The Best Beginner

When I began watercolor painting last year my teacher asked, “what are you looking for?” After a moment of thought I replied, “I’m looking to see differently.”  I’m not quite sure what I meant, I only knew I wanted to see the world around me and myself in it anew. Taijiquan & Qigong certainly teach me to be open to seeing, feeling and moving on multiple planes of perception, but I was looking for something different, or changed or something. I wasn’t quite sure.

Luckily, I found a fine teacher who is an expert in teaching beginners. We drilled the basics and over this past year I have learned how to mix paint, use different brushes, gradate paint, understand paper and more. He schooled me through this beginning stage with a perfect combination of encouragement, support, and challenge.  I have kept almost everything I’ve done and enjoy seeing my own growth. Some of my work I even like!  I’m mystified why at 65 I’ve had no idea of this world before. I did have a good education, but art was not part of it. What a shame, it seems like such an essential skill, right along with reading, math, and writing.

Of course, I have been frustrated along the way, but luckily through my martial arts training, also with excellent teachers, I do understand the learning process. Basics and practice - there is just no other combination for anything we learn. Unfortunately, as adults we forget, or like art education, perhaps we were never taught this simple key to learning. We somehow expect ourselves to already know something we don’t know. It’s nutty!

Like my painting teacher Jess Rice, my first martial arts teacher Ken Carson was a fantastic teacher. Not only did I learn Judo, I learned how to learn Judo. I remember many things he taught me, paramount to them, “Be the best White Belt you can be.” A White Belt is a beginner.  Whenever I tried to jump ahead of myself, he reminded me. Finally, being the best beginner became my singular goal. Each time I was promoted I took it as the next beginning level, and I went at it to be the best of that level. And by the way, I don’t mean the best relative to others, I mean the best relative to my own capabilities. And while it took many years, I finally earned my Black Belt. I knew at that time I had really earned it. To this day, my body still remembers Judo.

Being the best beginner has helped me to learn other important skills since then. As I continue to explore and gain experience with different disciplines in my chosen ways, I never forget how important the basics and practicing them are. Over the years learning complex choreographies has taken a back seat to the basics. In terms of my skill, but more importantly my mental & physical health, I think it’s paid off. In fact, I’m sure of it. And I trust that I am also passing on to my students this simple formula my teacher gave to me. After all, learning connect our mind with our body is taught to us from an early age about as much as art is. Most of us have no idea how to do it. We have to be taught.

Now, back to my goal in painting: to learn to see differently. After only a year I do not yet. I do “see” more in what others are doing. I’m beginning to understand what style I’m drawn to and what I personally want to cultivate. Yet I’m still copying, still tethered to my teacher’s brush. I attempt to break free, but when I do my work looks like a child’s work. Yet, when I think about it, this is precisely correct. I am a beginner. I need to stay right here and be the best beginner I can.  We could all do worse than staying tethered to a good teacher.

Staying a beginner is not to say we do not have glimpses into the next plateau, in fact it is what enables us to have them. When I painted some images of my recent trip to Death Valley I did reach up into a new place. In fact, for one painting, only a small sketchbook effort, my teacher said if he would not have known it was me, he would have thought it was painted by a professional. That was a big surprise to me. Even though I tried to stay a beginner, my humanity got the best of me. My next several paintings have been, well, nothing I’d post in a newsletter. When I asked teacher Jess - with a bit of frustration - what to do next, he replied, “paint circles.” I said, “I feel like I’ve been sent back to the remedial room!” He replied, “we all go back there.”

The take home message? Be the best beginner you can. Learn the basics and practice. It’s not a punishment or a failure. It doesn’t mean we are not progressing. On the contrary! Decades ago, I had the opportunity to watch Yo-Yo Ma in a workshop at the Berkshire Music Festival. Someone asked him how he practices. He replied, “I practice my scales every day.”

The Best Beginner