High School Art Classes and the Lessons That Last a Lifetime: A Short Essay

Somewhere among these sketchbooks, canvas seascapes, kneaded erasers, and graphite drawing pencils unearthed from cardboard boxes, there is a little boy who wanted to become a painter.

I’m trying to find him, in hopes that he will have something to teach me.

I remember copying works by Manet, Picasso, and Cezanne in my high school art classes — first, by sketching their portraits, still-life compositions, and landscapes. Later, we students would dip our brushes into the colors of the world and press them onto white paper or canvas board, attempting to mimic the masters.

Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

I was, in a way, held captive to the masterpieces hanging around the classroom — in awe of them, humbled by them.

And, silly me — I wanted to make my own.

We were eventually "freed" to draw and paint original pieces, but at the beginning of every project, the empty white canvases seemed to resist my brush every time I moved it near. Full class periods would go by with barely a line drawn.

Eventually, I would crack my knuckles and attempt art, trading Cezanne's apples for a jar of pickles and salt and pepper shakers. At least, that's what resulting blobs of drying paint were supposed to represent.

Needless to say, I learned soon enough that I'd never earn a living by drawing or painting. However, I never lost my love for the craft.

I collected boxes of watercolor art during my years in China. I doodled during slow days at the newspaper. I befriended political cartoonists. I read biographies of Caravaggio, Cezanne, and Monet. I wandered for hours in art museums. I spent entire paychecks on works from minor professional artists. I grew to love animation and graphic novels.

Now, nearly two decades out of high school, I find myself returning to drawing and painting — partly because my current job as a digital content designer requires it, but also because putting paint to paper somehow renews my spirit. No matter how badly it turns out, this act seems to unlock inside me a joy that filters into my creative writing and into my life as a whole.

To be sure, I’m no better today at painting and drawing than I was in high school.

The blank, white expanse of the canvas or page (or iPad screen) can still be intimidating. And there are no class bells to compel me to paint, no teacher to pat me on the back. But still I find a few hours each week to work on simple, personal projects.

Today, I press gently on a glass screen, each stroke a smear of 1s and 0s coded to give off the gritty effect of charcoal, the pulpy layers of acrylic, the soft fade of watercolor.

There is no need to sharpen a pencil, no need to rinse out a brush. Cleanup comes easy with a tablet and a stylus.

But making good art — it's as hard as it ever was.