How I Learned to Paint (and the time I tried to quit painting forever!)

Laurel GreenfieldComment

I get asked a lot about when I started painting and whether or not I went to art school so I wanted to revisit my early days of learning to paint.

It’s really easy to look at the work of artists you like and somehow believe they were born with all their abilities, but it's powerful to know that the people who may seem “ahead” of you now were once in the exact same place you are! And let me tell you, my early painting days were painful! 

About 10 years ago, I was just starting to really focus on learning how to paint. Before then I always loved making art. It was my favorite subject in school and I could emulate the teacher’s projects with ease. I did some drawing and painting for fun and had a few introductory classes under my belt, but I wanted to get better.

After my junior year of high school, my mom signed me up for summer classes at a place in Poughkeepsie, New York called Mill Street Loft (it’s called The Art Effect now). The class, unbeknownst to me, was a summer intensive designed for kids considering art school, which wasn’t even on my radar. The course consisted of a few hours of painting in the morning, an hour of photography, and a few more hours of painting in the afternoon. A long day for someone who had never done more than one hour-long class in a day!

Each week, there was a theme for a painting assignment so we had to think about the concept, make sketches, and complete the painting in 5 days. In between painting sessions, our instructor Todd would pause for lessons on composition, color schemes, and show us examples of famous paintings to illustrate the lessons. In the beginning, I stayed quiet and tried to absorb these knowledge bombs.

Very shortly after we started our first project – a painting about “things your mother told you not to do” for which I painted myself eating two bananas because for some reason the ONLY thing I could think of that my mother told me not to do was eat two bananas in a day (food has been my theme for a while now) – I had a complete and total meltdown. I cried for hours, first in class sitting on the floor behind a drawing board and then even more when I got home.

 I literally thought I was going to die. I was 17 and feeling very dramatic, but I really did not see how I was ever going to make it through this class. I had never heard of a color scheme, I didn’t know the difference between acrylic paint and oils, I didn’t know the names of more than 3 famous painters, and everything we painted had to be painted from real life, which meant no photographs, which meant my self-portrait had to be painted while I was hunched over in this weird position looking at myself in the mirror.

I tried so hard to drop out of that class and to drop out of the second session I was signed up for later in the summer. I begged my dad to call the art studio and tell them that I just couldn’t emotionally handle it. If I didn’t know how to paint now, I thought I never would.  

I must’ve put on a good waterworks show because my dad, who was always against us quitting anything we started, ended up calling. But Todd told him no. He wouldn’t let me quit. I was so angry and so upset, but I had no idea that his “no” would be the best thing that ever happened to me as an artist.

So I went back.

There were still tears and there was still frustration, but I finished every project and every session I was signed up for. And I learned so much about painting that my head nearly exploded by the time I was done.

The two things that helped me get through it (aside from great teachers of course) were choosing projects that I could get excited about and exploring the bright, bold colors I was drawn to.

It won’t be surprising to you, but to make each project be something I could get excited about, I squeezed food into the theme whenever I could…


Things your mom told you not to do?

Obviously not to eat more than one banana a day!

Millstreet Loft - Steampunk Self Portrait.jpeg

Steampunk self-portrait?

Clearly this needs a cupcake!

millstreet greek painting.jpg

Greek Goddess week?

Who else would I be but Demeter, Greek goddess of wheat and agriculture?!

(Bacchus the god of wine was the first choice but seemed inappropriate for a 17 year old…)

I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I was choosing to paint food because food is wrapped up in so much joy and nostalgia for me. It means something beyond itself and it was the subject that lit me up inside even back then.

I became a strong painter because the technique was steeped in my own stories. For the most part those stories were about joy and nostalgia. There was something really powerful about learning along the way instead of focusing on techniques out of the context of a painting.

Pardon my French, but learning to paint is fucking hard. It involves leaving your comfort zone, accepting failure as part of the process, and trusting that productive practice really will make you better. But when you’re painting something that lights you up inside, the difficulty becomes much less painful.

I am so grateful that I wasn’t allowed to quit even though every fiber of my 17 year old being wanted to. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t go back to that class.

If you’re an artist and you’re still learning, I hope this resonated with you! Learning anything new is hard but pushing through and finding a way to make it less painful is so key! Finding my favorite subject made the whole process less painful for me! It’s no secret that food is the subject that brings me the most joy, but what about you? What subject or memories bring you the most joy and nostalgia?

Next week I’ll be sharing what happened after these summer intensives and my decision about art school! Spoiler alert: I didn’t go!