An artist's "toolbox" is not just filled with the equipment he uses, but the experiences, ideas, passions, and stories that he wants to tell. Sometimes, though, the stories are bigger than the skills, or the ideas applied to the wrong materials. When this happens - at least in my own experience - frustration takes hold and I wonder if I will ever grow beyond the obstacles I see in front of me.
But - over the past few months I've been able to identify certain strategies that are more successful than others in pushing my art out of frustration mode into real growth:
1. Change either the painting support, format, or size - or all of the above
North or West?, version II, 18" x 36"
The first version of this painting was on mounted linen in a 12 x 18 inch size. I was excited about the direction that North or West (first version) and the other "old road" paintings were going, but I wasn't sure how to develop my ideas. I decided to switch to gessoed panels and completely change my painting style.
Working on panel successfully - for me - requires different painting skills, brushwork and innovation. I needed to move from direct alla prima painting to an approach based upon drawing and layers of glazing and scumbling, building up the surface over a longer period of time. (This painting evolved over a two week period.) While I was initially uneasy as to whether or not I could successfully pull off a painting of this size, I took the chance and gained not only a new skill set and confidence, but creative momentum.
2. Explore unconventional subject matter
This is another painting on panel, actually completed before North or West.
You can see the influence from Robert Bateman and Andrew Wyeth in this painting. The subject matter - the edge of an irrigation canal - goes back to my early years in Oregon, and I was drawn to the emotional simplicity of the idea - which is what I find most comforting in Wyeth's work. Through the process of painting I realized I was never going to be one of those artists that could paint every blade of grass, so I needed to devise ways of accomplishing a visual reality in my own style.
I worked with scumbling colors and using a rag to rub "in and out" - a method of subtle blending in the under-painting to create form, and followed with a series of glazes, brushwork, more glazes and scumbling. Since the panel surface accepts paint differently than linen or canvas, it can take time to understand your brushwork. But the insights let you work successfully through challenges and develop confidence in your ability to manipulate both your paint and your surface.
3 Repaint it, or over-paint it - just don't settle if it's not right
We all create work that doesn't meet our standards - some are "learning experiences" and some present the opportunity to really learn about what you are doing, even if you regret the outcome.
Lodgepole Pines is a painting I originally created in 2009. While I liked the composition and the sense of the color temperature and light, I was really disappointed in my ability to control the brush and some of the painting mixtures. After a disastrous attempt to "fix" a painting that I rather liked (one of the yellow cattle guard paintings from a previous post) by over-painting and totally destroying it, I decided to repaint Lodgepole Pines.
The success of the second version of Lodgepole Pines comes from several factors:
- I used one of the beautiful linen surfaces from Signature Canvas instead of a commercial canvas with a poor surface that would not allow for subtle brush marks and sensitivity
- I had the first version to study and identify the successful and not-so-successful areas of execution
- I had a better skill set in both my understanding of brushwork and paint manipulation, as well as how to create proper color temperature and surface interest.
And the failure of my attempt to fix the yellow cattle guard painting came from these factors:
- not taking the time to understand what was wrong with the painting
- deciding that a "few dabs" of color would fix it, when in fact the visual issue I was trying to correct had to do with edges and needed to be corrected by painting wet-in-wet - in other words, a new painting
- not realizing until I was well into the mess that once I began changing things I couldn't stop with one change - everything effects everything else, basic painting 101 which I ignored until it was too late
Sometimes we take a chance and the outcome is positive. It allows for growth, improvement and confidence. Other times, we take a chance and are unhappy with the results - but before you give in to frustration, realize this:
In every painting there is something to be gained, even if you decide you made a dumb decision. And no painting is so precious that it cannot be recreated.
Newer, and better.
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