watercolor 21 x 21 inches
Years ago, as I was learning to paint and making a few hundred attempts per year, I found only a few of those to be “good” paintings.
Now, as I believe that I know a little more about the structure of a painting, I am very reluctant to accept that a painting is finished too early. Now, I seek a greater complexity than before. But it is waaaaaay more than just complexity. It has to do with balancing all the relationships.
Recently, I heard it said that a symphony is marshalling all the relationships of sounds so that the magnificence of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wow! Is that ever true for the painter, too!
The act of creating balance and unity among the relationships is the crux of painting fine work. There is intense mental strife in that effort for me. In other words, it is a continuous battle to adjust and modify until everything fits. And so many, many times in the progress of a piece I mutter “just give it up!”
I am finding, as I grow artistically, that it isn’t always one’s ability to paint as it is the willingness to risk failure over and over until a painting is finished. Every alternative must be tested, sometimes tried, to determine if the painter has gone too far or not far enough. At some point, making new marks threatens to spoil weeks of work. And it sometimes does.
When it does, should I quit and begin again? That is one possibility. Or, should I attempt removal of the mark, or modification of the rest of the painting?
I say never quit! Take the piece all the way to near ruin before giving in. Lifting paint out of a watercolor is not easy, but it is possible. Overwork? Of course! There is a patina which develops which can sometimes be most attractive and displays a bit of history of what the artist did to complete a piece if it is overworked.
This piece, “Bad Dawg,” is one such piece that suffered through several different endings before I finally stated, ‘that is enough.’ Overworked? Perhaps. Muddy? Some would say “yes.” Sophisticated? Maybe. In the end, taste prevails. Your taste? What does it say?
In the process of becoming more accomplished, learning to accept failure as a companion is absolutely necessary. The biggest part of that, I believe, is NEVER giving up.
Failure is my companion every step of the way. It is part of the process. The trick is to work the painting until it is finished: Never give up. Think think think think!!!!
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)
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!
D’ya suppose there is a relationship there?
Okay, okay! The tree part is where I put all the plan time, but the rest of it got the best of me for a good while. First off, after the painting was blocked in and I had established the darks of the tree mass, it occurred to me I would be making two, not one, but two different paintings on the same piece of paper. I had divided the paper right across the midline of the page. Ouch!! As well, I had put a number of small shapes together slightly left of center, which crossed over the dividing line.
Oh NO!!! oh yes! Not only did I need to find a way out of the space division, but also I had created a large to small contrast well away from the center of interest (upper right) and set up a competition for attention. Gads!!
That entire ‘shelf’ on which the trees stood had to be broken in some way and I had to figure a way to have that big dark value bleed down well beyond the ‘shelf’ line so I would have a large, prominent dark holding a large chunk (more than half) of the paper real estate. I had to sponge off a bunch of pigment to obliterate the small shapes then use that space to create an addition to the large dark (the trees). So I did.
All of that has taken almost five days to bring to conclusion. There is a lesson here: Plan First. And not just in the mind. Make drawings and studies first. It seems like the long way, but it really is the shorter way.