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On Learning and Long-Game Gifts

Updated: Mar 2, 2019

When I was younger, my Grammie gave me a watercolor painting set as a gift. It was previously used, but seemed very official to my wonderstruck younger self. It had a brush with natural bristles (rather than those awful black plastic fishing line ones), it came with a separate tube of white paint, and the pans of color weren't tiny waxy ovals, they were big vibrant circles. She told me the people she had gotten it from had told her that it was a very nice set. That felt like a big vote of trust and confidence. In my head, access to real paints meant I could become a real artist.

Over 10 years later, I dug out that same yard sale paint set and brought it to college for my junior year. I had considered art supplies non-essential when I had packed in the past, but college was stressful, rumor had it art could help, and an acquaintance of mine was making some gorgeous stuff with watercolors. I wanted to give artsing another shot.

So got a piece of cardstock (watercolor paper is way better if you can swing it), and I started trying stuff. The first thing that looked alright was the painting below, based on this tutorial:

I was thrilled. It actually looked like a thing. It had depth. And mountains. And trees. And the color blue. I like all of those things.

So I kept painting with the help of Youtube and Skillshare and it was fun because (unlike all the studying I was doing) it was just for me and wasn't motivated by anyone else's expectations or evaluations.

The reason why you're hearing this story is because today in a grad school class, a big thing happened. I drew stuff. I drew stuff as illustrations for my writing assignments. And I submitted that stuff for our class publication. I never would have done that before I restarted painting. I wouldn't have had the guts.

I had previously assumed that I was inherently not-great at drawing, and that that meant I shouldn't bother with it. And I certainly shouldn't dare to have art play any meaningful role in my life's work. I had internalized the B.S. my teachers had inadvertently instilled in me. They often tried to draw stuff on the chalkboard, but constantly undermined the validity of their efforts by saying to us, "You all know I'm not good at drawing!" as if their stick figures were somehow going to offend students with their non-Van-Gogh-ness. They didn't. But we laughed at our teachers--they seemed to want us to--and we all tacitly confirmed that mediocre art was something to gently mock, rather than lavishly encourage.

Drawing, like math, and other things many people think are beyond them, is a learnable skill. There's no reason to act like a skill you've never really practiced is something you're doomed to never be able to do. I say this as a person who definitely acted/acts like this regarding art and other things, but who is trying to recover from that mentality.

I don't know if I would have had the chance to regain my joy for painting, my belief in my ability to learn to draw, or my belief in the legitimacy of my creations, if it weren't for my grandmother's gift of a secondhand paint set during my elementary school years.

It was a long-game gift. She could never have known the role her generosity and support for mini-me would play in big-me's life. But she was generous and supportive nonetheless.

We never know the impacts our actions or gifts are going to have, but supporting other people's interests, even if they seem to leave gifts behind over time, is an excellent investment. You never know when little encouragements might come back and make a big difference.

Thanks Gram. I love you.


Can you think of any long-game gifts you've received? I'd love to hear more of these stories!

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