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A Quest for Expression by Stella Canfield

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A Quest for Expression by Stella Canfield

We all admire young children for their ability to paint and draw despite the often inexpert forms and lines. What attracts us to their artwork? Without doubt it is their unfailingly honest expression. Children express themselves with complete lack of intimidation.

As we grow and learn, somewhere along the way (maybe with “better” understanding of social etiquette) our fears grow too: fear of not being understood, fear of failure, fear of not belonging, fear of rejection, etc. We lose the courage to fully express our emotions.

Go to a high school and ask how many of the students paint and draw. How did so many of these previously gifted artists lose their talent? They really have not—but they have become intimidated; uncertain that the way they are doing it is “right.” Those who persevere to learn a new set of skills can overcome the anxieties and fear of expression with well-learned behavior that fits artistic standards.


The courage to express our emotions in art as well as in life affords us vast realms of communication that are otherwise missing. Yet, to express emotions is a responsibility because we affect the people around us as we touch lives. So, how do we express emotions? What tools do we need? How far do we go?

I often ask myself what it is that I want to achieve, what is my objective in painting? I know that I cannot compete with nature. I know how insignificant I am, incapable of creating the unsurpassable beauty inherent in nature. Yet, I love the world around me, the people and the creatures, and I want to depict them. I could never create a non-objective work of art as I am “stuck” on all this beauty around me. But wouldn’t it be an act of hubris to attempt to show the viewer what she already knows?

I need clarity and goals. I do not want to be a watercolorist; I want to be an artist! To achieve that I must not simply paint things in watercolor but build paintings capable of communicating with audiences. Painting is much like composing a piece of music, with the artist being both composer and conductor. Each stroke of the brush is a note and I must know not only the emotion that I want to project in my painting but also the resonance it will evoke in the eye and heart of the viewer. That is why I must be emotionally as well as intellectually involved with my subject. I have to learn my subject, collect the facts in my head and my heart, see it, hear it, smell it and feel it! For that reason I paint plein-air, from my own sketches and photographs or from my imagination, but never from references alien to my personal experience. If I have never known the subject, I cannot connect emotionally with it and therefore cannot express its vital content in my painting. Mere technical knowledge will not suffice to produce a painting that satisfies me. The audience would also sense that emotional deficiency.

Down Time

My brushes, paints and paper are my physical tools. They are like the blacksmith’s hammer. He knows how, when and where to strike the iron. I must know my tools as well as he knows his. That’s why I play! Playing is my beginning. It is also my best teacher. How my new brush works, how that yummy new Daniel Smith color I just added to my palette behaves on the paper, how it mixes with the other colors to achieve the result I am looking for, how much water is the perfect ratio with the pigment on my brush—all of this I learn by playing, not by “painting a picture.”

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