The Lesson I Learned from Sherrie McGraw

Even though the weather is heating up, I’m still in the spring spirit. My studio efforts this week were focused on capturing the spirit of flowers. It’s interesting how each flower has its own little personality. I painted these strong sunflowers that were oh so bright and exuberant. I paired these with a rich earthy rustic confit jar all the way from France. (It’s oh so fab and was totally worth the wait)  I felt it was the perfect partner for these unique sunflowers.  

A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a floral still life of sunflowers in confit jar with lemons.
Standing Tall to Find the Light, 18″ x 14″, oil on panel

Next was this vase full of perky yellow and lavender daisies that I just couldn’t resist. Every morning I’d walk into the studio and it was if they were jumping up and down in excitement saying, “Paint me! Paint me!”. So I did! They truly didn’t disappoint me either. They were just as fun and joyful to paint as I’d hoped for. I paired these with brightly lit lemon wedges. Oh my goodness when I cut those lemons open they filled the studio with their fragrance so clean and tart that  I immediately wanted a glass of ice cold lemonade.  

The third painting I was able to complete had a whole different mood to it. It was tender and sweet and more subtle, serene and quiet. A friend was kind enough to send me a beautiful bouquet for my birthday last weekend filled with roses, lilies and hydrangea. I hated to break up the bouquet, but the roses with the purple spray kept calling to me throughout the week. I knew I had to take the chance to try and capture their beauty before their bloom faded. Placing them in the antique chalice provided a quiet old world charm. The dark rich color really balances the delicate light of the roses. 

It might surprise you to know that the only painting that really came together with TOTAL ease was the dancing daisies. Recently, in my online membership group, VITAL Art Sessions, students have shared what a struggle it can be to learn to paint. Sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating and you just want to throw your hands up in the air and give up.  There are times when you need to do that or take a break. Then there are times when you just need to vent and get the frustration out of your system and get back in with renewed resolve.

Many times when we vent our frustrations about painting to others we’re met with very sobering statements like: 

If it was easy everyone would do it. 

If it wasn’t difficult it wouldn’t be worth doing….and 

No one ever said it would be easy. 

While we know (any of us who are sane know) that these statements are true. It still doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be frustrated when we struggle. It’s totally natural! I’m here to tell you it’s natural no matter what level you’re at. Even masters still struggle! Here’s just ONE of the experiences I’ve witnessed with a master getting frustrated and struggling.

Nine years ago, I was in a Sherrie McGraw workshop in Connecticut. Studying with Sherrie was a dream come true. I was at the end of my four years at art college and I was determined to learn and nervous that I’d look like a fool in front of my admired art teacher. I wanted to do well and impress.  Sherrie seemed so calm, cool and collected like a Zen master of painting. She would whip together a painting out of thin air with such ease. I was entranced to say the least. During the workshop great words of wisdom were imparted to us floundering students advising us to enjoy where we were in our art journey. Sounds great! Sort of like reaching an art awakening. I felt a little less than that I hadn’t reached this level of art consciousness.  

Then one morning at the workshop she was doing a figure drawing demonstration. I thought the drawing was a smashing success. I was awestruck and questioning if I’d ever reach her skill level in my lifetime. Right after the start of her drawing little signs of frustration were quietly sneaking out. As the drawing progressed so did her aggravation. Until finally she got so frustrated that she scribbled out the whole drawing and said, “Let’s take a break.” I was in shock! I would’ve given my right arm to draw that well and she just scribbled it out. What’s more is she got totally frustrated just like I do. What a relief! Even someone that great could lose their cool if it wasn’t going as they’d hoped.

That experience has stuck with me over nine years. When I’m having a frustrating time at the easel I remember that even someone of that caliber still has their days where things just don’t go well. I’m reminded that I’m in good company. We don’t often see our art heroes having a tough time with a painting, but you must know that they do. If I’m an art hero  to you then know that I do too! In fact out of these three paintings two of them really had moments of increasing frustration and difficulty. When that happens I just try to take a break and blow off some steam. Many times I just have to accept the outcome of a painting that gave me a hard time and try to learn from it if possible. There are times when even learning from it doesn’t seem possible though. In those cases it’s best to lick your wounds and know that you at least got some brush mileage out of it. 

If you had a rough week painting my heart goes out to you. Hang in there and remember that it’s not always hard. Perhaps the next painting you do will come together with total ease.

A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a floral still life of daisies with lemons and grapes.
Delighting in the Dance, 12″ x 12″, oil on panel
A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a floral still life of white roses and purple flowers.
Love Comes Softly, 12″ x 9″, oil on panel
A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a floral still life of sunflowers in confit jar with lemons.
Standing Tall to Find the Light, 18″ x 14″, oil on panel

Love in Light, Kelli

14 thoughts on “The Lesson I Learned from Sherrie McGraw

  1. Yes Arena! You were on such a roll. I’m hoping that you don’t get knocked off the horse too long. Your work is GORGEOUS and you are making huge strides!

  2. I had a tremendously frustrating May after a seemingly good and smooth April of painting and this post is a truly needed reminder of the things that needs to be kept in mind while on the long, arduous and never ending journey of learning. Thank you.

  3. Sometimes i have finished work that I thought was so so. Looked at it later on and realized it was better than I thought. I was just so frustrated at the time I couldn’t see any value to it. Redid it with new info and felt better.

  4. You’re so welcome Naomi and thanks for the birthday wishes! Yes I think it is a skill for sure…maybe emotional fitness- ha ha. Sometimes we want to force our way through when it would be better to relax and not resist.

  5. Thanks so much Dennis! Yes sometimes our creative juices need to go someplace else for a while. Nothing wrong with that! Excited to see what you create next. Feel free to share it with us if you’d like to in VITAL.

  6. You’re so welcome!
    I’m not sure what you’re talking about Michael. My demos aren’t done on ZOOM?

  7. Thank you so much Karen! You’re spot on about the metaphor. I’m becoming more and more interested in what my still life’s are meaning to me right now and hopefully others. Those are tough conversations for sure to have. You’re an unstoppable force!

  8. I am a huge fan of your work, as you already know. Your painting “Standing Tall to Find the Light” seems to be metaphor for what most of us are trying to do during these uncertain times. My last really bad day at the easel came from having a most difficult conversation with someone I care about. It got into my head and blocked my creativity. I do think we are all in this boat together, even when we paint separately. Thank you for sharing your words and your beauty. (That confit pot is killer, by the way!)

  9. Thank you for sharing this experience and its wisdom. Dare I confess we have all been there, can identify with it and can recall many such times of frustration and self doubt.

    I would love to be able to watch you posting online demos but without people calling in on zoom, which frankly may be at times a waste of time. Thanks for considering this option.

  10. So glad to here this. I haven’t done the past few lessons for the same reason so I’ve taken to painting a 30×48 of my daughter in laws parents lake house just for something different. I know I’ll be back at it soon because I want to tackle those peonies but, in the meantime I think the little break will help. Love ya Kelli!

  11. Thank you for these words. Happy birthday for last week. Thank you for the Q and A session- I had some difficulty in getting in live when I came late, but I am happy for the recorded version. I love your work.
    I agree with you on “taking a break ” when the level of frustration gets high. Maybe that is an unwritten skill which is as important as learning the skills of painting.

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