BWW Blog: The Incredibly Involved and Very Stressful Art of Painting a Straight Line
Lesson number one: paint one straight white line and one straight black line onto your forearm in cream stage makeup.
That familiar chorus of artsy-assignment self-deprecation begins before any of us have the chance to settle into the process. We crack jokes - we are a room of college students who can't paint straight lines, adults who can't finger-paint. They're jokes, sure, but delivered with a hint of genuine criticism that each of us can feel, and which the deliverers aren't necessarily trying to conceal. I watch my classmates - and myself - deflate. We have determined that self-deprecation will be our common mode of assessment. I shoot glances at the people on either side of me. I decide in about two seconds that my lines are too long, too close together, and too thick. It's the first day, and I'm already bad at this. I can't paint a straight line. If the people on either side of me are struggling, too, I glaze over that. I don't belong here.
The air is thick enough with this tension that our professor challenges us to refrain from immediate self-criticism - he asks us to "consider our quality of thought," to recognize the ways we are responding to ourselves both internally and externally and to view our work as work, rather than a linear progression toward a perfect finished product. Of course, we involuntarily take one last opportunity to batter ourselves - even the quality of our thought isn't good enough! - but we settle in. I give my thoughts some room to breathe. I realize that an extra millimeter of closeness probably does not matter very much. Then, I realize that I'm enjoying myself.
Theatre training is unique in this way; our growth relies on building a sense of self awareness just as much, if not more, than it does on practical experience and a traditionally academic education. We know that self-awareness is integral to our work, but perhaps there's value in recognizing that self-awareness need not include self editing and self-criticism. Perhaps there's even value in learning to learn, in painting the line without considering the advanced old age makeup or special effects a few lessons down the line.
Next, we make our first attempts at blending; we dab and drag with our fingers at our imperfect white and black lines until they meet in a gradient. I challenge myself to focus on the creams. How interesting is the texture and the opaqueness, if nothing else? Then I try to appreciate that I am taking the time to make art on my forearm. How cool is that, if nothing else?
I finish. Instead of declaring my work Bad, or Okay, or Great, I declare that I've learned to blend a white line into a black one. I think it might have been successful, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find how much better the learning feels over the succeeding.
I'm finding that to prize the act of learning is a part of the learning itself.