Ad Libitum

My roadmap lines for today’s watercolor.

I’m currently taking a painting class that is online. We watch the instructor. We try it on our own, and she likes us to hold up our work to our camera for the class to see. I am not confident at all about my paintings and I am not sharing.

Today she added a brief exercise where she asked us to paint something without any pre-drawing. She said she felt some of us were too concerned with the lines and “getting things right.” She wanted us to feel free. “Just ad-lib,” she said.

I thought about it later and about that term “ad-lib.” On one of my other blogs, I wrote a quick etymology of that term. It is a shortening of the Latin ad libitum, which means “in accordance with one’s wishes,” though today we associate it more with going off-script.

In my brief time on a stage or in front of a camera acting, I thought I was a good improviser and felt no fear about ad-libbing. I think I was willing to do it because I was not very good at learning lines. That works in film where you tend to shoot short bits and can often rehearse lines before a take and have another chance if you fail. Ad-libbing Shakespeare on a stage is quite frowned upon. When I taught, much of what I told students was improvised and ad-libbed, though it was based on a script (lesson plan and notes).

But when I write – anything from a blog post to a poem – I always revise and polish. I’m okay free writing to get a draft down on the page, but I never really go with that as a final version.

And that seems to be my artistic style. I like to do a pre-drawing or work from a photograph. I always draw lines as a roadmap that guides a painting. They might remain or they might get covered over by layers of paint but I rely on them. Even as a kid doing drawings, I liked mechanical kinds of drawings – buildings, cars, objects – and have never been very good at people or animals. I actually took classes in mechanical drawing (that’s what my high school called drafting) and loved the precision, the lines, the perspectives, shading, triangles, French curves, and my T-square. I haven’t shaken it off – at least when it comes to painting.

I have always thought that teachers, lawyers, salespeople, and the clergy should be required to take classes in improvisation. Actually, it’s a good thing for everyone to study a bit. Life is very often an improvisation and being able to ad-lib is a great skill that doesn’t often show up on job ads or resumes – but it should.


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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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