How to give and receive feedback: lessons from the painting studio

Photo © 2019 Reilly Dow

At the recommendation of my dear friend and colleague Mary, in 2018 I started working with Julie Claire, a coach and painting teacher (and brilliant, generous human) in New Mexico. She lives and works in O’Keeffe country — as it is known because artist Georgia O’Keeffe made her home there for many years — and her approach is called intuitive painting. It involves diving into an unplanned, improvisational creative process using paint, taking a step back periodically and noticing, and following what arises.

We usually paint for 45 minutes or sometimes longer, break to discuss for a while, and continue painting. You can change course, cover things up and paint over them.

I quickly learned that this process will lead you to places you may not exactly like or enjoy, and you will produce work that you do not necessarily find beautiful or pleasant to look at. (Maybe that’s part and parcel of all creative work, but for me it was striking to notice how incredibly hard it can be to really go there.) As Kelvy Bird writes in her post, Ecosystem Activation:

“working WITH what does not come out the way we want”

(…rather than against it.) Easier said than done.

Photo © 2019 Reilly Dow

The painter is not trying to achieve anything in particular, not preparing for a show or striving to meet the needs of a client, nothing is required other than to practice making marks, noticing, sensing, continuing, moving through. As Russ Hamilton of Connection Lab, another friend and colleague I admire, puts it, “noticing without judgment or correction.”

As you are painting, things happen internally and on the canvas. Then what? What is the next move?

What do I do if I start to like it? What do I do if I don’t like it? The voice of judgment starts to make noise. “Who in their right mind would buy this painting? No one will care. It’s not good enough. I’m not good enough. Where will I even put it? I shouldn’t be doing this…” But as I continue to paint, I begin to relate differently to the inner critic (a practice with very real neurological benefits), and to let go of some of the self-imposed restraints I hadn’t even realized I was carrying around.

This process is not technique-oriented, and it is not about creating from a place of the known. It is about entering differently into relationship with the unknown.

Asking, can I genuinely make space for the unknown?

The type of feedback conversations Julie facilitates are about what the other person (or a group) sees in the painting — what they observe, what they feel as they take it in, what is starting to take shape (if anything), what might be wanting to come through. Comments are offered only if the person making the painting is open to them, and the tone is pure curiosity. It is out of bounds to use any language relating to like, dislike, good, bad, nice, ugly, or make value judgments of any kind. This creates a safe space in the studio, and allows for more creative risk-taking and deeper exploration. As Julie says:

“We are so much bigger than our like and don’t like.”

In my work as a scribe, the learning from my painting practice has been very relevant. Scribing can be very outcome-driven, done in service of a group and their purpose, but learning to step into the territory of the unknown is powerful even when it might seem counter-intuitive in a work environment. We are all finite human beings with a partial view of the world, after all, and to approach any form of work in any sector purely from what we know (or think we know) seems misguided, especially at this moment in time.

We practiced a similar form of feedback conversation to those I’ve experienced with Julie at an Advanced Visual Practice Workshop, after scribing in tandem as a group of ~20, listening to a live dialogue between two people, each creating our own interpretation on the page. That experience showed me that scribing truly is a social process rather than an individual one, in a deeper and more immediate way than I had felt before. Marks made by other people felt like they belonged to me, too, somehow — and vice versa. Not literally or with the intent to claim any sort of ownership, but as if we were all creating from a shared field, which I believe we were. To look at each person’s drawing afterwards and hear briefly about their process and sense of their work, then to give feedback — and stand up to receive feedback — added an extra layer of reflection, allowing us to encounter each other in the space between what was spoken, the scribe, their drawing, and the observers. As Kelvy describes it, working with both the image and the afterimage.

Photo © 2019 Reilly Dow

“You start off with an idea, and then ideas keep coming as you’re creating, and eventually the painting tells you what it wants.” – Grace Hartigan

Intuitive painting has taught me about improvisation, about the creative process in general, and about many of my own assumptions and thought habits. The reflection process, through feedback from others, has taught me that if we get hung up on what we like and don’t like (about a situation, an artifact, a project, a colleague, whatever it is) we actually diminish the conversation, and our capacity for learning and understanding. This is not to say that beauty and aesthetic experience are unimportant—just the opposite. As Esko Kilpi and Mike Hannula write:

The artistic way of being is a dual approach of creativity and responsibility, applying freedom of choice and ethics to imagining alternative ways of being and becoming.

Aesthetic experience is then a core value of everyday actions and interaction; changing the focus from what the world is to what the world I am now creating is, and even more to what kind of a world I could create, focusing on what I am living for.

Learning to step into the unknown; listening and sensing into what is coming into being; engaging in dialogue about what we notice, while being kind to ourselves; and moving into and through the creative process, even a non-verbal one like painting, is precisely the kind of reflective action that can take us into new and expanded territory.

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Listener, artist, scribe based in Mexico City | English & Español |