Practicing the Art of Discernment

Close up from an oil painting I made

“It’s not working.” 

“I don’t know what I’m doing…” 

“I’ve messed it all up.” 

“I’m not happy with it!”

These are some of the things fellow students say in my art class. Its comprised of adults, many well past their 50s, several quite talented and serious painters. They don’t depend on art for their income, and many are retired.

And yet when the instructor comes around to help, these are the kind of comments I overhear a lot. I used to complain about my inadequate artistic skills in the same way. After training as a co-active coach, I learned to bring a lens of curiosity, rather than judgment, to the lives of my clients. For, example, when a client reports that they have not done what they said they would do between sessions, they’re not being a “bad” client. That judgment does not serve them. Instead, they present an opportunity to ask what became more important than doing the assignment or exploring the fear that held them back.

This approach is kinder and more effective at getting to the root of why we don’t do what we say we will. Looking at things with curiosity is a bit like turning over a rock in the garden to see the bugs and worms squirming underneath but not judging them because they live under a rock.

Curiosity is also a handy lens to bring to painting. As in coaching, it creates a space for discernment.

“If judging is a process of labeling, discernment is a process of learning,” says Amy Whitaker in her insightful book, Art Thinking.

So, now I catch myself out too. I stop myself from saying things like “I’m unhappy with my painting” to being curious instead about why it’s not working. 

Now, what constitutes “working” when it comes to art is a lifelong study, and entire tomes have been written on the subject. We won’t go into that, other than to say that the instructor and artist can together determine how well a painting works, without it having to be a judgment of the artist. 

As Whitaker also notes, art students are asked to stand back from their work to see what is going on. You cannot discern with your face up in the canvas and a brush in your hand. Sometimes I will take my painting to the hallway and stand 20 feet away from it. How does it look from this distance? Next, I will turn the canvas upside down to figure out how form holds in space. And when you look at a painting in the mirror, a technique handed down from da Vinci himself, it miraculously becomes a different beast altogether. The parts of the painting that need attention almost seem to pop out while those that work well seem to take on even more resonance. 

All these tactics engender a shift in perspective through distance or an unexpected reversal. It challenges any preconceived mental images we have in our minds of what the completed painting “should” look like, and instead focus on what’s actually here. 

These tactics help to separate our creation from ourselves. Once we stop looking to some paint that we slapped on a canvas as a measure of our inherent worth as creative human beings, we are liberated to discern what needs improving. It is working on this edge of our present ability, of struggling, reaching and falling short, that takes us into the sweet spot of “deliberate practice” extolled by Daniel Coyle in his revelatory book, The Talent Code

The vase in this painting epitomized this struggle because I just couldn’t get it to work with the rest of the painting, neither the shape nor capturing its curvature. It also did not sit and hold its place as revealed by da Vinci’s mirror technique. I returned to it at each session never quite satisfied, trying not to blame the vase for being of a somewhat odd shape and color to begin with, nor myself for not being able to render it as I saw it. In the third and last session, it finally came together.

Making mistakes is inherent in this process. If anything, the painting usually gets worse before it gets better. I used to be much more attached to the outcome when I first started oil painting. Under the cryptic Zen-like guidance of one of my instructors, I learned to let go. 

Invariably, in class, at some point, someone will knock a painting off an easel by accident, and everyone will gasp with horror. I’ve learned to laugh when this happens to my painting and joke that the now smeared canvas looks better.

Gradually, as I became more detached from the imagined masterwork I would create, I found the process to be the primary source of enrichment. 

This metaphor of creating a painting is one that we can apply to our own lives. When we navigate our lives with discernment (via curiosity) rather than judgment, we allow a space for deliberate practice to begin.

We have deemed ourselves as inherently worthy and can now focus on the challenges of getting better at our craft, whether it is raising children, building a business, or making a quilt. 

We will know that it is at the edge of our ability where we need to stretch—and struggle—a bit. If we do this consistently, we will grow and astonish ourselves and others. We are essentially nurturing the crucial skill-building myelin sheaths of new neural pathways rather than merely traversing the old worn ones that lead to judgment and dead ends. 

All of my fellow artists are committed to creating better art. Many are painting several times a week, and we’re often in a collective flow state in which the three-hour session evaporates in what seems like minutes. But when we switch into judgment, we’re headed down a slippery slope where our self-worth becomes entangled with the work we are creating.

At any stage in the process of art and life, we can pause and take a step back. We can disentangle, turn things upside down and take a good hard look in the mirror. We can drop judgment in favor of curiosity. We can be kinder. Only then, can we better discern where we need to go or what to do next.

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