Is it just me or isn’t it ironic that the word dyslexic is not easy to spell for someone who has dyslexia? I know I won’t be alone in having this ‘condition’ and in fact I’m positive there are lots of creative people who are in the same boat. Dyslexic people nearly always have a natural flair for one or more of the arts such as music, acting, dancing or like me, art.
You may be wondering what this has to do with being an artist? I’m sure that without my dyslexia I would not have followed my career path and find myself working as a full-time artist.
Dyslexia is defined by the British Dyslexia Association as “a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed…” What is sometimes ingrained in some people is that it is definitely a weakness and never a strength. My mother-in-law meant no harm but unconsciously slipped when she called me ‘disabled’! (we are still talking and on very good terms).
What is regularly overlooked is that people with dyslexia have strengths in other areas such as design, problem solving, creative, and oral skills.
I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16, so the majority of my school reports said ‘Must Try Harder’. I found lessons difficult, stressful and uninspiring, simply because I couldn’t relate to the teaching methods being used which were always focused on the mainstream pupils. I am such a visual person that unless I could see something it just made no sense to me! School taught me to be frightened of being wrong and I would sit at the back of the class, avoiding eye contact and praying the teacher wouldn’t pick on me to answer any questions.
My saviour was my Art Teacher who encouraged me to develop my creativity and apply to art college, which I did. I have always seen the fine detail in everything and have a very strong visual memory (something dyslexics often have). I’m also very literal, so if you show me an apple and ask me what it makes me think of, I say… “It’s an apple”. If I’m asked to elaborate, I’ll describe it as a green or red apple. My friends on the other hand, will start listing things like film references, music etc etc. We will look at each other, confused about our respective responses.
Throughout my earlier careers I learnt techniques to cope with my dyslexia and really related to a Ted Talk I discovered a few years ago by the late Sir Ken Robinson called ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity’. He claims that ‘creativity is as important in education as literacy, yet schools stigmatise mistakes and this can result in educating people out of their creative capacities. I can certainly relate to this through my own school education, where being artistic was not really thought of as a positive talent to be encouraged.
As I said, I learn visually and through practical experience rather than by memorising or other standard education methods. My computer password is 14 letters/symbols long and I remember it through muscle memory and the pattern I make over the keyboard when entering it, rather than by conventional means. When it comes to my art, I think my relationship with my dyslexia influences my work. My paintings represent the way I see, feel, and process the world – for me it’s all about the details – the more the merrier!
My first soft pastel painting (before discovering Unison Colour pastels) was a dog portrait of a retriever puppy with a wet muzzle. I used pastel pencils, which suited my detailed approach and just a few PanPastels for the background. However, it wasn’t long before I realised if I wanted to complete more than one painting every month, I needed a faster method.
Discovering Unison Colour soft pastels has helped me explore a less rigid approach albeit for the backgrounds and under-layers with just a few of the details at the moment. I still revert to my pencils for the finer details. Unison Colour’s creamy nature appeals to my tactile senses and I am learning to explore new techniques using soft pastels, such as quick upward strokes to mimic grass. This may seem obvious to others, but my natural instinct is – if I can see 5,000 blades of grass, I need to paint 5,000 blades of grass! Can you imagine how amazed I was that I could give the impression of a clump of grass just using this quick technique. My backgrounds have become looser and I have been braver inventing backgrounds – such the one in this tiger cub painting.
My attention to detail sometimes trips me up and becomes my worst enemy. When I started this puffin painting, I had no idea how to approach doing the rock. I started trying to replicate it exactly – well that was clearly a very bad idea and it looked nothing like a rock. I realised I needed to experiment and ‘let go’ a bit. Not something that comes naturally to me. I used a random pointillism approach dotting my Unison Colour soft pastels across the paper and hey presto, it worked! I had to learn to just trust it would work and not beat myself up.
Just recently I have experimented with using water and Unison Colour pastels to create a ‘watercolour effect’. For me this is a huge leap, as failure is not an option. I still have a way to go with this technique and the uncertainty of the end result isn’t particularly comfortable for me.
In my previous life I ran my own interior design studio which involved creating 3D visualisation of homes as part of the service. I’ve always been able to visualise a space and imagine the end result, thinking about light (natural and artificial), colour, form etc and their relationship to one another. I have the same approach with my art.
Whilst I look at the whole form (albeit a 2D photograph of an animal) I imagine how it looks in three dimensions. A bit like a sculptor who chips away on the block of stone to reveal the shape within. I guess as artists we do the exact opposite, we build up a 3D form on a 2D surface. I try to imagine how it would feel to run my hands over the subject in my image. This helps me ‘feel’ the structure of their bones, muscles etc and I think it helps me create a better likeness. My latest triple dog portrait shows how I have started to captured the shape of the Labradors chest in the first image, and neck and shoulder in the second image.
I start with an underpainting, blocking in the initial colour and shapes. I then blend these using a Soffit tool or my finger. This helps with getting the initial form of the subject. I usually work dark to light (though there are a few times when I’ll put some basic highlights in just to help me map everything out and not get confused). I can suffer from information overload as I see so much detail. Breaking things down into small manageable steps is less stressful.
I look at the background and lighting to pick up on colour adaptation (where adjacent colours affect and often reflect off one another). I then work through the mid to light values before adding the fine details.
So what happens when it doesn’t go according to plan ? When I was younger I would have had a bit of a melt down and rip up what ever I was working on. Now with the help of perhaps being a bit wiser I realise I can correct mistakes. I’ve learnt soft pastels are pretty forgiving which I was really grateful for with this dog portrait commission of the handsome Dexter. The reference photos were not great and he hadn’t been to the groomers recently. The client wanted me to tidy up his chest fur a bit as it was very long and straggly in the photo. The commission was to be a surprise birthday present for her son (who Dexter belongs to). I started painting the chest fur and was really unhappy with it. I had a few sleepless nights before attempting to use a soft brush to remove as much pastel as possible, then using a putty eraser and starting again. The forgiveness of the soft pastels meant that I was finally happy with it and when the client arrived to collect it, she cried… thankfully in the good way! I was able to breathe again.
So despite my school’s best efforts to convince me being creative was not the way to go, I returned to my artistic roots and now work full time as an artist. Here are a couple of quotes that really resonate with me. The first from Picasso who once said “all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up” and the second is from another artist, Edward Hopper who said “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint”
The latter is heaven to me as words do not come naturally. Painting on the other hand is more like breathing, it’s much more of an intuitive process.
Now with the benefit of hindsight I see my dyslexia as an advantage – it’s really my superpower.