Arts & Activities  
      June Student Page      

      Concept, Composition, Confidence, Contrast, Color Harmony, Character, Courage      
      By Dan Bartges      
      Assignment 10 In A Series Of 10: Courage      

It takes real courage to create your best artwork. But how can you summon courage when you need it? In this 10th lesson of a 10-part series, courage is our final destination.

Throughout the school year, we've been exploring seven key ingredients in successful paintings and showing you how to use them in your artwork. So welcome aboard! As you incorporate these tips into your work, you'll begin to see big improvements.

Each month, simply read about the paintings featured on this Web page. Next, print out the "Quiz Me!" sheet, write in your answers to three short questions, then hand the sheet in to your art teacher. (The correct answers will be shared with you June 1st.)

During a church meeting a few years ago, a man told the congregation about an experience he'd recently had: "Yesterday in my back yard, I found the empty shell of a cicada bug at the base of an oak tree. It made me stop to think about how that insect had spent its whole life as a lowly beetle. Then one day, that beetle heeded an urge to climb the trunk of a tree and to shed its old shell. Then it leaped off the tree—and flew! And I marveled to myself, 'What courage that would take!'"

For any aspiring painter, that's a powerful metaphor, because if you want to spread your artistic wings and soar, then you'll need courage, too.


Cecilia Beaux (American; 1855–1942). Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker), 1898. Oil on canvas 48" x 34.625". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design.

Cecilia Beaux's, Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) (above), showcases the artist's abilities at her courageous best. If you enlarge the painting, you can study the artist's daring brushwork and bold use of color, and sense her passion for painting.


But what is courage, and how does it differ from self-confidence? Self-confidence is a belief that you have the ability to do certain things. Courage is when you're not sure you can do something but, taking a risk, you attempt to do it anyway.

Think about riding a bike. It takes self-confidence every time you ride a bike; without it, you'd lose your balance and fall. But it took courage the first time you ever tried; you had to take a risk in order to gain that new skill.

Relating courage to art, the French artist Eugène Delacroix put it this way: "Mediocre painters never have sufficient daring; they never get beyond themselves."

Delacroix is saying that a mediocre painter won't risk failure by trying to create a better painting than the one he's certain he can paint. In other words, it takes courage to step beyond your boundary of self-confidence, and beyond your comfort zone. But taking the risk of pushing your efforts beyond your comfort zone is the surest way to develop your abilities in art—and in most other pursuits, too!

How can you gain the courage to paint the way you really want to paint? Here are three steps you can follow:

First, clarify in your mind what the goal is that scares you. For example, does the idea of painting a portrait intimidate you? Or do you wish you could paint with freer brushstrokes? With bolder colors? With watercolors? From nature instead of from photographs?

Second, identify why it scares you. Are you worried that you'll "mess up"? Are you worried that messing up a painting might lower your estimation of your artistic talents?

Remember what Shakespeare once wrote: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."
      Pinned to his or her studio wall, this note reminds an artist to
muster the courage to take risks.

Third, recognize risk as your ally at the easel, not your enemy. Keep in mind that making mistakes is part of the creative process, and every mistake can be corrected. At worst, all you'll encounter is a setback, which isn't a failure unless you permit it to become one.

Pushing yourself, learning from mistakes and persevering all demonstrate self-confidence, courage and a love for painting. Making mistakes at the easel doesn't mean you don't have talent. What it does mean is that you have the courage to venture beyond your comfort zone and to take risks in order to improve your artwork.

Sooner or later, courage and perseverance will produce better paintings. Delacroix put it this way: "Without daring, without extreme daring, there is no beauty ... We must therefore be almost beyond ourselves if we are to achieve all that we are capable of!"

That wisdom is what the cicada beetle seems to instinctively know!

      MUSEUM CONNECTION Imagine believing in something so deeply that you risk everything to dedicate your life to it. That takes courage! But that is exactly what artist George Catlin did. A complex figure, Catlin painted and chronicled American Indian culture at a pivotal moment in United States history.

In the 1830s, tribes from the East were forced to relocate westward, treading what historians call the Trail of Tears. An advocate for American Indians, Catlin was an artist, writer, ethnographer, scientist, businessman, lecturer and showman­—roles that were sometimes contradictory. He took great risks in his quest to travel west to document American Indian life for future generations, yet Catlin persevered against the odds.

Learn more about George Catlin (1796–1872) and his paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's website. This site compiles paintings, historical documents and commentary from contemporary experts so you can explore the intersections of two cultures—both in George Catlin's time and today:
      QUIZ ME!
Click here to download June Quiz Me! document
      Author: A full-time artist since 1996, Dan Bartges is the author of the book, "Color Is Everything," and two books on sports, "Winter Olympics Made Simple" and "Spectator Sports Made Simple." Visit his website at      
      Click Back June 10th for Answers      

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