My first serious art teacher lived four houses down from my childhood home. Who I am as an artist will always be a product of everything I learned from her.
I don’t remember learning to draw. Drawing came before painting. At the same time, I can’t remember ever not doing it. I remember when I was younger I would get fixated on drawing something and then draw it on repeat until I sort of levelled up and felt that I had mastered that subject or shape or technique and then move on to the next challenge, always incorporating what I had learned previously. I didn’t realize that I was following any process back then but it was very methodical.
I loved art so much. Even though I don’t remember much discussion about it taking place, I was signed up somewhat regularly for art classes (in addition to swimming and baseball in those early days – my family still calls me The Slugger). My parents seemed to abide by the same approach that I apply to my fur babies – tired kids (and dogs) are the best kind of kids (and dogs) 😉
My earliest memory of any art lessons was on Saturday mornings one spring when I was still single-digits years old. It was in an old white church near the now University of Toronto, Mississauga campus. My one memory from that class is that we learned to draw three-dimensional cylinders, circles, and squares. I became obsessed. Even now, more than thirty years later, whenever I am bored and armed with pen and paper, I will doodle the same shapes on repeat, always the same way. It’s like a reflex. I literally remember nothing else from that class, except this one deeply ingrained habit which can be found on all of my notes through university undergrad right up to my latest property tax bill.
My most significant art instruction came from a real-life artist who lived four houses down from my childhood home. She was friends with my mom. When I was in Grade 6, she started offering classes to neighborhood kids at her home. So every Wednesday at 4pm I would head to her house with my little art tool box and that’s when I really started to learn – painting at Ann Fullerton’s dining room table. I had no idea back then how lucky I was and what an amazing opportunity I had been handed.
Up until then my experience with painting had been with school-grade tempera paints (does anyone other than every board of education ever buy that stuff??) and paintbrushes that clearly showed the care of tens of hundreds of grade schoolers and their penchant for glue-based arts and crafts. Shudder.
Mrs. Fullerton gave us a list of supplies to buy for her classes. For the first time I went to a real art store (Curry’s! which would become a big part of my life as my first employer in high school a few years later) and I bought real (watercolour) paints and real brushes (soft bristle round #6 – still my go-to) and real watercolour paper (Strathmore 9×12″ student quality block). Lesson number one: Watercolour paints don’t just come as dehydrated bright primary colour discs a la Crayola. It also comes in tubes! In fact, if you’re serious about your painting at all you probably want to stick with paint that starts out in a tube. Amazing. And there was no tube of “red” or “blue” or “green” – they were replaced with alizarin crimson, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue, and green – there was nothing that looked like green at all. It was confusing…
Mrs. Fullerton spent that first class in February 1993 showing us how to squeeze out a small amount of paint onto our palettes, how to mix colours (hello green!), how to hold our brushes (life-changing). And then we painted and followed along with Mrs. Fullerton to create this, my first watercolour:
Everything started to change for me then. Prior to these weekly art classes I would draw all.thetime, but kind of without any direction. Now I had moved on from the doodles of cylinders and cubes and was learning about composition, painting with a reference image, painting from the world around me, painting regularly for the very first time, and being inspired by a real artist. Truly, my dream was that I would one day be as “good” as Mrs. Fullerton. I had levelled up in a big way but her talent and skill – back then it just seemed impossible that I could ever hope to paint so well. Even now, my memories of her unbelievable artistic talent seem like a carrot kind of dangling in front of me. A higher level to achieve, still unattainable. From her I gained my lifelong love of realism, design, painting technique, and painting subject matter close to my heart.
By Grade 8, I had been visiting Mrs. Fullerton for art lessons for two years. I had amassed quite a collection of paintings by then. Just like the circles and cubes years before I got on a big portraiture kick and would paint portraits of people I knew and also the models from Seventeen magazine (which also addressed my love of fashion and makeup).
Mrs. Fullerton helped me to prepare my portfolio for my high school audition and portfolio review. She showed me how to mount my paintings on black cardstock, and to use an x-acto knife (not scissors!) to make sure I was cutting straight lines. I stopped going to see her when I started art school in Grade 9. I learned a lot at Cawthra Park S.S. but I owe all of my fundamental art skills and sensibilities and even my very definition of art to Mrs. Fullerton and the Wednesday afternoons I spent at her house, learning to paint.