The biggest challenge to progress is our resistance to move beyond the known.
I’ve grown comfortable with blues and greens, a 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?
The past week reminded me of My Many Colored Days, a lesser known Dr. Seuss book. The weather was highly variable. So was my mood. Both were predominantly gray, which is where the story departs from Dr. Seuss.
With that introduction, I hoped you might enjoy a representation of this idea in five paintings. The series was made on the same canvas over several days. The paintings are posted in the order of their making. To be clear, I didn’t paint over the earlier paintings because my mood changed. I just wasn’t happy with something about the painting. But considering how different they are, I’m almost certain they were influenced by both internal and external conditions, which varied considerably over the course of days.
Note: I’ve stopped with the final image because it feels like the most honest representation and works both right side up and upside down (as shown below). Perhaps a storm is brewing. Or, turned over, a brighter day is ahead. Both are always true. And wouldn’t life be much less interesting without our many colored days?
I plan to leave this painting unsigned, to turn it over as many times as I need reminders to accept and embrace my many colored days. Will you join me?
I’d also be glad to know which painting you like best 🙂
My acrylic painting journey began at one of those wine and paint nights, something my husband thought would be fun for us to do as a couple. He was right! After a manageable set of instructions, each of us was encouraged to make a version of the model painting using the blobs of black and primary colors provided. There was no talk of color mixing, no real technique offered besides a caution about order: start from the top with blue fading into red/yellow sunset, next add the blue ocean, end with the black rocks and sailboat silhouette between them. Everyone happily managed their own interpretations, smiles and laughter abundant throughout. Maybe that was the wine! I remember being struck by the individual differences in outcome despite the uniform instructions and materials.
This PaintNite scene (pictured), though not one I wanted to hang at home, found a place in a windowless office I used for part of my work week. It brightened the space and inspired peaceful thoughts, or so I was told by one of my adolescent patients who otherwise did not radiate calm. Despite this decided value, I knew the painting wasn’t particularly ‘good,’ something I mistakenly thought was a byproduct of the medium, not just my lack of skill. Still, I picked up some canvases and acrylic paints on sale at a local craft store. I imagined I’d host a PaintNite with friends or make paintings with my young nephews, ideas that would sit untouched in the corner of my basement, alongside those canvases and acrylic paints.
Several years passed, dotted with intermittent watercolor painting, my preferred medium only by habit and lack of experience with any other. Then, my husband, catalyst and longtime supporter of my artistic efforts, gifted me a portable plein air easel. He apparently imagined me on the French countryside, complete with beret and smock, his imagined representation of an artist. And what a lovely way to be envisioned! But he didn’t know that type of easel, which doesn’t adjust to fully horizontal, isn’t ideal for watercolor painting. Although I skipped the beret and smock, I decided to honor the gift by bringing canvas and paints up from the basement, to give acrylics another try on my new easel.
You might wonder whether I thought to research acrylic painting techniques before I began, something that seems obviously wise now. Naively, I thought I knew all there was to know about applying acrylic paint, having had the introductory lesson at PaintNite. I know, I know – hindsight is humbling! In my defense, my art education stopped in middle school. I thought ‘good’ painting was done with either watercolor or oils, a medium off-limits to an amateur, the brush cleaning alone beyond my capacity. It hadn’t occurred to me that acrylic painting, like so many deceptively simple things, can also be complex and render beautiful scenes.
Without expectations, or skill, I set up the easel and started putting paint on canvas, intending to make a rock breakwater, something I’d struggled to master with watercolor paints. No surprise, the rocks were not a success in this painting either. But to my delight, I discovered that with acrylic painting even a dark mistake could be painted over with a lighter color, not really an option with watercolor.
The final result (pictured) looked closer to what I considered a ‘good’ painting might look like. It wasn’t great, I knew, but it was better than I’d expected it could be and motivated me to keep playing with this new medium.
So much more to learn…
Since then I’ve made several acrylic paintings of varying quality and have recently decided to learn more about technique and application. There is a lot to learn! It’s tempting to see all the paintings I’ve made to this point as not ‘good’ through the lens of increased knowledge and experience. For example, initially more focused on color and composition, I didn’t realize visible brush strokes might add to, or detract from, a painting. Poor paint coverage is also a thing, which doesn’t affect the gestalt but really makes for a poor quality painting on the close up. This final painting (pictured at the top), my third of the medium, exemplifies both kinds of mistakes.
My definition of a ‘good’ painting has shifted, and will, I suspect, continue to evolve. Still, there is something about this painting, even with the noted imperfections, that keeps me from painting over it. Even that PaintNite painting was beloved by at least one person and was therefore valuable, if primitive in other ways. These paintings remind me that while we can evolve in technique and knowledge, we can also appreciate and honor where we’ve been. We can define ‘good’ broadly.
In other news, although I’ve thus far managed to talk my husband out of the need for an artist’s costume, he occasionally still wonders aloud, “Wouldn’t you like a beret?” Maybe someday I’ll decide that would be a ‘good’ look for me.
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.
Sometimes a painting changes. A lot. Although I never quite liked this painting in the early stages, I kept looking. As the surrounding light shifted, the painting did too. The images (directly above) represent my first draft and appear different only because they were photographed at different times of day.
Ultimately, I painted over most of the original. The final image is the result (pictured at the top), a very different painting for sure.
The poem is an ode to the making of the painting. But has broader applications too, I think. I’d love to hear what you think!