2015: My Year in Watercolors
I made the painting on the left in January 2015, on the first day of Hamid Zavareei’s “Portraits in Watercolor” class at Gage Academy. I finished the portrait on the right on Christmas Eve, the first of the bonus rewards to my friends that backed the Push/Pull Kickstarter. The difference in quality is startling. What could account for such a dramatic improvement in skill in just one year?
I believe in intentional self-improvement, especially self-teaching. In 2014 I hit a wall. I wasn’t making progress. I felt lost. I felt like I’d learned as much as I could about myself through reading, journaling, and introspection. Through a friend I found myself with a referral to a therapist. During the consult I asked him if he could help me break some patterns I felt were limiting me, help me to be more compassionate, and to help me feel less panic and pressure. He said he thought he could, and that was that.
Through his mentorship, and with the support of my friends, I learned to practice self-compassion. I learned to accept myself. I found the courage to be still. This opened up all of these interesting areas of my life, filling me with questions I still try to answer: Why does being alone with my thoughts scare the hell out of me? How does my ego limit my growth as an artist? How can I be patient and nurturing with students, but not with myself?
The stigma of seeing a therapist is still heavy. For me, the big one is: if I need help working this stuff out, there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. The desire to be the person, the teacher,and the artist I was capable of being finally outweighed this fear, so I went for it. After a year-and-a-half, I now believe two-sessions per month with a good therapist should be mandatory for everyone.
We accept feedback and guidance from experts in so many other areas of life. Yet, when it comes to our minds, our hearts, our very selves, we believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strong, so genuine, and so honestly aware of myself as I do now.
One of my early assignments from him was to identify and be present with my feelings, preferably in a non-verbal way. It was terrible. Terrible. But, I was paying for it, so I stuck it out. He suggested I use art to get away from my compulsive desire to rationalize and get caught up in the story of how I felt. But oddly, I’ve never felt comfortable expressing myself through artwork. There’s too much fear of failure, self-doubt, and ego caught up in my usual creative process.
I’m a junkie for paper, blank books, and art supplies. On one of my many browsing sessions through the warehouse of joy that is Artist & Craftsman supply in the U District, I felt a set of Neocolor water-soluble crayons calling to me. They’re big and clunky and so gorgeously, stupidly colorful. Here was a medium that demanded big gestures! I could let go and just make marks, see where it took me.
I really dug coloring with them over the next few weeks, so I bought a full set before my solo road trip / voyage of discovery to San Diego for Christmas 2014. If the mood struck me during my trip, maybe I would paint.
For years I wanted to learn to surf. For years I wanted to paint watercolors. In San Diego, I did both. Everything is connected. I sought out a therapist when I was ready to ask for help, I took my first vacation from the dojo when I was ready to acknowledge my need for self-care, I learned to surf when I was ready to give up control, and I felt inspired to paint with watercolors as soon as I was able to let go.
I was afraid of watercolor. That sounds so so stupid. But I was. The water does not care what you want. The water flows according to the laws of physics. To paint with watercolor is to give up control. The idea of submitting to the flow of the water when surfing made total sense to me. No one challenges the ocean. But in the microcosm of painting, I’d still try to subjugate the drips of water that fell off of my brush, working against the paint, not with it.
After a half-dozen or so uncomfortable therapy sessions spent making eye contact with another man while I *shudder* felt things, staying present to experience challenging feelings became easier.
I took watercolor classes with great artists Hamid Zavareei and Tom Hoffman at Gage Academy. Tom in particular was an inspiration, approaching his work with a spirit and philosophy so similar to Bushido that I started to think of him as a watercolor samurai.
I didn’t have many opportunities to surf this year, but I was able to work on letting go in painting. As Tom Hoffman put it in class, it’s not as much about giving up control as it is collaborating with what is naturally beautiful and exciting about the watercolors. It was slow-going. So many more terrible paintings than good, but it was so enjoyable. During my daily-drawing project in 2014 I learned to see each day’s work as a souvenir of the artist I was at that precise moment. Each painting then was a learning experience, a step in the journey and the whole journey at once.
The difference between the first and last portraits I painted in 2015 is not as important as the number of paintings I did between them. Each painting was an opportunity to feel the water on the brush, to mix colors, to explore how the pigment dissolves in the water, to layer paint, and create form through light and shadow. My final portrait took longer than the few hours of painting on Christmas Eve, it took me a full year to paint. I decided that learning watercolor was important to me, I got my reps in, and I asked for help.
If you have any doubts about whether or not you can improve this much at anything in 2016, keep in mind I did these paintings while running a more-than-full-time small business. What karate gave me, more than anything else, was an unshakable confidence in my will. I know that if I genuinely want something, one way or another, I will get it. Whether it’s building a business, learning a skill, I will manifest it in my life.
A black belt was the first thing in my life that I ever truly earned. I had to grow, change, and dedicate myself to training to earn it. I had to show up to the dojo early and leave late. I had to put the time in. Practice. I took the punches. I took the kicks. I did the cardio. I failed. I tried harder. I failed harder. I succeeded.
But, it doesn’t end there. It never ends. Asking for help is tremendously difficult for me, as an instructor myself, I try to constantly put myself in situations where I can be a student again, where I can feel afraid, and lost, and in need of guidance. At this stage of my training, it’s not so much about the punches and kicks, but fighting the really hard, really challenging battles.
What are you ready to begin? What have you been waiting for? Do you really and truly want it for all of the right reasons?
Who do you want to be on the last day of 2016? What does your average day look like? What activities occupy your time? Who do you see each week? What did you accomplish?
You can be that person.
How do you want to feel? Energized? Tired? Stressed? Pressure in the pit of your stomach that keeps you up at night? Loose, free, and alive? Do you want to feel safe and stable? Do you want to feel pushed to your edge? Are you in a rut or are you badly in need of stability? Do you want to feel creative? Contemplative? Do you want structure and guidelines, or to let the year come to you as it pleases?
You can feel like that.
Take the time to see it, to feel it. Dream about it while you are awake. Scribble it out in crayon, write it in a journal, on a napkin or type it out in Evernote. Just get the vision out of your head. Who do you want to be, how do you want to feel, what do you think will get you there?
If you’re one of my students, how can you translate the discipline of your training into realize your goals outside of the dojo?
What yearning do you ignore? Where do you feel pulled towards? Go there.
This is your life.
Ask for help. If you want to be better at something, or if you want to learn something new, or even if you just want to look from a different perspective, ask for help. Find a mentor, find a class, find a group, buy a book. Just move towards it.
Believe in yourself. 2016 is a big, beautiful blank piece of paper waiting for your mark.
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One of my goals for 2016 is to launch Budo Punk, a lifestyle brand based on empowerment, self-knowledge, mythology, martial arts, and exploration. It’s part of a continuing journey to bring graphic art and martial arts together.
Budo is the Japanese word for martial arts, if you want to get really nerdy about it, the characters that make up “bu” and “do” actually translate roughly to “the way of stopping spears,” martial arts as a means for peace and justice. And punk means, well punk. For me punk rock represents using creativity to channel aggression, anger, pain, and oppression into inspiration, taking responsibility for yourself, doing the projects that mean something to you not just talking about them, and trying to make the world a little bit better for someone else.
I honestly don’t know exactly how Budo Punk will manifest itself in the world, but if you’d like to follow along, and receive exclusive glimpses of my art, writing, and adventures along the way, please click here: Budo Punk Email List Sign-Up.