic expression.
To compare my art with someone else's can be both helpful and harmful, depending on how I approach it. If I'm looking to improve my technical skills, it's good to observe the areas where I can learn from that artist. Better proportions; a more compelling use of values (darks and lights); subtler, more tasteful blending techniques; stronger color choices...I can pay attention to all these things and be more pleased with the results of my next attempt.
But if I try to mimic someone else's style too closely, sacrificing my uniqueness, it can hinder me as an artist. I shrink inside, due to lack of confidence. Bold, confident strokes almost always improve the appearance of artwork, yet confidence can't be faked. Everyone is more timid at first, which is why we must approach this process with a teachable, humble heart. We build up our abilities through practice and repetition. More successes make us believe we can do it, so we gradually grow bolder, and it shows in our work.
This practice and repetition are key, but they make up only half of a two-part process. The other half is equally important. It's knowing and liking who I am as an artist. That means accepting myself at my current level and being kind to the young artist inside me. I say "young" because no matter what age the artist is, a part of him or her remains a child. That child can be badly wounded when discouraged. How many broken-hearted "children" have abandoned their sketchbook, easel, or musical instrument out of discouragement? Too many to count. And who can help those "children" overcome, if it's the artists themselves who are doing the wounding?
Art of any kind can be a painful endeavor. It's hard enough to bear the criticism of other people—and let's face it; people love to criticize—but when the discouragement comes from our own hearts, that's when it can really tear us down.
I have had to learn this as an adult, since I began doing visual art late in life. My teacher is, and may always be, a superior artist. If I compare my work unfavorably with hers, I must do so only with the goal of improving my skills—never with hopelessness or envy, and certainly not with an attempt to become her. She is who she is, and I am who I am.
I am happy and thankful for what my teacher gave me. She launched me into the world of drawing and painting. Lots of people have been blessed by the many pieces of art I've created, all because of the basic skills she taught me, along with the deep joy of creating that God planted in my heart.
In this world, there is plenty of room for many, many different artists; together, we are a community of colorful people who make it a more wonderful place! We can celebrate the work of other artists as we celebrate our own.
It's like a big banquet where everyone brings a dish to the table and we all get to enjoy the feast. If I look down at the food I created and frown, because it doesn't look the same as someone else's dish, does that add to the celebration...or does it take away?
Cook it up, my friend. Put it out there, and let it be tasted.
Have a Happy Artist Thanksgiving!
Who would have ever predicted the strangeness of March 2020? Without looking too deeply into the crazy Covid-19 virus panic-demic and all of its ramifications—health, politics and economics—I want to focus instead on the unexpected lovely byproducts of being homebound.
Upon returning from a Florida Keys vacation, Paul and I were asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. During this time, I've felt more connection than usual with fellow at-home friends on FaceBook. I decided it was a good time to create a music video out of my newest song.
Last month, I wrote and recorded "This Is Home" for entry in Nebraska Furniture Mart's anthem contest. Song contests are never my favorite thing, for lots of reasons. But I set my natural resistance aside and let the $25,000 first prize motivate me to sit down at the piano.
Let me just say that money is not a great muse. I played the first draft for my husband and my good friend Alicia Anderson, who is also a songwriter. Neither one looked inspired. Alicia is too kind to let criticism fly freely, but I can sense when something hasn't really struck a chord with my soul sister. Paul, on the other hand, is too honest to hold back, and he clearly indicated that the song fell short. It just wasn't there yet.
With the contest deadline looming, I had already set up studio time for the following Monday. I still had a few days to infuse the song with raw heart (the missing element).
Fast forward to the dentist's chair. I always say yes to nitrous oxide during procedures when it's recommended. That day, I'd been working on the lyrics in my head just before my appointment, and the words floated along with me into the calmly-removed environment inside my head. During a break while Dr. Parsons waited for an instrument, he let me grab my phone and I jotted down some lines I didn't want to forget. I'm sure I must have appeared loony tapping away on my Notes app...but I didn't care. I wasn't about to lose my ideas to the ether, just to avoid embarrassment.
Finally, the bridge was installed in my mouth and Doc announced, "I'm going to have to shut the party off now." Afterward, I explained to his assistant what I'd been doing on my phone. I won't credit laughing gas for fixing my song, but hey, partial credit where it's due. This is the part I wrote while "under:"
Little hands, little feet
Little whispered words as they're drifting off to sleep
And one day, through their eyes
These moments will be tomorrow's memories
How the sun set and rose
Through their windows
The moon and the stars glowed while they slept
This is home
This is home
Leave the chaos outside
In here we can hide
This is home
The next Monday, I picked up my drummer son, Josiah, and we headed to Red Cat Recording in tiny Peck, Kansas. Lane Turgeon joined us with his amazing bass guitar skills. Luke Wallace mixed and mastered "This Is Home" and emailed the finished MP3. But the song really came alive when two other elements were added:
1) Covid-19 isolation in our homes
2) Permission to draw from the Photo files of my FaceBook friends for images
I hope you enjoy the final product. It didn't win the contest, but it's been a rewarding experience every step of the way (you might even say I had a gas). You can find it on my YouTube channel:
This might go without saying, if you already know me and my approach to art and life...but I'm going to say it anyway. I don't undertake any creative task alone, without my Creator. Extra prayer went into this song, as I struggled to make it work. I have nothing of value to offer, except what He gives me. All humor aside, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it."
I've always known that the easiest way for me to memorize anything is to set it to music. Here's a funny story about what motivated me to first try this with a sizable hunk of Scripture...
I was browsing the racks at Goodwill (one of my favorite pastimes) when some inane, repetitive song started playing in my brain. I couldn't get rid of it, so I thought, "I know! I'll replace it with a song that has more variety." Enter Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Little did I know it was about to take over my head. For days, it played up there incessantly. Seriously. I'd wake up in the morning to "Mama Mia! Mama Mia! Mama Mia, let me go!" and I'd fall asleep to "Nothing really matters, anyone can see..." I finally took the initiative to replace Freddy's crazy lyrics with a large portion of Psalm 22. It was a perfect fit! Soon, without even trying, I had committed a big chunk of God's Word to memory.
Last year, I accepted the challenge of joining a group that was memorizing the entire Book of James. This time, I created new melodies. I plodded on, far past the target date the group had set, but I finally crossed the finish line! My musical version consists of 17 tunes—some serious and some outright silly—that make quoting the King James James practically effortless.
For my next project, I've decided to tackle Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Book of Psalms. I'm telling you this now, because I'm just getting started; and I don't know how long it will take, but I would like to invite you to join me!
I chose Psalm 119 because it is neatly divided into 22 sections of eight verses. Each of these sections is headed with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has 22 letters: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, etc. (bonus! you get to learn the Hebrew alphabet!). I'm going to do two sections (16 verses) at a time, so I've printed them onto 11 pages. I'll post the new pages as I begin memorizing them.
I'm using the same simple melody for every section. It consists mainly of the eight tones in the major scale. So, if you can sing do-re-mi, and your voice extends comfortably to one full octave, you can follow this tune. Find the scale that fits your voice most comfortably and sing it in that key. I'm using the key of A, beginning and ending with the A notes below and above middle C (A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A).
For those who play instruments, the accompanying chords are compatible with each note of the scale. In all but the last line, only one chord is played for the entire line. Some are major chords, others minor, and one is diminished.
Here is how the chords are structured, using verses 1–8 of Psalm 119 as an example (you can use the chords as named if you like the key of A, or you can choose a different key and identify them by their Roman numerals; upper case means major and lower case means minor):
A (A major)
or I chord
Bm (B minor)
or ii chord
C#m (C sharp minor)
or iii chord
D (D major)
or IV chord
E (E major)
or V chord
F#m (F sharp minor)
or vi chord
E (E major)
or V chord
A (A major)...D (D major)...Bm (B minor)...Bdim (B diminished)...A (A major)
Every one of the 22 sections uses this identical chord structure.
The timing is 4/4. Accent marks show where the words in each line are stressed, at four places per line. [Sorry if the accent marks get a bit jumbled on your mobile device—they do on mine.]
I've put an audio sample below, to give you the basic idea.
' ' ' '
1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.
' ' ' '
2 Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
' ' ' '
3 They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways.
' ' ' '
4 Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently.
' ' ' '
5 O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!
' ' ' '
6 Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
' ' ' '
7 I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments.
G C Am Adim G
' ' ' '
8 I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly.
' ' ' '
9 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
' ' ' '
10 With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.
' ' ' '
11 Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.
' ' ' '
12 Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy statutes.
' ' ' '
13 With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.
' ' ' '
14 I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.
' ' ' '
15 I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways.
' ' ' '
16 I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.
Please let me know if you're joining me on this adventure!
I'm reading in Exodus, and it makes me feel good that the Lord includes detailed descriptions of artwork that He commissioned and directed. He was very specific with the artisans who created the decorations for the tabernacle and the priests' garments. The precious stones He chose to represent each of the 12 tribes of Israel must have been significant to Him, each with its own special meaning and beauty. He made sure their settings were secure as well as attractive; He took such care with every aspect of the work. It was all done according to His exact specifications, yet I sense that God also allowed for creative expression on the part of the craftsmen.
I love it that being an art director and visionary is a part of God's identity—a large part, because He Himself is the ultimate Artist, having created all that is! Could you imagine having one of the items that Jesus Himself crafted when He made a living as a carpenter? What a prized piece that would be! Or a small toy that He might have whittled as a child, from one of Joseph's blocks of scrap wood? I wonder if He ever painted them...
Oh, how I wish I could have known Jesus as a human person. But then I would probably turn too shy to talk to Him. I can't communicate with anyone of celebrity status without turning into an idiot. I always blow it somehow—always! I'm so glad that I get to have an intimate, individual and invisible relationship with Jesus, by the avenue of the Word and the Holy Spirit. He makes me feel entirely comfortable and accepted in His company, in spite of the fact that I'm in the presence of the Greatest Artist Ever.
I'm wondering at this moment, as I hang up a painted saw blade to be spray varnished...if one of the mysterious reasons I sometimes procrastinate might be the heightened exhilaration of finally getting a thing accomplished! I mean, would it be feeling this great if I hadn't been "pregnant with it" for so long?
The time it took me to complete this commission—a Kansas Flint Hills landscape on both sides of a two-man saw—was embarrassingly long. Lucky for me, the client was very gracious and not in a hurry. But I kept asking myself, "Why?" Why are most jobs in and out the door of my studio very quickly, while a few, like this one, just hang around like they own the place? Was it because I stubbornly insisted it needed to be done in oil instead of acrylic paints (extended drying time between sessions)? Was it because I'd never painted something quite like this, and was afraid I wouldn't execute it well? Or did that old saw just happen to like the view from his window seat home and never want to leave?
I may never know all the hidden causes for my procrastination hang-up. This website took me three years from idea to execution, and it still needs loads of tweaking. But in all honesty, I'm glad I didn't rush it, because using Weebly made the process way easier—and I didn't know about Weebly three years ago. I've had time to build a larger body of work, too. Besides, I wasn't supposed to be focusing on a website; I was supposed to be making the most of the SEEDS mentoring program, teaching art, etc. It wasn't the right time for this. I was in the Legitimate Procrastination phase.
Don't laugh. I truly believe in the Legitimate Procrastination phase. Don't you? I honor it as an essential part of any creative endeavor. Deadlines are great motivators, but ideas that are unduly rushed turn out like half-baked cinnamon rolls: gooey, and not in the good way.
If you get irritated with yourself over the habit of procrastination, work on it the best you can, but don't kick yourself black and blue over it. Unless it's seriously sabotaging your productivity, I don't think you should get hung up on it. ;-)
I'm not new to music, or writing, or art. But I am new to this. To putting it all up in one place, up for sale, up on the online marketplace—where literally anyone in the world could stumble upon it and suddenly know me. Hear my voice. Look at my pictures. Read my writing. See my soul through the holes in my everyday clothes.
I don't think of myself as a shy person. It was a long time ago when I used to hide behind my mom's dress at church (so long ago that all women wore dresses to church). But now I kinda feel that way again. Now that I finally found the courage to hit PUBLISH and set this thing loose.
I don't suppose it'll feel like this for long. I'll get into the rhythm and soon it will seem natural to be tossing words and music and pictures out to a silent, invisible crowd. But until then, please do me a favor and remember the kind words of the great food critic, Anton Ego..."The new needs friends."