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5 Lessons Learned Painting with Helen Dardik and Carolyn Gavin

December 12, 2017

I’m adding another first onto the 2017 list, which is buying an art course for myself. To clarify: an in-person, not-for-work, doing it for my soul not my business, am I sure I can afford this, art course. Specifically, this one: Painting for a day, in L.A., with Helen Dardik and Carolyn Gavin (I know, I wanted it to end in a rhyme too).

The adult reason I told people for going to this workshop was as a gift to myself for my Quilt Market work and success. The real reason was… because I really, really wanted to. I picked up a paintbrush this summer only to find that it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Luckily, practice helps everyone, and so the practice I’ve done since then has made painting not as terrible an endeavor as it felt when I started. But I knew there was more joy to be had. The joy I was feeling during the process and the joy over the final result didn’t have to be inversely related, as I was putting myself through. I knew these two, whose work I’ve loved from afar, could kick my booty into gear. Here’s what they taught me about painting, and subsequently, about facing life:

I. Kick the bad out first

Whether sitting down to paint or merely trying to get out of bed, imagine a giant trash bag. One by one imagine all of your annoying, heavy, intricate, repetitive, negative thoughts/people/ideas/memories going into this trash bag. Helen, the feistier of the two, reminds us to include any pesky in-laws. All the junk goes into that bag, and then the collector comes and takes it away. And then you start.

In more concrete terms, she also suggests getting out a piece of paper and scribbling out any junk that’s floating around in there before starting.

Either way, sometimes art is about expressing your darker feelings, but if your darker feelings are paralyzing your art making efforts, purge it! Every time you sit at your desk, every time a doubtful thought comes to mind, put it in that trash bag and get to work.

II. Persevere

The number one thing that advanced my painting skills was Carolyn telling the group to persevere through the painting. Essentially, you’re going to start, and shortly in you might deem the painting bad or ruined (why’d I put that leaf there? I hate these colors!), but if you just see it through longer, something can be made of it. So many paintings have been given up on in my short 6 months of painting, I hate to think what lessons and pieces I’ve missed just by stopping myself short. After watching Carolyn’s painting demo though I still had that doubt in my heart: that she made it look easy but that I would sit down and run into a wall. And I did, the first things out of my paintbrush were clumsy and child like, but I persevered through. 15 minutes later something was coming of it. 30 minutes later I was taking pictures of it and sending it to my friends. Persevere.

III. You don’t owe anybody anything

During Helen’s demo she kept saying “you don’t owe anybody anything,” and although I got what she was saying in theory, I didn’t really get how it helped with the painting. It clicked when she was painting a pink tiger; freestyling the body shape I realized she meant literally every stroke of her work didn’t have anything to do with others’ expectations. Color combinations, animal bodies in sweaters, broken art rules…every single choice in your art is whatever the hell you want it to be, not what your brain expects it to be, not what you think some other artist would make or do, yours alone. Loosens my shoulders up just reading that, you too?

IV. Commit to a daily practice

This one’s simple; what you give focus to daily grows and strengthens and challenges. You probably know I’m a big fan of consecutive day challenges, imagine what would happen if you made it daily, period. Check out Carolyn’s daily practice sketchbook for a non-intimidating small canvas. (Not an affiliate link).

V. Trust your instincts

Painting and art making works best when you flow. This requires quick decision making (one color or more? stripes here or flat color? blue or pink?), which is made easier by trusting what you’re inclined to do. Both Carolyn and Helen love use of color and similar paint brands, but they approach painting in completely separate ways; Carolyn loving more freeform interpretations of what’s in front of her, Helen loving a tighter more controlled approach to letting out her inner world. Both are right, both are their instincts and lessons learned from lots of experience and practice. At the end of the day, it’s just paint on paper, so listen to your gut, go for it, and see what you come up with.

What lessons have you learned from artists you admire? Let’s hear em!



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  1. Riana Nelson says:

    This is so awesome, Dylan! And these lessons by the way, are so applicable to LIFE, but especially in art, or ANY creative endeavor (including singing on stage, which has been my primary medium for the past 3 months). It’s massively emotional and heart-wringing (in all the best ways, but still so!) to stand on a stage, in a new city, and allow your inner voice to be heard & examined by 1,000 strangers at a time. Visual art is no different. “Trusting your instincts” got me through. If I could add a number VI to this list, it would be a mantra I remind myself of often: “Share your heart, share your art.” To me that means: allowing yourself to be SEEN as a human first, from the heart. For me, “share” breathes into life an instant feeling of compassion and giving, which is sometimes difficult for those of us who are self-critical *raises hand*. Give yourself permission to share what’s deeply important to you in your heart, and your art will flow! GREAT POST <3

    • Dylan says:

      I LOVE your addition of sharing. Isn’t it amazing was a change in language can do to your mindset? It’s like our brains will do just about anything to cloud us up and make us feel unsure and stuck and comfortable, and if we can just see through the smoke for a second we can break the spell!

  2. chaya gross says:

    Lovely! Makes me want to join!

  3. I took a course with them too, in Brooklyn and I didn’t want it to end. And I ended up sitting next to Jennifer Orkin Lewis. BONUS!!