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The Elements of Fine Art Applied to Your Internship

Written by Jennifer Andrews

I walk into an empty classroom at Polaris Career Center and take an open seat as I unpack my supplies. I’m an obvious “newbie”; my palette is stark white, the paint not yet squeezed from the Winsor & Newton tubes, and the few Cotman brushes I have are not yet broken in. The whole pad of Canson 140lb. cold press paper is fully intact, not one page is missing.

As I look around, I finally notice all of the beautiful images that line the chalkboard rail.

“What am I doing here?” my inner voice whimpers, “I’ll never be able to paint like that.” I am my own worst critic; paralyzed by a sense of inevitable failure without ever having made a single brush stroke.

What was I thinking? I hear my instructor, Bobbi Dorr, begin the class …“There are no mistakes in watercolor.” Although she is addressing the whole class, I feel like her words are said directly to me.

I look the part and I certainly have all of the tools, but I’m not an artist… yet.  

I often muse over that moment when a new group of students arrive for our summer internship program at The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. I have learned to observe them over the course of their three month stays, each group, and each student needing a different nudge to help them become aware of their boundless potential. What knowledge can I divulge to give them a fresh breath of inspiration; the jolt they need to discover each of their exceptional strengths? The answers, I discovered, reside in the elements of art.

Slop the paint on the paper

Most people think that painting is a talent. Well, it’s not. Painting is nothing but a skill; a skill that can be mastered by anyone through learning, practice and, patience.

Much like learning a new job, it takes hard work, dedication and time. The studies of Malcolm Gladwell, K. Anders Ericcson and Steven Hayes all validate that it takes time to become masterful at anything. Meaning, if you truly want to be great at your job it will take you about 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of actual practice performing your duties. Most internships have a shelf life; so how can you close the deficit when time is not of the essence?

I suggest exercising James Clear’s method of deliberate practice (i.e. “take advantage of the time you have”). It sounds cliché to most students, but I have noticed over the course of nearly 10 years managing our internship program that many of those who have had internships with our bank don’t capitalize on their experience. Any kid can walk through our doors, get through the program satisfactorily and reap the benefit of our institution’s name on their resume. However, we don’t let true up-and-coming talent leave. The young professionals that come in with their own goals, objectives and networking “bucket lists” in addition to specific skills they want to enhance by the time they leave our program are often the ones we want as full time hires.

Those interns are fully immersing themselves in what it would be like to be one of us. They view themselves as full time hires do. These potential hires visualize themselves as actual employees, often stretching themselves far beyond what their internship would require because of the passion they have to excel.

Personally, the feeling is similar to reading a good book, bingeing on a great TV series, and yes, even sketching out an idea that will morph into my next painting. It devours you and the thought of pausing isn’t even on the horizon. There is only desire, aspiration, and determination to do what you set out to do. It’s deliberate. It’s putting paint to the paper.

Play with different perspectives

A textbook definition of perspective is simply a “position in relation to another position”. The actual goal of perspective in art is to create a notion for your audience that best connects them with your subject and emotes the story you want to tell. After all, art is more authentic when the viewer feels vested in a piece– you captured a moment in their imagination and brought it to life. Perspective invites viewers into a narrative that you- the artist- create.

I could very easily make the analogy that, as an intern, you should strive to take in other people’s perspectives. While diversity and inclusion are important indeed- it is a message you have no doubt heard before, so let’s toss it to the side for now.

Instead, I would challenge you to examine the different perspectives of yourself throughout an internship. According to, internships are “any period of time during which a beginner acquires experience in an occupation, profession or pursuit.” Now, compare that to the definition of an apprentice, which is “a learner; a novice.” My point is that whether you are an intern for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or Gustav Klimt’s apprentice, your intent should be to learn, and not just about technical skills.

As a student embarking on an internship, you have the freedom to explore the different facets that make you who you are. Below are a few questions to ask of yourself every day, to help hold yourself accountable to obtaining the keenest vantage point for your future.

  • How do you want to show up?
  • What have you learned today?
  • What will your legacy be?
  • Who walks with you?
  • How will you experience life?

When you are true to yourself, perspective comes easily.

Color Theory and the art of scrubbing out

Everyone has heard of the color wheel, right? In Layman’s terms, it is a tool that artists’ use to mix the right colors. It is made up, in its most basic form of primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

In art, primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. Primary colors cannot be formed by any other colors and all other colors are derived from some combination of those three. In this analogy of an internship, colors are the relationships you hold and primary colors equate to your primary influencers; you, your teammates and your manager. Throughout your tenure at a company, no matter how short or long, the prominence of strong primary colors can make or break an experience for young professionals. Take it from someone who has painted now, for quite some time. If one of your primary colors aren’t made of pure pigment, it won’t matter how many great concepts you can ideate, because anything you create will just be off.

Secondary colors are green, orange, and purple, which are made by mixing the primary colors. Secondary colors, in terms of your internship, will be mentors, advocates and trusted advisors. These people are still closely linked to your core support team, but may help you identify blind spots or add a different hue to how you are interpreting the world around you.

Finally, tertiary colors are made from mixing a primary and secondary color. Throughout the day, these are the people who are on the outskirts of your core support group, but ultimately make life more flavorful. They may not play a main role, but they are fun to interact with and oftentimes will “show up” for you in a pinch.

Your internship should come with a plethora of these color harmonies. Included in these relationships should be a good mixture of analogous, complimentary, and nature based. So what does that mean? Simply, that you need a support system that consists of people and relationships that are very much like you, completely opposite of you, and also probably don’t make sense but work anyway, respectively. At the end of the day, this is where diversity and inclusion provides that thing that captivates your senses and draws you to a piece of art.

So, what happens when you end up painting with a set of Faber-Castell paints instead of the Winsor & Newton set you were hoping for? Both paints are good, but the colors just seem to be tinge bit off. Good news, you will always have access to other palettes.

Sometimes when you are painting you’ll need to remove watercolor pigment from your paper. Perhaps your values are too dark, you’ve made a mistake, or you’ve painted over an area you didn’t mean to. Recall my story from earlier: There are no mistakes in watercolor. You can fix anything. You simply take a clean, slightly damp, brush and lift the affected area. To make a literal connection, sometimes you need to completely eliminate relationships that are toxic to your life; other times you may just need to scrub and lift a relationship out of your life and repaint the space with a color that suits you better.

Where do you fall on the value scale?

Value is sometimes referred to as “tone” in the fine arts world. In its most simple terms, it refers to the lightness or darkness of a color, which enables us to process and explain what we see. Without light, we cannot see, and that is what makes understanding “value” fundamental for artists. When it comes to fine art, value is arguably the most important element. It provides depth and realness to the illusions we paint.

“Value” is the driving force behind our personas on our quest for greatness. Much like a value scale depicts a range of color from light to dark; we all have different shades of our personality that set the tone for others. Use your experience as an intern to highlight your strengths and cast unwanted attributes into the shadows.

Aligning your values to an internship will allow you to bask in the line, shape, form, space and texture that will influence the picture you paint for yourself in the future. You are working on a masterpiece; knowing your values and where to place them in your painting will be crucial to discovering yourself as a young professional. Now is the perfect time to experiment with those highlights and shadows.

After all, values help us make sense of the world. They provide depth and realness to the illusions we paint and a moral compass to which we navigate our lives. So, if you haven’t thought much about your value scale, perhaps you should.

A one wo(man) show

My hope for everyone who has taken the time to read this blog post is that you paint, figuratively if not literally, through life. Paint often and with purpose. Paint from different perspectives. Paint with color. Paint with depth and value. And then, unveil your masterpieces to the world.  

The views expressed above are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Federal Reserve System.

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