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My painting teacher should moonlight as a management consultant. Here’s why…

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Here is an insightful article written by my student, Kirsty Crowly. Ellen Michel

Indulging in my passion

Recently I took a well-earned break from work and spent time indulging in a few passions that had received scant attention over the 6 years since my first son was born. This included commencing an oil painting course. Happily I found the most wonderful teacher – Ellen. She is in her seventies and still painting and practising yoga. She is also capable of giving very direct feedback with humour and kindness. I’ve learned an enormous amount from Ellen in 10 short weeks. And the learning is not only confined to painting technique. Here are the gems …

1. Perspective is everything

It’s impossible to see things properly when you are too close to them because there is no context to make sense of it, Ellen explains. When you are too close you can only see the detail, and then you become lost in the detail. What you must do is step back from the canvas, in order to see it clearly and make your best decisions.

View the canvas from 2-3 meters away and from different angles. With distance and perspective you can see what’s missing and what you need to work on next, then you step up to the canvas to do that work. And after that?

You step back again to observe the effect. Learn from what you have done and make your next move. Your best work and most effective decisions are done when you can properly see your work and the effect of your decisions.

The life translation of this painting instruction is obvious. We have all felt what it’s like to be knee deep in complexity and detail, and the decision paralysis that results. We inevitably end up making rushed decisions or bad ones. We have also all felt the reassurance that clarity brings, often after we have taken a holiday from work where the distance has given us much-needed perspective.

I mentioned to Ellen that she should become a management consultant, a comment she may have better appreciated had she spent all her painting years in a corporate enterprise and/or extensively read Dilbert. But it turns out she didn’t need to, because Ellen already knows that perspective is priceless. Next time you are mired in detail, remember to step back from your canvas and benefit from this improved view.

2. Every design is a collaboration and an interpretation.

When I first started painting I became frustrated when I couldn’t paint exactly as something appeared. Or rather as I knew it logically to be. That is, if you are painting a cube then you rationally understand that a cube has certain sides and edges. But when you apply light to the object, some sides and edges come to the fore, and some are lost in the background. Therefore, one needs to make a mental leap between knowing there’s an edge and yet not painting it.

As Ellen teaches, I began to understand interpretation in a new way, about inviting your viewer to interpret the painting and draw their own conclusions about what’s there or not.

Every piece of work is therefore a collaboration of sorts, based on the experience and interpretation of the painter and the viewer. Scenes or objects that appear straightforward can appear very different when exposed to different light or different scenarios or indeed different people.

I like this as an analogy for how teams work together, and the way they collaborate and interpret problems or solutions in different ways. It reminded me that no one person ever has all the answers, even if they are the expert creator of the solution. It also reminded me that rarely will anyone see a scene or interpret a design in exactly the same way you do, even when you believe it’s reasonably obvious.

So the importance of testing your ideas with others, seeking out diverse perspectives, and refining based on feedback cannot be underestimated.

3. Take the time and effort to create work that is uniquely yours.

Art is a deeply personal thing, and I must admit many styles of art do little for me. However, there are a few Australian painters who I particularly admire, and I’d love to paint works just like theirs. So I asked Ellen when I could start doing exactly that. In my mind it was “Simples”!

Ellen’s response was ever-tactful and again applicable to our everyday life. Becoming an expert at one’s craft (painter or other) requires commitment and perseverance. It takes a great deal of time. The painters I admire have practised their craft for most of their life. And they are still working on it.  The lesson here is “get started but be patient.”

The second important point she made was around imitation.

Copied works or styles always lack soul. Because they do not come from the heart of the person painting it. This is directly applicable to some of the design work I have seen in the past that is based on competitor reviews or simply copying what was done from the last client. The design was not unique to the brand and its personality. And the feeling one is left with having experienced the design was that you could slap on the competitor brand and it would all feel exactly the same. My take-out here is when designing anything: use the broad strokes of best practice, but take the time to find what is truly yours and uniquely represents your brand. Believe me, people will feel the difference.

The wise counsel of Ellen may be summarised thus: “Your best work comes from the depths of your heart and soul. The reward comes from your blood, sweat and tears.”

4. And finally, don’t over-think it!

This one is self-evident. You can tie yourself in knots just trying to start. You can agonise for hours over some small detail. Usually a detail that doesn’t play a significant role in the final outcome of your work.

Ellen’s advice:

  1. Give yourself a deadline and just get started.

  2. Put the paint on the canvas even when you don’t know 100% what you want to do.

  3. Because the beauty of oil painting (and indeed most design work) is that you can paint over what you don’t like.

  4. You can iterate. You can test and learn.

  5. This means your starting aspiration cannot be perfection, otherwise you are guaranteed of neither starting nor finishing.

So, I’m persevering with painting. I hope one day to create something beautiful that is uniquely mine. I’m remembering the importance of perspective, I’m inviting different interpretations. I’m trying to exercise patience and perseverance while learning. And I’m just getting started, there is so much more to come!

PS. Here is my attempt at a Rembrandt self-portrait, it’s a work in progress .

Rembrandt by Kirsty Crowley

Art Student, Kirsty Crowly’s

beginner oil painting of


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