There is Perfection in Imperfection

"Seasons of learning - Ink and Water Color Pencil Drawing"

I am a Renaissance woman in more ways than one.  The past 3 years and in particular the past twelve months have been explosive and I’ve discovered things about myself that I had no idea were a part of me.

One of the most interesting discoveries has been the fact that I’m an artist in addition to being a writer, a business woman, and most importantly a mom.  I’ve been posting pictures of my projects and experiences throughout the year.

It still boggles my mind to think that I dipped my toe into the proverbial water and took a drawing class less than a year ago. Since then I’ve taken 3 more drawing classes, a print making workshop, and I learned how to make paper.

In the past months I’ve discovered that I have a passion for working in ink.  For anyone who knows me, this is completely counter – intuitive.  I’m a perfectionist, if there’s a chance that it won’t turn out right; I’m more inclined to not even start than to make a mistake.  So ink, particularly on my hand made paper seems like it would be an unlikely creative outlet.

Earlier this fall, I combined various things that I’d learned and I created my very first book.

""- ibeth's first book - ink and water color pencils"- ibeth's first book - ink and water color pencils"

This started out as a drawing and turned into something quite different – I changed course along the way a few times – the biggest being that I cut all of the edges off of the cover and made the edges of the ‘book’ uneven and well – like the edge of a forest.

I finished my last class of the year a few weeks ago.  As our last project Anne had us create an abstract drawing using a most unusual approach.  The process will be a separate post, but the outcome was quite intriguing.

Abstract Drawing Ink and Water Color Pencil

True to form, I didn’t finish it during class time and it took me more than a few sessions to complete this drawing in ink, water color pencil, and a bit of white charcoal. I can’t describe it, but this drawing unlocked something within me.

A few weeks ago, I started drawing a trilogy.  Only I didn’t know it at the time.  I sifted through my stack of hand-made paper from the summer.  I held a thin piece of paper made from flax up to the light.

I saw crinkles and creases. I also saw trees and teardrops. It was as if my pen had a mind of it’s own as I began to trace along the creases and crevices to create patterns and mystique.

"Seasons of learning - Ink and Water Color Pencil Drawing"

After I finished it I sorted through my paper and found another piece with similar imperfections.  Too thin to write on, too many creases to be of value, but just right to create on.

"emerging from the woods - ink and water color pencil drawing"

I found one more piece of perfectly imperfect paper in my stack, refreshed my paintbrush water and let my imagination do the work.

"ink and water color pencil on flax paper"

Who would have imagined that I had exactly three pieces of paper that were equal in their imperfections and in their potential for beauty?

The Loss of Art in Education

I’m a “one thing leads to another” kind of person, which can be interesting when it comes to explaining my train of thought sometimes.  It might be hard to explain how an online class through a community college called Romance Writing Secrets would lead to drawing, making handmade paper, and not last or least to a workshop on making books.  There is a connection, but it would take a book to describe it – so instead I’ll stick to my most recent adventure.

Last Saturday I roped my friend Christine into taking a workshop at the Janney house through the Artists of Yardley.  My friend and instructor Kathy and her fellow artist Mindy offered an all day workshop that was split into two parts; the art of making paper and of making books.

I arrived 5 minutes late, but with coffee from WaWa in hand – an important tradeoff.  I have to admit it was fun to show some of my paper and the drawings I’ve done.  It’s such a thrill for me when people say “wow, I really like that.”  I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, I hope I never do.

Because I’ve had the opportunity to make quite a bit of paper lately, I asked if I could spend the day with Mindy making books.  As always, the atmosphere in the studio was conducive to learning, laughing, and creating.  We learned how to make two styles of book, accordion and flag.  The accordion is easier to describe; paper folded in a “mountain, valley, mountain” pattern ready for pictures or drawings and secured between two covers.  The flag book is much like a pop-up book and I think the possibilities are endless (once I wrap my head around how to approach creating the finishing touches).

Mindy is an amazing teacher and it’s easy to understand why she and Kathy are friends.  The dynamics of the morning and afternoon sessions were as different as night and day and Mindy never missed a beat.  I watched in amazement as she adapted her style to the needs and pace of the students.

I usually try and describe the process at least in a general sense, but  book making has a lot more steps and detail than what I’ve been doing lately and I’m sure I wouldn’t do it justice.  I was a little intimidated by the need for measuring and precision, but Mindy put me at ease and I was pretty sure she would find a way to fix almost any mistake I might make.

What I think is interesting is how everything I’m attracted to has to do with paper.  Writing, photography, and drawing are all done on paper.  Somehow everything I’m learning is weaving its way together.  It’s really quite fascinating when I take a step back and connect the dots.

I have no idea how I’ll put this all together. What I do know is it will be a lot of fun to figure it out.  The books I made last weekend are wonderful experiments. There are supplies on the way to create pieces that match my style and taste.

The entire process has made me stop and think.

The thought that keeps popping up in my brain is how we are depriving today’s youth.  Our education system is focused on activities that require the ability to memorize and calculate, not on the ability to perceive and create.  How can one exist without the other?

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Never in a Million Years

the beginning of the process

A few weeks ago my friend Kathy asked if I could help her demonstrate the art of making paper for the Princeton Arts Council.  I had no idea what to expect and didn’t even think to ask.  She needed the help, I was available – the “what” I’d be doing didn’t really matter, plus I knew it involved making paper so I figured there couldn’t be a down side.

We met at Kathy’s house and I followed her to Princeton.  My biggest fear was that I’d have to parallel park on a narrow neighborhood street.  Much to my chagrin I don’t know how to parallel park.  I must have at one point in time because I have a driver’s license, but to this day I’ll walk a mile or more before attempting to maneuver my car between two others.

I found a spot on Lytle Street and took a picture of the street sign just in case the street names escaped me later in the day.

Witherspoon St and Lytle St - Princeton, New Jersey

I wandered around with my camera while Kathy and a couple of volunteers set up the tent.  While snapping pictures, the mission became clear.  Kathy had invited me to help her at the Princeton Arts Council Fall Open House.

Princeton Arts Council fall open house_Paul Rebeson Center for the Arts_

Oscar, a volunteer and incredibly nice guy, helped me hang samples of hand made paper along the tent for show and tell.  I was as excited and nervous as a first grader to put my artwork on display for everyone to see.

Before I knew it we were both surrounded by people and I was chattering about how to make paper like I’d been doing it all my life.  It was great fun to encourage people to touch the raw material and watch their eyes light up when they saw the end result.

There were mixed reactions to the pulp in it’s first stage, it’s wet and feels sort of mushy but strong.  Mostly people wondered how the the stringy stuff in the bucket would become a piece of paper.

the beginning of the process

The pulp is soft and feathery after it’s suspended in the water and it really is a lot like panning for gold to pick up the tiny wet fibers and drain off the excess water.

It’s fun to add pressed petals or leaves for a special touch.

The best part of the day was seeing the eyes of both kids and adults light up when they watched the piece of paper magically release from the screen.

At the end of each demo, I shared completed pieces of paper so people could feel how strong the paper is even though it has the texture of parchment.  I was embarrassed but delighted at how people raved it.   I felt like some sort of celebrity when a few people asked if they could take pictures of my drawings and hand made paper.  It’s three days later and the memory still makes me smile, it’s one that always will.

While I was busy making paper, Kathy was equally if not busier demonstrating mono print making. (that’s my next class – can’t wait!)

Kathy is an amazing artist and beautiful teacher.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.  Both kids and adults were drawn to her table like magnets.  They couldn’t wait to see how the painting that started with a bunch of bubble wrap would turn into a piece of art.

Kathy Metaxas explaining mono print making

She’s all about hands on involvement and having fun.  The picture of six child size hands next to one adult teaching hand pressing the next layer of ink on the print was priceless.

Kathy Metaxas_engaging young artists

In the midst of it all, I found a quick moment to take a picture of our guests on stilts and the lonely but hopeful young man who had just moved to Princeton from Montreal the previous day.  I wanted to take a picture of the tall young Caucasian guy wearing an orange sarong and a yellow tunic, but that seemed rude.

visitors on stilts

Before we knew it it was almost 5 pm and although people were still stopping by, it was time to clean up.

It was a day to remember, and one I would have ever imagined, not in a million years.

The Art of Creating and Misunderstanding Creating Art

tree and bench_flax paper and ink drawing

I’ve been doing some experimenting lately – sort of letting myself go “out on a limb.”  which isn’t something I’m necessarily prone to do.  I’d have to say, I think I may start going out on the proverbial limb a little more often.

My first big step was almost a year ago and I registered for a drawing class.  The beginner class was full, so I took a deep breath and signed up for the intermediate/advanced class.

The first lesson was to draw a sunflower.  I started it in January and I finished it in March.  I was nearly petrified at the thought of drawing a circle that would become the center of the flower and  I tried not to focus on the petals that seemed to fly onto everyone’s paper but mine.  What I didn’t know is they were all just as nervous as I was.  I also didn’t understand that the point of the lesson wasn’t to make a carbon copy of the original, it was to learn about shading.

sunflower_first drawing in over 20 years

The next drawing was a landscape and very complex.  I shocked myself with the fact that somehow I grasped two point perspective (well sort of).  This drawing took me even longer than the sunflower did, but I think it was worth the effort.  Again, I misunderstood the point of the exercise.  The focus was to learn about perspective and proportion as well as to experiment with a new medium. (the background trees are done in ink)

There were a few other projects in the first class and I learned with every drawing.

The second session started off with a first for me.  I was thrilled when I completed the pine cone during class.  Until that morning, I’d never finished a piece in anything less than four long working sessions. (I think this may always be one of my favorites)

Pine Cone
I love the drawings I’ve done.  It’s amazing to me that I was able to create such beauty with nothing more than pencil, charcoal, and sometimes some ink.  It’s something I never knew I had inside me.

Yesterday I had a realization.

I’ve completely misunderstood creativity and in particular drawing.

I was scared on my first day of drawing class because I thought I had to produce an exact replica of the sunflower.  I took months to labor over each petal and leaf to make sure the shading was exact and matched the original as closely as possible.

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting with ink and the paper I made.  The drawings have a somewhat primitive feeling and I can’t help but wonder if I’m discovering my style. I am really enjoying the texture and irregular shape of the paper.  It’s funny to note that what would have made an imperfect surface to write a letter made a perfect canvas for an ink drawing.

I like some better than others, but they are all unique and beautiful in their own way.  I can honestly find at least one thing I like about each one of them.

Last night I realized that drawing isn’t about reproducing an image – it’s about interpreting a moment.  It’s not about perfection, it’s about having some fun and feeling – it’s about grace.

I say grace because that’s what I feel we need to allow ourselves – and what we need to accept from others.

ink tree on handmade flax paper

sunflower on flaxk paper - ink

sunflower on flax handmade paper

tree drawn in ink on flax paper

tree and bench_flax paper and ink drawing

Honestly every time I look at a drawing, I think about what I could or should have done differently – what could have made it better.

There’s always something, but that’s where I think creativity and art is misunderstood.  It’s not about being perfect, it’s about creating, it’s about being – it’s about trying. It’s understanding that completing something even if it’s got a few flaws is all part of learning and growing and it applies to any endeavor, not just art.

Most of all it’s about having fun and enjoying life.

From Real Life

sunflower on flax handmade paper

It’s interesting to think about some advice I received about drawing.  “It’s better to draw from real life, not from a photograph, and not from memory.”  I’m not sure I agree.

From my perspective, my drawings are more free and turn out better when I’m not trying to replicate the perfection of nature or capture a moment that might disappear with a gust of wind or a slight breeze.

Oddly, I’ve found freedom in ink, hand made paper, and drawing what I feel – not what I see.

tree drawing on handmade flax paper

sunflower on flax handmade paper

I’m not sure why I feel the freedom – still thinking about it.

I don’t really think it matters – the ‘why.’

I think what’s important is that I’m exploring and discovering.

Dip, Dip, Dip…Shake, Shake, Shake…Make Some Paper…

Handmade paper decorative spheres

How lucky for me that Kathy had so much extra pulp she organized another papermaking open studio! I was hooked after the first five minutes of the Wednesday session and was thrilled when I got the email about another opportunity.

I arrived promptly at 9:30 am and had the pleasure of meeting Mindy, who will be teaching a workshop with Kathy in September.  She showed me some samples of what we’ll learn to make; seeing the the book structures firsthand made me even more excited for a day of paper and book making. (I wonder if my family members can guess what they will be getting for Christmas this year.)

Kathy gave me the green light to work independently and I even demonstrated a couple of “how to’s” for the other participants.  I didn’t waste any time and started adding color after I completed a few practice base sheets.

handmade paper with orange and blue color

One of the lovely ladies, Laura, brought beautiful pressed leaves to share.  I would have never thought about incorporating additional elements into the process. (Now my mind is racing.)  The flecks of marigold disbursed against the green and I was delighted with the way the leaf made its signature on the page.

handmade paper with a green leaf and flecks of marigold

While we worked I asked Kathy about other uses for the paper in art, specifically about how to use it in making sculptures.

She held up a blue and red sphere, “I start with a shape; in this case it was a small Styrofoam ball and then I put a layer of paper over it.  It’s as simple as that.”

“How do you get the paper to stick?  Do you wet it?” I asked.

“You can, however I find it best to work with the paper before it dries.  That way it just sticks to the object and as you can see, it’s really quite beautiful.  You can also brush a layer of Methyl Cellulose over the top to help it adhere,” she said.

I bought eight Styrofoam balls and some of the mysterious clear liquid, Methyl Cellulose.

Exhausted but invigorated, I followed Kathy’s instructions to take a break before I started into the creative process.  I couldn’t sit still long.  The stack of freshly made paper and the bag of Styrofoam balls were calling my name.

I pulled the protective material away from the first two sheets and stared at my blank canvas.

handmade paper and styrofoam ball

I peeled up the first sheet, tore off the bright blue corner, and placed it on the ball.  As promised, the sticky wet paper was strong enough to handle.  Colors and designs emerged as I gained confidence and embraced doing something new.

handmade paper covered styrofoam balls work in progress

I stopped to admire the way the shades of green, blue, and orange blended into the natural tannish color of the paper.  The flecks of orange somehow found their perfect placement around the curved shape.

blue, green, and orange handmade paper over styrofoam ball

My porch makes a perfect playroom for an artist.  The bright pink petals against the orange background of the table and hand me down chests is cheery and inspiring.  Enya is my Pandora station of choice.  The dogs roam between the kitchen and the backyard and amuse me with their snores and snorts when they curl up to take a nap.

papermaking project on my porch

The finished project was more than a lesson in papermaking and creating a tiny universe out of Styrofoam balls.  It reinforced that it’s wonderful, albeit sometimes a little scary, to try on something new for size.

I can’t help but compare it to the first day of my drawing class last January.  I was nothing short of petrified and it took me more than six months before I attempted to create anything without specific and hands on guidance. If it hadn’t been for the instructor I’d have quit after the first class.

It’s been a hard lesson to learn, but I now know that my art doesn’t have to be perfect and half the fun is trying.  The perfection of a masterpiece lies in the imperfection of mistakes made and lessons learned as it was created.

I think it could be said, that being perfectly imperfect applies to a whole lot more than art.

Handmade paper decorative spheres

Paper Thin and Perfectly Imperfect

Although there were some who predicted that personal computers, email and the internet would make the use of paper obsolete – that hasn’t been the case; at least not in my life.  True, I get less and less paper mail but it still seems to be everywhere.

Prior to yesterday I considered paper to be utilitarian and an instrument of my art only as it relates to printing out a page for an old-fashioned review or something to sketch on.  I may have stopped to admire pretty notepaper or enjoy the texture of pages within a leather-bound journal, but I never gave a second thought to the process.

I never wondered…

Where does paper come from?

How is it made?

What exactly is pulp?

Why does some paper ‘feel’ different than others?

Where did the flecks of color come from?

Could paper be art?

Over the weekend I received an email from my friend and artist Kathy.


Due to a surplus of various kinds of pulp, I am holding a couple of papermaking open studio sessions and papermaking classes at my studio.  I have Japanese pulp, casting pulp, high shrink flax, abaca and pigmented pulp for painting. 

I jumped on the opportunity.  I didn’t know much, but based on my breakfast conversation with Kathy a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to learn more.

I joined two other lovely ladies in Kathy’s studio for preliminary instructions and introductions. We helped carry out buckets of pulp while learning about the qualities of the material we’d be working with.

Kathy showed us beautiful examples of her work and how a single piece of paper can stand on its own as a work of art as well as how it can be used to create sculptures and paintings.  The possibilities are endless.

I took pictures and listened intently as she described the process of beating the plant fiber and immersing it in water in preparation for the process of making paper.  It was hard to imagine how the tan spongy substance floating in a yellow bucket would transform into anything beautiful.

bucket of pulp for paper making

She walked us through the steps of adding the thick, gloppy pulp from the bucket to a tub of water and mixing it into a smooth and soft sea of fibers that would become a sheet of paper.

Instructions on Mixing Pulp and water for paper making

“How do you know when you’ve added enough pulp?” I asked.

Kathy swirled her hand in the water, “You learn how to feel it.  After you work with it a while, you know.”

A year ago that would have made no sense to me.  Now it’s completely logical.  Art, like life, is about learning, observing, and experiencing.  And as we live, we somehow “just know.”

I slipped my hand into the cloudy water and let the feathery pieces of fiber sift through my fingers.  I don’t know how to describe it, but the water felt soft and alive.

Kathy demonstrated how to put the mosquito netting over the screened frame and the best way to hold it in place with a second frame.

Step by step she walked us through the process.

“Put the side in the water first and then pull and scoop up the pulp, just like you’re panning for gold.  After that you shake the mold and let the pulp settle, let the extra water drain out, and then you’re ready for the next step.”

She removed the top frame, lined the screen up with the edge of a wet shammy, and hinged it forward to release the fragile sheet of wet paper.  Little by little she rolled the mosquito netting back and revealed a form that, when dry, would be a beautiful piece of paper.

I was surprised, but it didn’t take me long to catch on and before I knew it I had two sheets of future paper and couldn’t wait to do more.

first sheets of paper  - pape rmaking

We took a break halfway through the morning to enjoy fruit and chit chat.  We gobbled up blueberries and a refreshing organic and beautifully orange watermelon.

organic watermelon

After the break, Kathy added blended pieces of marigolds to one of the vats and added pigmented pulp to three open tubs to create pools of orange, blue, and green.  She showed us how to make a base sheet and then add a layer of color.

I couldn’t decide which part was my favorite.  It was a toss-up between trying to scoop up the pieces of petal from the marigolds and spreading water drops with my fingers to make a design.

So of course I found a way to combine them both and created beautiful orange and blue designs to accentuate the natural beauty of the pulp and bits of flower petals.

paper making - pigmented pulp over marigold and pulp paper

The morning flew by and our time was up before I knew it.

It hadn’t occurred to me, but paper requires time to dry.  Kathy showed us what to do and sent us home with detailed instructions.  Of course, me being me, I had to try the quick method of drying on at least one sheet of paper.  I was way too impatient to wait a whole week to experiment.

I picked one of the less than perfect pieces out of the bunch and laid it on my kitchen counter.

paper still drying

I knew it was thin and fragile and had more than a few flaws.  I selected a paint brush with soft bristles and carefully stroked the moisture out of the paper.

It came to life before my eyes.

It won’t be a sheet I can draw, paint, or print on. The edges are frayed and uneven, it’s thinner than paper thin, and the webs of fiber barely support the splashes of marigold.

paper thin

In my eyes it’s beautiful and it’s perfect in its imperfection.