Confidence in art beyond fear

Autumn Afternoon on the Siene by Lesley Charnock.

Artist and teacher Lesley Charnock was the guest speaker at the opening of Constantiaberg Art Society’s spring exhibition last week in Kirstenbosch.

She talked about creativity and fear and her words resonated with many in the audience.

Lesley lives in Mouille Point and has a studio at Montebello Design Centre in Newlands. She has been teaching art for 30 years and many of her pupils attended the opening.

Lesley said she enjoyed the creative energy, excitement, commitment and endeavour that had gone into the art on display.

“I’m very aware of the courage that goes into submitting these paintings to be exhibited. I mention courage because this is the theme of a book I’ve been reading by Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat, Pray, Love) called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. The book is about the fear and panic that is a part of living a creative life, whether you are an artist, designer, poet,” she said to gathered guests.

“We all want a certain outcome, a particular result. We want to capture the beautiful model we are painting or simply do our best work. Truth is we have no control or guarantee regarding the outcome, in fact little idea of how the artwork will actually turn out. This uncertainty results in a very real and sometimes all-consuming fear,” she said.

Lesley said Elizabeth Gilbert lists typical fears as being afraid we have no talent; that we are too old to start painting; that someone else did it better; that we are not saying anything politically, emotionally or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life; that our best work is behind us; that we will never do any ‘best work’; that no one will ever buy our paintings.

“We are afraid… the list is endless. People often confide in me their desire to learn how to paint. How they excelled at art at school and would love to have had a more creative career. Now, later in life, they have the time and opportunity to realise their dreams and yet fear and self-doubt paralyse them into doing nothing,” said Lesley.

She reassures them this is a normal fear and she encourages them to start as soon as possible.

Lesley recently advertised a five-day plein air painting workshop. More than three quarters of those who wanted to book asked about the competence of the other participants.

“I assured them it was not about the other students on the course but rather their own personal journey to improve and learn as artists. It’s not a competition but an opportunity to grow and develop skills and competence,” said Lesley.

She is no stranger to fear. “A few years ago, I had a two month residency at the Cité internationale des arts, in Paris. I set myself the goal of doing at least five paintings a week in situ in the streets of Paris and along the banks of the Seine.

The first week, I did a lot of sketching and visited museums using every excuse not to paint outside,” she said.

Suddenly she was confronted by the fact that she was in Paris, the same Paris of the Impressionists. “How can I stand here with my easel and have everyone looking over my shoulder thinking I’m not very good, what am I doing painting in Paris, or what if my paintings are mediocre? Then I realised that these Parisians do not care a jot whether I’m good or hopeless. What have I got to lose compared to what I have to gain,” she said.

The next day, fired with resolve and determination, she set off to paint her first painting. “It wasn’t easy and hot butterflies of fear in my tummy continued, but slowly I did not care what people thought but more about the process of what was happening on my canvas,” said Lesley.

“It wasn’t easy, but slowly the concern around judgement from bystanders was replaced with the usual artistic struggle and challenge of capturing the scene in front of me onto my canvas.”

Lesley ended with a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book: “If I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too, plenty of space.” The exhibition is on until Thursday September 7, from 9.30am to 5.30pm, in the Richard Crowie Lecture Hall at Kirstenbosch. Entry is free after paying the entry fee to the gardens.

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