I've been attending a series of Saturday morning plein-air painting sessions with George, and one of the things that he has been encouraging us to do is to draw and paint with our non-dominant hand:
"People talk about being the master of the medium and all of that, but in fact when you look at artists' work a lot of times mastery isn't just dexterity, mastery is about control over the process, it's about control over what is conceptual in the work, what is abstract in the work, what is important to the storyline. [Painting with your left hand] gives it a kind deliberateness and intentionality which I think is a critical thing..."
The point of working this way is to take yourself out of your comfort zone, out of the kind of comfortable automaticity that leads you to work more quickly because your hand seems to know what it's doing, and into a way of working which is, because it is unfamiliar and somewhat awkward, introduces a kind of vulnerability and freshness into the process.
As George points out, the problem with landscapes at a certain level of proficiency is that they all start to look pretty much the same. That's a mountain, that's a tree, that's a lake, that's the sky. You take it in at one glance, and it's an unusual landscape indeed that has the power to draw you into it and keep you there. A less self-assured, more ambiguous landscape, if it is composed well, has at least the potential to exert that kind of power.
As we've been working on this, I've been thinking about a writing exercise I sometimes ask my students to do, which has some of the same purposes and some of the same effects. I ask them to write about whatever they would like to write about, with one minor restriction: they can't use the letter "e". Writers, and not just student writers, have developed a kind of shorthand proficiency with the basic elements of written communication, and often what gets written has a kind of offhand, glib quality to it. Choosing to work without the letter "e" throws you a little off balance and forces you to pay a different kind of attention to the words themselves, how they are spelled, how they are shaped, how they are sequenced. You can't work automatically any more. You have to invent a new way of working on the fly. You may lose something (you may lose a lot) in terms of precision and fluency. But you may gain something in terms of texture. And you will definitely gain something in terms of originality and freshness and compositional interest. And it's certainly not impossible to do:
This last Saturday, up at Wa'ahila Park on looking out on Manoa Valley, all of us drawing with our non-dominant hands, I got to thinking about a task I could assign which would allow for this kind of play in both art and writing. My kids maintain journals, and I thought I'd ask for us all to draw a cross to cut our journals into quadrants, thusly:
So tomorrow — or on a day not far away — I'm going to try this out in class. With luck, kids and adults will all play around with it a bit and find it satisfying, if not scintillating. So that's a plan. Aloha, for now.