My “art education” apparently started at a very early age. 5 to be exact. I was in kindergarten and once a week we had time set apart to do art. Artsy craftsy is a more appropriate term, but I reveled in it. I remember with sincere fondness the sequins I chose to adorn my paper crown of David, the pipe cleaners for the crown of thorns, and the colored cotton balls I carefully glued down on my lamb of God. (Yes, I was sent to a small private Lutheran school, ugh ugh. During my nine years there, we did many art projects, mostly secular rather than religious though)
One day, however, the teacher decided to give us an introductory Lesson on Real Art Theory. She pulled out the papier mache balloons we had made from the time before, and explained that we were going to pop the balloon inside and cut the form into a flower. I remember trying to carve petals carefully with the scissors. She then pulled out pots of red, yellow and blue paint, and asked us to choose one. I chose yellow.
Egg, painting by Duane Keiser
Then she pulled out pots of green, purple, and orange paint, and assigned each of us the Complementary Color of the Primary Color we first chose. I received purple.
Hole No. 2, painting by Emily Eveleth
She then instructed all eight of us to mix together our primary color with the complementary color and use this mixture to paint our flowers.
I was crushed, I remember it well. I mixed the two together and out came this sludge, this brown bubbling mass that had lost all sense of the beauty of yellow and purple. I wondered how on earth it was fair and right to cover a delicate paper flower with dirty paste. And following the teacher’s orders, I and the others painted our flowers with this fudge which recalled anything but chocolate, though I tried really hard to see it that way. I looked at my brown flower with the greatest sadness, and then looked up. The entire room was filled with brown paint. I was surrounded by shit, and I was deeply upset.
This drawing below is one of the few that I have still have from youth. We had a swingset in our backyard, decorated with overlapping circles and a bit of rust. I loved it (I still go on swingsets when noone is looking), and so I drew it. We did not have a pond, but a kiddie pool, and the colored autumn leaves and dyslexic date show I would have been 6 years old at the time. Not long after the complementary color lesson therefore, and yet there is no sign of that important lesson in Art Theory being applied here. Thank goodness. This was just me looking, trying to get the feeling that the two-seater swing was at an angle, giving each leaf its color and shape, the chain its rings. The part that surprised me, though, is what I found on the back. If you look carefully, you can see through the paper that I had started this drawing on the other side, putting the horizon line right in the middle. I must not have liked it, so I started over. This was a matter of preference, not a learned rule, of something not seeming quite “right,” that the sky was further up and so I needed more space.
Perhaps ever since the brown flower episode, I developed a mistrust of institutional art education. Many years later I tried studying further, in high school, university, privately and at an atelier, but I always felt alone and defiant, knowing that I was committed to drawing and painting what I believed was truthful and not because someone else told me so. I preferred to investigate things myself, to try to see deeply on my own and not because I was supposed to see something. To this day, I have yet to observe a brown and say to myself, “Ah, I see yellow and purple.” Browns are infinitely richer than a formula.