The Chase

“Sentinel Haze”
watercolor, 18 x 24 inches

There is a big message here if you are a painter. Read all the way to the bottom.

As an occasional art instructor it is my job to enlighten about the elements and principles of design. Enlightenment is one thing but applying that to which one has been exposed is quite another.

There are 15 words to wrestle with. The elements have 7, the principles 8. The elements: line, size, shape, direction, color, value and texture. The principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance. (Comment: others may argue the selection of words to be included or traded out, but we are all really focusing on the same things.)

Often, the student complains (as do I !) “How do you think of all these things when you are painting?” My truthful answer is really something to the effect of ‘that is what divides the novices and masters.’ And . . .as we all know, there are very few masters out there. . . . . . .but it sure is a wonderful chase to try to touch mastery every once in a while!!

Sometimes, execution fails miserably. The technique completely collapses in favor of some other dominating thoughts while in the act of mushing paint around. Other times, the technique is extraordinary, but the design has a major, uncorrectable flaw . . .and all who see the painting know it. They may not be artists or know anything of painting, but they can sense a design mistake in the pit of their gut.

The challenge to get content, technique and design all working together is mostly overwhelming. When they all come together, the high that an artist experiences is, I suppose, the entire reason for the chase. It is simply temporary nirvana.

On the last day of my trip to Yosemite 6 weeks ago, I stood in awe of the view of Sentinel Rock in a slight haze. I decided to exaggerate that visual effect . . .or at least TRY to . . . .and to experiment once again . . . . .let multi colored washes drain down a vertical page, then define the positive shape (the rock) by painting the negative shape (the sky) in an opaque (using gouache) colorless wash. The contrast of opaque and transparent would be opposite what one might imagine . . . . .that is the transparent atmospheric nature of watercolor would probably best be used in the sky (the illusion of air), while the rock would be thought of as a solid, dense mass (opaque.) I deliberately reversed that idea to see what would happen.

While completely absorbed in all of this stuff, mentally, while painting, I forgot my design principles. Yup! I became sidetracked with the experiment and paid no attention to the ridiculous design error that I had made and was constructing right in front of my eyes. I happily just kept painting. It wasn’t until completion that I realized that I had divided the space evenly (dammit!!!) and created two separate paintings on one piece of paper (double dammit!)

Oh well! It was only a piece of paper to begin with . . . .and now it is still only a piece of paper. However, I am saving this painting because it revealed an extremely successful experimental result which I will employ in another painting later. Lesson learned (again!!)

There is one last comment for the painters out there who read this blog . . . . . . it is the failures and the mistakes that give us painters the best lessons. While we relish and seek the successes, our best friend in the chase is those mistakes that spank us into those, “OOoohh! Now I get it”moments. I have learned to court failure in the chase. In painting, failure really is a friend and not something to fear. No one ever has been hurt or ever died from making a painting mistake. Through failing, we learn and grow!

16 thoughts on “The Chase”

  1. A good lesson on the importance of learning from our mistakes. Thanks, Mike! Here's something I found in my fortune cookie:
    "A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner!"

  2. Your postings are very educational and there is always something to learn from them. Thanks for sharing the mistakes as well as the successes. It makes us mere mortal painters not feel so bad when we throw away our many mistakes.

  3. Well, even the good ones make those mistakes while in the moment of putting the paint on – and knowing that keeps me painting and trying again and again. Thanks for sharing, Mike, and for not being perfect 🙂

  4. Even with the problem, there is still much to commend this painting.

    I learned from you an adjoining lesson: you can always paint another version! Getting beyond the fear of failure is an excellent place to be!


  5. DOH! I hope you didn't slap your forehead too hard because the quality of the paintwork is phenomenal. Have you considered cropping? I found that mistakes can almost always be turned into positives if we want it bad enough.

    What a great post. Thank you for letting us look behind your curtain as you continue your "chase to try to catch mastery every once and a while".


  6. Hi Mike. I read your blog with my 6 year old son Erik on my lap. I summarized your comments to him, and Erik said he liked your painting and that it looked cool split in half. Thought you'd like to know! Holly

  7. Hey there "Watercolorist!" . . .you might learn more and faster if you save those mistakes and attempt to fix them at some place in time. You'll be amazed at how fast you will learn by attempting to fix those lousy ones.

  8. Well, if you aren't happy with this one, you more than made up for it with the previous Yosemite posts!! Just catching up with you after a gap in my blog reading and I have to say the other Yosemite paintings are dynamite!! As I scrolled back through November, I just kept saying WOW! over and over!!

  9. Mike, Guess we've learned that the equal dividing in half doesn't just apply to the vertical and horizontal, eh?
    Bet the diagonal was much more obvious in the small thumbnail than the actual larger painting.

    Maybe we can learn from that too: Take a pic and put it in the small to re-evaluate and to "catch" possible slipups easier.

    We make obvious mistakes, I think, because there is SO MUCH that has to be attended to in order to produce the "perfect" piece. And some just slip by in our quest for perfection and completion. Can anyone paint without complete concentration? I wonder…..
    Thanks for showing us the obvious especially now that you have pointed it out. Ruth

  10. Fantastic idea, beautifully painted. I'm looking forward to your next version of this scene. Now that you have seen what you don't want, what you do want came roaring up. And you had fun! Deb

  11. Hi Mike,

    This is the first time I've been on any ones blogs for months now. Too busy.
    But brother, I gotta say, Your Yosemite paintings are gorgeous, thoughtful and explorative in a wonderful way. Excellent example of crisp, experienced watercolors. Thanks for all the insightful text lessons too!

Join in and comment!