Testing Limits

“Chestnut St.”
Unfinished– watercolor 22 x 30
When are we NOT LEARNING how to paint? Do we ever stop learning? Should an artist only paint what he or she knows? If I am the person to answer, I would say absolutely NOT to the last question. It is ALWAYS about learning!

So, what should an artist be stretching to learn after painting for 22 years?

Let’s start here: How about learning more about one’s capability? What about testing one’s self to remain in control no matter the circumstances at the easel? What of practice to smooth off rough edges in a project or series? How about testing “What Ifs” in color strategies? If you are a watercolorist, how about painting on wet paper and hurrying the process so the paper doesn’t dry? Or, what about a challenge to finish a full sheet in 90 minutes and driving one’s self a little bit nutz in the effort?

All of these things are about stretching. They are about experiencing circumstances out side of the comfort zone more often . . . . .so when they really do arise in a serious painting situation, the artist is more comfortable in working through the ‘emergency.’ It is in these times of horsing around to find out what happens that an artist gains precious experience.

So!! You tell me. Which is more valuable? A wide range of experience, or a few successful paintings done in the artist’s comfort zone? Do you suppose there is value in being able to anticipate the outcome of something the artist does, either by accident or deliberately? Of course there is! It is called mastery of the circumstances. And the only way one develops mastery is to try different stuff and create challenges. In other words, expand the comfort zone. So what if the painting tests aren’t masterworks?

The above painting was done on wet, saturated paper inside of a time limit . . .in a fairly large format to cause me to hurry to keep up with the drying process. I had fun in the challenge, didn’t finish, messed up perspective, but found some lovely little passages that made me want to do this again and again.

12 thoughts on “Testing Limits”

  1. Mike: you ask "So!! You tell me. Which is more valuable? A wide range of experience, or a few successful paintings done in the artist’s comfort zone?" That's a BIG question. I'd say that both are valuable to the artist and to the viewing public. For instance, Leonardo daVinci developed a "comfortable" style for rendering people. It's instantly recognizable. He seemed to have spent more time inventing war machines and stretching his imagination there. However, we all find great value in his paintings. On the other hand, Jackson Pollock expanded far beyond his expertise in abstract expressionism to explore "drip painting." We value that experiment as well. I don't know that it has to be one or the other. For me, it's interesting to explore the possibilities with both paint and concepts, but I also value the few "good" paintings that I managed to paint in my "comfort zone."

  2. Kathy . . .I might have known you'd be the first to pipe up and comment . . .and perhaps lay out an argument. Glad you are pressing me to think again! Having done so, and knowing your paintings and artwork, I'll say without hesitation that had you not tested the limits way back when, you wouldn't have such a terrific 'comfort zone' from which you make such stunning paintings.

    So there!!! Nan na nan na na!! 🙂

  3. Hi Mike, Fun piece and thought provoking posting! Hopefully, the learning-v-comfort zone is an ever widening spiral…test, learn, get comfortable, test, learn, comfortable…

    I find delight in the relationships of your cars; adds to the feeling of a steep hill!

  4. Living and learning… That's what it's all about! I would love to have a few successful paintings done in my comfort zone while I explore a wide range of experience – and find new comfort zones in which to create a few successful paintings while I explore a wide range of experience…


  5. uh hem. Clears throat. Deep breath.

    What IS a successful painting?

    According to my very addled brain there are paintings we like, and paintings that we don't like. There are paintings that conform to accepted painterly conventions, and those that don't. There are paintings that achieve what we set out to achieve, and paintings that don't.


    There are paintings that break all the "rulz" yet still touch a nerve, stir a heart, pierce into that thing we call emotion.

    I wonder, what is this thing we call "success"?

  6. Brilliant! On so many levels! I hope the answer is a wide range of experience, because I'm always looking for the new thing to learn and would be bored to tears making the pretty pictures I know I could make over and over.

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