by Brenda Murray
über sketcher and stay-at-home super dad, Paul Heaston, shares his philosophy on art and how he juggles his family commitments with making art.
With a BFA in painting from the University of Texas in San Antonio and an MFA in painting from Montana, State University, Paul Heaston has put in his time. But he rarely paints now because he doesn’t have a dedicated studio for painting and his student paintings were life-sized full-body portraits.
Paul switched from painting to sketching after spending a semester in Italy in 2007. He wanted to travel light and so he started keeping a travel journal during his trip. He sketched in museums, he sketched statues, he sketched the other students and slice-of-life sketches and filled 4 or 5 sketchbooks on that trip.
“At my wife Linda’s suggestion I put my sketches up on Flickr and Gabi Campanario, the founder of Urban Sketchers, found me!”
Paul became a blog correspondent after that and then he applied to teach at the annual symposium and was accepted. Paul has taught at every symposium except Portland and Singapore.
I was curious to know Paul’s view as an art instructor of art-making as a discipline. We talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule explained in his book Outliers. The principle holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field.
“Gladwell makes a good point,” Paul says. “You have to get a level of mastery with practice. It’s not so much about talent as it is about developing a skill set. But you have to have the inclination. If you are dragged to piano lessons every week with no passion [for it] that’s not gonna work. That’s the missing puzzle piece. I think it’s nurture and nature but I think mostly it’s nurture. A person might have the inclination to want to be good at something but they will have to learn. Interior perspective for example, that’s not something people are born knowing how to draw.”
A lot of people claim no artistic ability at all. “I can only do stick men” is a common sentiment and that conviction prevents people from applying themselves to further study. They put themselves in the “Can’t” category as if some people have “it” and some people don’t.
“I don’t think you either have it or you don’t,” Paul argues. “Some people may find it easier but you still have to put in the hours. Some people may be quicker learners. But people have to learn how to learn.”
Paul is inspired by the American artist, Chuck Close who once said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” There is a discipline that is required to get good at anything. Paul agrees, “You have to think of making art as a job. It’s not about whether you’re feeling inspired today or not. You shouldn’t overthink it—waiting for some master idea to come to you.”
Paul sketches almost every day or at least several times a week taking every opportunity to squeeze in a quick sketch. He used to work on small pocket-sized sketchbooks of 8.5x5.5” but is now working on 8.5x11” Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. He’s less concerned about the end result as he is just doing the work.
Top of mind for Paul is another inspirational quote that motivates him. “Someone [Chuck Jones] once said, ‘Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.’ I think that’s true,” Paul said. “If you do that, the ratio of good to bad drawings gets better and better.”
Paul is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Laid-back and affable he puts his students at ease. His teaching style is more about sharing what he knows and listening to his students’ ideas. Humility is the word that comes to mind and is so remarkable coming from someone with two art degrees and a career as an illustrator and instructor.
“I’m still learning about art,” Paul says. “It’s very compelling for me. I’m not where I’d like to be. I don’t have the skill set or ideas I want to explore. My philosophy is to persevere. Good things will happen. There is a death of creativity that comes when you believe you’ve figured it all out. That can be stagnating.”
As a busy stay-at-home dad, Paul’s days are full raising two adorable youngsters, Juniper aged 3 and Maggie aged 7 months. Paul was working and teaching before the girls were born but looking at child care costs he decided to be a stay-at-home dad.
“I prioritize parenting,” Paul says while bouncing apple-cheeked Maggie on one knee. He didn’t have to tell me. His devotion to his girls is obvious.
Essentially Paul steals time in between potty training, food preparation, trips to the library and so on. He sketches in the evening or on the weekend or when his daughters are napping. It’s about integrating the different parts of his life. His life as an artist is fully integrated into his life as a care-giver. He’s accessible to his children. Interruptions are expected. On the day we spoke he had just finished the first part of a commissioned contract working from his living room with his children playing nearby.
“I make a lot of what I call domestic sketches—scenes of my house, my living room, my kitchen. When my daughter Junie was younger I used to drive my wife to work and Junie would fall asleep in the car on the way home. I used to pull over and draw from my car. It was a little window of time that I would take advantage of.”
As his girls grow he’d like to see them develop artistically. At the moment, Paul is trying different age-appropriate ways to get Junie interested in drawing and painting. She enjoys looking through his sketchbooks at drawings of herself when she was younger and of their family and she likes to talk about the sketches. His drawings are a wonderful documentation of his children’s growth since they were newborns.
Asked if sketching is zen for him-- relaxing, meditative, restorative, intuitive--or if it’s more about work Paul said, “Art is restorative and important for my mental health. But my mind is active and alert when I’m sketching. I’m problem-solving and it’s work."
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