The Ultimate Challenge

Watercolor 22 x 30 inches
click on image to enlarge

After years of painting and trying to tackle all sorts of subjects, I came to realize that it wasn’t the subject that compelled viewers to be attracted to a painting and then to study it . . . .it wasn’t the subject at all. It was HOW it was painted.

Well, you say, that’s great news! What the heck do you mean?

In a few of the last many posts, I have mentioned the elements and principles of design. (elements: Line, Siz, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture. Principles: Unity, Harmony, Dominance, Conflict, Repetition, Variation, Gradation and Balance.) It is in the paying closer attention to these principles, rather than the subject, in forming the marks (elements) that one arrives at a good painting (or not so good.)

We have all had the experience of painting places we know, or painting from excellently composed photos, or painting from life. In those instances, much of the work of composing the elements . . . .shape, texture, color, value, etc . . . .is done for the painter. More often than not, however, while we believe it to be the case that the photo or the model will lead us to a good painting, the opposite happens. Something along the way is forgotten, left out, or ignored . . . .and that comes from relying on the subject to lead the way. To be a great painter, one must reach inside to find that which makes terrific art. It is in our most creative state that we bring something better in our paintings to the world. But HOW do we DO that??

That is THE question. It is the stuff that isn’t obvious which brings a viewer to an excited state of examination. It is the contrasts, the harmonies and the surprises that we dream up to make that happen . . . . . .and it takes lots of practice, patience and many trials. . . .and the study of good design.

One must separate one’s consciousness from the world to force that reach into our authentic creative selves to produce visual answers to the question of HOW. The best way I know of is to paint non objective abstract paintings. In my opinion, that is the ultimate challenge.

That challenge, which is to create something not before seen, means there are no visual crutches or prompts. There is no script to follow. It is design in its purest form.

To do it well doesn’t come easily . . . .in fact, it is the most difficult thing a painter can attempt. It doesn’t occur by coincidence or by slinging paint and hoping for the best.

It happens through meticulous painting and cautious, examination and consideration of painting alternatives. This piece, entitled “Breakthrough,” is such a piece, which has taken months to complete. A few hours here and there. Rest. Look. Evaluate. Rework. Enhance. Rest. Think. Wait, Look, think . . . .and on and on and on. I began this piece in August. Here it is December . . . 5 months later. And I am still looking, thinking and wondering if it really is finished. Is it the best I can do? Do all the parts fit? Is it balanced? Is it interesting? Should it go public?

In the end, it is pieces, like this one, that teach us painters how and where to fill in the blanks when we are painting from life or photos. The challenge of creating something from absolutely nothing is the ultimate stretch. But it is also the place from which the NEW and DIFFERENT are born. It is the place which delivers the unavoidable authentic stuff that only you can make.

If you are interested in attempting this, you may want to consider a one week workshop in how to produce abstractions in work similar to this. It is well worth the investment, as the time spent will awaken even the most experienced artist to the importance of good design. As it turns out, I give such workshops. Interested? Drop me an email if it isn’t on my website.( I haven’t posted the dates yet)

25 thoughts on “The Ultimate Challenge”

  1. Well stated, Mike. You've hit upon a very important point that many artists neglect – the importance of the principle elements of design and the distraction of subject matter. I've read plenty of testimonials about your teaching to know that you're an excellent instructor and your students' works are significantly transformed as a result! I wish I lived in CA so I could take a course from you as well 🙂

  2. Mike, before I read this posting I want to respond to the painting associated with it. I find this nothing short of FANTASTIC! Wow! The energy, the color, the textures, the composition all cause me to just sit and stare in wonder.

    OK, now I'll go read your words.


  3. Lookin good, Mike! I have seen the most mundane subjects painted with such interest that I can come to only one conclusion…it is not so much what you paint but how you paint. We need to rendezvous someday at a midway point and plein air together. Happy New Art Year, my friend!

  4. Yes!! This is exactly what my mind has been trying to put into words for me during the past two years. You are my new best friend, Mike. Thanks.Do you ever come to the east coast to give workshops?

  5. Wow Mike I have just seen this painting.I love it The depth you have achieved is wonderful.I so love your written piece as well.As an abstract painter I struggle to achieve this all the time.Yesterday's party piece was excellent training for creating something out of nothing ,but I really needed so much more time in days and months to make a meaningful piece.I often spend more tome looking and thinking than painting.However painting is usually fast.

  6. Hi Mike,
    Is "Watercolor Beyond the Obvious" the workshop that you are referring to in this post? I hope so, but if not we'll sign up for this one too!!! Love it, and we are looking forward to seeing you in March. Happy New Year.
    L. P & C in Reno

  7. Kathy, you and I think much alike. While visual work appeals to our emotions, a coincidental, non intentional approach to making a composition which strikes the right emotional chord just doesn't work. It is those elements . . .and knowing what to do with them and how to relate them that makes a painting work. Thanks, again, for stopping in, Kathy. I visit your site often to absorb the wisdom there.

  8. No, Myrna, this is the content of the Beyond the Obvious workshop right in front of our noses. Unity . . .Harmony . . .dominance, etc.

    And I know you know that you know that I know that you know . . etc!! :D) Thanks for shakin it up a bit, though!

  9. Hey Don . . .Thanks again for coming by. For the rest of you visitors, be sure to stop in at Don's blog, too. (Just click on his name) . . .you'll get a lot there, too!

  10. Chris . . . you know which workshop it is. It is called Watrcolor Beyond the Obvious. I'll be presenting that workshop this year at Kanuga Watercolor Workshops in the Carolinas, in Reno, in San Jose, and in Arizona. You might want to join in!

  11. NBF? (New Best Friend??!!) Wow! I am honored,Deborah! Glad you are getting something from my posts . . . .that is what they are for.

    As for East Coast workshops . . .I'm available!

  12. Yes, Jane, that is the way it is . . . . . .think think think think think and paint. Consider, think, evaluate, decide, think, paint, re-evaluate, debate, think, reconsider, think, observe and think, observe some more, think and think again. Make a mark, modify, think, remodify. etc. That is why a piece like this takes so much time. Thanks for your great comment, Jane!

  13. HI Mike and Jane,
    Jane when I teach I insist that my students spend 40% of the time looking, 40% mixing their colours, 10% putting it on the canvas and the other 10% walking to and from the work to do the looking at a distance.

    Ok, that's a bit rigid, but it is a good wake-up call for some who put the paint on then puddle in it until it becomes mud.

    Will pop by your blog to peek there too, happy painting.

  14. Impact is what this piece certainly has, but I'm glad you modified the prominent light shape in the middle.
    Also, your essays are tremendous. Are you considering a book with illustrations? Why not???
    DeAnne in Watsonville

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