The biggest challenge to progress is our resistance to move beyond the known.
I’ve grown comfortable with blues and greens, a complimentary color palette that soothes me. But mixes of red tones have found their way into a couple of recent paintings, perhaps inspired by the spectacular sunsets of late.
Although there are things I like about the paintings, a subtle tension becomes evident when I look at them, an experience that reminds me how difficult it is to gaze upon the unfamiliar.
The painting shown above is one example.
Of course, it could also be that the painting doesn’t work well in some way, the reason I feel a bit off center when I look at it. But I also know that our perception about what “works” is largely determined by what we’ve learned that means.
How do we know what we could like if we never try anything new?
I make this post – open to feedback about the painting, as always – but also as a conversation starter about moving beyond the known.
Where do you find it most challenging to sit with the unknown in your life?
You know those days. When everything feels a bit off?
Yesterday was that kind of day for me. It started with a dental appointment. We lost power due to tree-bending, frigid winds. There were no candles to be found, at least ones not scented with the makings of nausea. You get the idea!
To be clear, it wasn’t a terrible day. I’m grateful for teeth, access to dentistry, and a home that usually has electricity. The day was just a bit askew. Much like a “fresh breeze” scented candle which, in fact, smells like nothing found in nature!
It’s not the sort of day that usually inspires me to paint. But with the power out, my options for escape were limited. Plus, I wondered if it would be possible to paint myself into an improved mood state.
Verdict: not really. At least, not this time! Instead, I painted this very unusual painting, which probably represents the day more than changed the course of it.
Truth in advertising: the painting looks best from a distance. But then again, so do those kind of days.
Some of my favorite paintings have been made from the passenger seat of long car rides. The time with nothing else to do and the light that streams into the car from every direction surely inspire me. But the absence of expectations and the willingness to improvise are the secret ingredients that make these paintings different, I think.
Folks in my life have wondered how I can paint in the car: Don’t you get carsick? How can you work with all the motion? How do you not spill the water or ruin the painting when you hit a bump?
Yes, I get carsick when I am not in the front seat. And I can only paint (or read) while highway driving. The paintings I make in the car are small, so the water is pretty well-contained in a cup holder. My travel paints sit on one leg; the paper pad rests on the other.
And the bumps? Well, they definitely happen! But, especially with abstract painting, the unexpected brush marks can usually be incorporated into the landscape.
And what a great metaphor! For when we keep our expectations loose – as ideas about form in a piece of abstract art – the surprises may add interest. The unintended marks might even inspire a major change in composition, impetus to create something better than we could have imagined.
The uncontrolled elements, and my unplanned response to them, may indeed be what makes my car paintings special. Maybe I like them best because they evoke the sense of freedom and flow I experienced while making them.
Not uncommonly, my perception of a painting changes depending on my proximity to it, not just the viewing distance, but with the passage of time. Sometimes I love a painting more the longer I look at it, sometimes less. Enduring appreciation of a painting might be one definition of merit, I suppose.
And then there is this painting, which I love best in the first moments of looking at it, when the palpable energy shouts to be heard over my notice of the imperfections. This isn’t my favorite painting for a lot of reasons and may not be yours either. But it evokes an approximation of how I felt when I made it.
Mexico is such a colorful country, a place where the warmth of the people matches the strength of the sun. There is evident hustle and work, but also an abundance of playfulness. And not just when the tequila is flowing.
Yes, there a dark places – crime, drugs, and corruption. But I’d venture to guess our impressions of those cultural elements are largely overblown.
I remember watching this painting evolve while hearing the sounds of the ocean. And, as is true with many paintings, a creative backstory is hidden in the final image. This one could be a tale of alternating ground and sky, of keeping perceptions fluid, of going with the playful energy.
Arguably an ability that ranks high on the list of life skills to master, it is also a valued skill to develop as an artist.
Although the inspiration to start a painting can be a challenge, the wisdom to know when it’s time to put down the brush may be even more elusive. Many of my paintings have been cast in a dull patina of excess fiddling. At the other extreme, lackluster efforts have been rescued by a few additional brushstrokes or slight color adjustment. The problem for the amateur (me) is learning to judge proximity to either pole, to make more calculated decisions about when to rest and when to push on.
If my experience is any indication, I’d guess that beginners err on the side of doing too much, desperate to fully manifest the kernel of a good idea. Masters almost certainly know when enough is enough, when to move on. Not every painting is meant to be saved.
My decision to let this painting rest has been an acute struggle. I see flaws – things I’d like to fix or explore further – and bits I’d like to preserve in a better painting. I also know that the risk of ruining this particular work is far greater than the likelihood of additional improvement. I’ve already edged into destructive territory. Perhaps my willingness to stop here is a small step towards mastery.
Addendum (day after original post): “Oops, I did it again,” to quote Britney Spears. I said I’d stop, but I didn’t. Hear me out though!
As promised, I stopped to let the painting rest. Then I looked at it. And kept looking. I’d already determined it would never be a great painting. Still, there was apparently more to learn. So, before burning it in a ritual fire, I began again with nothing to lose but time.
Ironically (considering the orignal post content), I think the painting is improved in a number of ways. Under no illusions it’s now a great painting, with areas that are evidently a little worse for the wear, I nevertheless prefer it.
What then is the lesson here?
Perhaps knowing when to resume is as important as knowing when to stop. Especially for a beginner, squeezing every last drop of learning from each creative experience may ultimately be more valuable than the final outcome.
Sometimes growth may require a step or two back before finding the right stride forward.
The before and after images are below. Which do you prefer?
One of the best things about making art is the essentially infinite possibilities. Not everything works and, of course, we all have preferences or definitions of a ‘good’ painting. Like most things in life, I suspect it’s important to find balance in painting, to blend technical excellence with expressiveness.
Recently I’ve been trying to stretch myself by working with more representational images, focusing on drawing skills and perspective. This older painting is a reminder for me to stay loose, to balance technical advancement with enjoyment, the reason I started painting in the first place.
Fellow painters: How much you play with different styles? What style you prefer for your own art making? Do you find that switching styles helps you progress?
Over the recent New Year’s holiday time off, I happily anticipated two days with minimal obligations, consecutive hours available for painting. Rarely do I paint with a goal in mind, but this time I wanted to finish a painting I had started months ago, untouched so long for fear of ruining the nascent scene I wanted to preserve. It’s not unusual for me to feel this way. It’s easier to start, free of expectations, than to finish over the mounting attachment to outcome. Even so, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with painting as a process and my experience with this particular painting provides an interesting mirror, a reflection of both progress and ongoing challenge.
I’d thought about finishing the painting a lot over the last months, imagined how best to continue my original vision for it. I thought I had an idea, that I was ready. But it turns out I’m not so great at executing a planned vision. And I can be pretty impulsive when the paintbrush is in my hand. That could be reframed as willingness to experiment, I suppose. Or maybe I’m just not very skilled. Untrained, I don’t have an internalized a set of rules from which I might improvise with control. Still, I like best when the paint is wet and I am able discover form in its movement. I also understand the associated limitations and risks.N
Best laid plans
On the last day of 2018, I began the painting again, or rather, I tried to continue the painting with an openness to experiment. The experience could be called a success, but only with a willingness to define it as such. Although I made several interesting and different paintings along the way, I couldn’t quite get the ground to work with the already completed sky. There is grief in misplaced brushstrokes and poorly chosen colors, the lost kernels of good ideas, but also hope in the possibility of something better. Finally, I cut the strings of my attachment to the existing sky and, somewhat desperately, drew a loaded paintbrush across the upper half of the canvas. I thought letting go of the sky might preserve the new ground. I was wrong.
I figured the sky disaster was the end, the last nail in a painting not meant to be. And as I prepared to wash my brushes, I offered a prayer of thanks to the thickly layered wet mess, and considered the most fitting way to dispose of it. But I hesitated, still attached I guess, and wondered what would happen if I put the painting under the running water.
Magically, the original sky reappeared, mostly unscathed, as the newer ground washed away beneath the water streaming from the bathroom sink, a mandala of colored sand partially erased with the wind. If even for a brief moment, I understood the purpose of that Tibetan Buddhist tradition – nothing is permanent. And the obvious corollary reminder to live fully in the present. That the sky endures in this particular painting may also be metaphorically interesting to consider.
After many hours of work, the painting looked much the same as before, half complete, a sky waiting for the right ground. If anything, it was a little worse for the wear, with ugly remnants waiting to be painted over.
The final painting wasn’t what I had originally envisioned, nor was I the same painter. But truthfully, I enjoyed the process even before the absence of a visible endpoint, an artistic journey that I’m certain has applications for other aspects of my life.
Each brushstroke informs the next, some apparently more so. Any creation that facilitates growth is a personal – maybe even priceless – work of art. We need only to keep going, with a loose attachment to outcome, and learn when best to pause before continuing anew.
Today, nearly a week later, I tried again. The result is pictured above.