DAY 1 - HOW TO BE AN ARTIST / by Debra Matlock

The 100 Day Project

Step One: You Are a Total Amateur

Five lessons before you even get started.

Jerry Saltz,  New York ’s art critic, as Salvador Dalí, based on a photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo: Photo by Marvin Orellana. Photo Illustration by Joe Darrow

Jerry Saltz, New York’s art critic, as Salvador Dalí, based on a photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo: Photo by Marvin Orellana. Photo Illustration by Joe Darrow

Lesson 1: Don’t Be Embarrassed

I get it. Making art can be humiliating, terrifying, leave you feeling foul, exposed, like getting naked in front of someone else for the first time. You often reveal things about yourself that others may find appalling, weird, boring, or stupid. People may think you’re abnormal or a hack. Fine. When I work, I feel sick to my stomach with thoughts like None of this is any good. It makes no sense. But art doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t even need to be good. So don’t worry about being smart and let go of being “good.”

from Jerry Saltz’s article How to Be an Artist.)


I’m taking an art class at the Armory in Pasadena. It’s less a class per se as an open studio where the instructor is more like an art coach. The first day of class, I arrived and everyone was already in mid-painting, but I didn’t even have any supplies at all. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Turns out people had been coming to this class for years, in some cases decades. [And sure enough, I have taken this class three times in a row now.]

I thought we’d be learning how to paint a bowl of fruit together, but everyone picks what they want to paint. The instructor Patricia Liverman makes her rounds during the class, suggesting things in such a way she’s never telling you exactly what to do, but coaxing out a way forward. It’s great. The only problem I have is painting in front of people. It’s happened more than once, where I’ve made a bad mark just as Patricia arrives. It’s mortifying. However, the way she guides the class during the critiques speaks to what Mr. Saltz is getting at, about “being good.”

I’m a judgey person by nature. I feel like I have really discerning tastes. It’s part of my work as a graphic designer to be able to hone in on a specific font, for example, but the way I know the right font, is by also knowing the wrong font. As a result, I’m generally hypercritical, to no one more than myself. It’s exhausting. And honestly, not very pleasant.

But seeing how whether something is good or bad doesn’t even enter the equation is so freeing. When we do critiques it’s always in service of helping the person move forward. You don’t have to like their style to offer “I like how you used the blue there.” or “I like what’s happening in the upper corner.” Not lying, but looking harder to find something you appreciate.

It’s almost like gratitude.