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.”