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How I Painted My Masterpiece

I’d always wanted to become an artist. Finally, I found someone to show me how.

Somewhere in my mid-50s, I was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to become a painter. I don’t know how it started exactly, but I remember reading a magazine article that quoted Tony Bennett, the famous Sunday painter, saying that he had organized his life around three pursuits: singing, painting and writing.

“Why not me?” I thought. I was a writer by trade, after all, and had toured the nation as a tenor with my college chorus. Later, of course, I learned that Tony’s publicist had made up the quote, but by then it didn’t matter: I was already well under way on the Bennett path to personal fulfillment.

My first move was to sign up for a beginning drawing class at a local art school. The teacher, a bearish Russian woman with the welcoming demeanor of a gulag prison guard, had been trained in the strict classical system and had little patience with anyone — namely me — who hadn’t studied art. On the first day I thought we might get an easy assignment — a basket of fruit perhaps — but instead Madame Natasha had us draw a nude model, while she hovered over our easels and glowered at every stroke. At one point, she scrutinized my woeful drawing and growled, “No, no, no. What is this?” Then she proceeded to redraw my picture from top to bottom.

Somehow I survived the experience and over time, with help from some slightly less intimidating instructors, I learned to create passable drawings of the human form. And when I discovered the allure of oil paint, I was completely gone. I was spending so much time painting that my wife, Barbara, joked that I had taken up with another woman — in the makeshift studio in our garage.

I couldn’t blame Barbara for being jealous. But I couldn’t help myself, either. Painting is a demanding mistress, and the more I tried to please her, the more frustrating she became. I felt as if there was a battle raging between my inner Vermeer — the part of me that wanted to render every detail perfectly — and my inner de Kooning — the side that wanted to break all the rules and paint something raw and authentic. How could I plug into that energy without losing what I already knew?

That question was rattling in my mind when I arrived in Asheville, N.C., last spring to take a one-day workshop with Steven Aimone, 57, an artist/teacher/philosopher who has developed a method of “expressive” drawing.  This technique allows you to tap directly into the source of your deepest creativity, even if you’ve never picked up a brush before.

Aimone, who describes his approach in a new book, Expressive Drawing: A Practical Guide to Freeing the Artist Within, believes everyone is born with an innate gift. “Everyone draws all the time — they just don’t know that it’s drawing,” he says. “When you sign your name, for example, you’re using a rhythmic pattern and movement that’s all your own — and it’s very expressive.”

Aimone continues: “In our culture, drawing has become synonymous with rendering. So if you’re not able to render a dazzling likeness of something, you’re told that you don’t have any talent. Every 3-year-old is a fabulous artist. But by age 12 or 13, they’ve either been told they have talent or they’ve stopped. And most people never start again.”

One of the key influences on Aimone was a branch of Surrealism known as psychic automatism. This group believed that “automatic drawing” — a form of spontaneous doodling — can reveal something about the artist’s inner life that other more self-conscious forms of drawing can’t. Inspired by their work, Aimone developed a series of exercises to stimulate this kind of creativity. “The thing is to tap into the intelligence of your body — and your subconscious — and use that as a source from which to express yourself.”

The workshop took place in a large, high-ceilinged studio, scattered with some of Aimone’s haunting black-and-white paintings. A few of the students were professional artists, but most had never studied art before, including a performance artist, a therapist, a textile designer, a book publicist and the local mail carrier. After a quick introduction, we launched into the first exercise: drawing three pictures with black paint, each containing a circle, a square and a triangle.

The point, Aimone explained, was to show how much intrigue you can create with three simple shapes. When the shapes relate to one another on the paper, he said, they become animate entities. “They have character, personality, energy and weight,” he said. “They’re alive.”

No kidding. Some of the drawings that emerged were charged with feelings of fear, anger and pent-up rage. The textile designer’s pictures resembled a group portrait of a dysfunctional family, while the performing artist’s tightly regimented works portrayed an empty world in which nobody ever touched.

For me, the process was surprisingly liberating. I was delighted to paint in carefree, de Kooningesque brushstrokes, without trying to make the drawing resemble anything. I felt something wild and uninhibited awaken inside me, something screaming desperately to get out.

That was just the beginning. The next project was an exercise in automatic painting on a 5-by-3-foot sheet of paper with two or three colors of acrylic paint. The idea, said Aimone, was to create a painting without thinking about what you wanted to create. He encouraged us to use the large muscles of the body more than the fingers and wrist. When you work with those small muscles, he explained, you have a muscle memory of writing — and that triggers thought. (Poor Vermeer.) But when you use the arms and shoulders, you tap into deeper, more subconscious sources of knowing.

Aimone instructed us to stand about 10 feet from the paper taped to the wall, load up a brush with paint and then lunge toward the paper with no preconceived notion in mind. “The first thing that comes to you, do it,” he said. “Don’t analyze. Don’t worry. Just do it.”

Next we were supposed to return to the 10-foot mark, take the painting in for a few seconds and go at it again. “It’s like a dance,” he said. “You go back and forth, back and forth, until you like what you’ve done, or nothing else occurs to you about what to do. Then stop.”

I couldn’t wait. I loaded up my brush and attacked, slopping a giant blob of black paint over the left side of the surface. Yes! I loaded up another brush and splashed a burst of bright red into the upper right corner. Boom. My body was tingling. Black. Red. Black. Red. Someone said I looked like a lead guitarist performing a rock solo.

After the exercise was over, Aimone asked us to walk around the room and come up with words to describe what we saw. First, we looked at the book publicist’s picture: an elegant, flowing drawing resembling Japanese calligraphy. “Sensuous,” one person said. “Rhythmic … curvilinear … feminine,” others added. How different from my drawing, which my classmates described as “explosive,” “aggressive,” “powerful,” “masculine.”

The therapist, who had grown up in Nazi Germany and lost most of her family in the war, was particularly moved by my painting. She said it reminded her of her childhood.

I didn’t know what to make of her remark, but I was thrilled with my creation anyway. Most of the work I’d done before was soft and understated. Here was a bold, in-your-face blast of male energy staring back at me from across the room. It was exhilarating.

At the beginning of workshops, Aimone often asks his students why they paint. The most common answer is that the act of painting transports them from their everyday experience into a different world. But some students say they paint because it allows them to tap into a side of themselves that feels genuine.

“This is not just a painting class,” says Audrey Phillips, a professional artist from central Florida who attended the workshop. “It’s a class about discovering who you are.”

Phillips discovered the transformative power of art when her mother was murdered a few years ago in a random act of violence and she decided to deal with her grief by painting portraits of her mother’s convicted killer. But after studying with Aimone, Phillips shifted to abstract painting and uncovered a new way of grappling with the turmoil inside. “You’ll bump against something frustrating in your painting,” she says, “and you’ll see the similarity between your art and your life. And as you resolve those things in your painting, you’ll resolve them in your life. It’s magical.”

I haven’t reached that point yet, but I’m working on it. After the workshop, I told Aimone about my Vermeer-de Kooning conflict. He laughed, and told me that he too had struggled with a similar problem when he started exploring abstract painting. He suggested either keeping the two sides of myself completely separate or finding a way for them to peacefully coexist. I’m taking the second route and so far I’m pleased with what I’ve seen. The portrait of an African American man I’d been working on before the workshop transformed into a much more dynamic painting afterward, influenced, no doubt, by what had happened to me in Asheville.

As for the black-and-red painting, that’s another story. When I returned home with my masterpiece, carefully guarded in a giant mailing tube, I couldn’t wait to show it to Barbara, who, despite her flights of jealousy, is usually enthusiastic about my work. But as I rolled my “explosive,” “powerful” painting out on the living room floor, she looked perplexed. 

“Where do you think you’re going to put that thing?” she asked. “It looks like the work of an insane person.”

So now the painting that changed my life hangs in a special place of honor: in the basement, right next to the laundry room.

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