For those of you who aren’t painters, I want to tell you this secret. To be a painter – even an amateur one like me – you also have to be a gambler. Painters have to be willing to lose, repeatedly, until a painting is finished.
Every time I make a painting, I reach a point where I must put everything on the line, bet it all on the next brushmark. And many times, I lose.
Now, I’m not a gambler in any other way. The only slot machines I ever remember playing were the ones I visited at the Las Vegas airport en route to the Grand Canyon. I didn’t win. Lottery tickets tempt me sometimes. But the potential jackpot is less compelling than the greater likelihood of losing. I’ve never considered myself particularly lucky.
Instead, I prefer a sure thing if I can get it. I am a creature of routine and sameness for this reason. I know what I like and try to maximize my chances. Maybe I just like control. Don’t most of us?
But painting is never a sure thing. It’s a practice of uncertainty and risk. Painting is always a gamble.
The first brush strokes come with low stakes. There’s a lot less to lose when so little has been invested. But as a painting progresses, so increase the moments of possible ruin. With each new brush stroke, the razor’s edge becomes thinner.
Yes, mistakes can be corrected and even Bob Ross style happy accidents may add life to a painting. But I can tell you it’s not as easy to fix a painting as you might think, especially not if you want to preserve some precious part you’ve attached to. Changing one thing often creates a domino effect of other needed adjustments. This is doable. In fact, better paintings often result. But there is almost always something lost. And it is a gamble. The losses may never be recouped by the final bet.
When you look at a painting, there is typically no hint of the artist’s sweat, or that razor’s edge in view. You decide if you like it or not, and move on. You don’t see the paintings that have been tossed, scraped down, or sanded away, sometimes after countless hours of attention. But the artist remembers. The artist can’t separate the painting from the process of making it.
Maybe there are painters out there who don’t identify with what I’m saying at all. I’d love to know YOUR secret! And I’m aware there are ways of painting that make outcome more predictable. Still, I recently heard that Anne Packard once threw one of her paintings into the ocean. I know the struggle is real, even for great painters!
And I know the paintings I’ve wanted to throw into the ocean are often the ones I become most attached to. I don’t throw away the ones I don’t like. Instead, I let them rest where they taunt me until I have the courage to go back and try again. These are the ones I suspect others won’t value the same way I do; these are the ones that contain a bigger piece of my heart.
I don’t really like gambling. I hate to lose, especially in a contest with myself. I’ve had enough loss in my life already. But I am a painter, which requires me to be a gambler. I keep painting. Because sometimes I win. And only because I am willing to try again.
And sometimes I even understand: What is meant to be kept, can never truly be lost.
And sometimes I even know: we only find out what is truly possible, when we are willing to surrender everything we have attached to.
Are you a gambler? Are you willing to release the things that hold you back for the possibility of something greater?
Here are a few recent paintings that were saved from the trash.
So often we fail to notice the interesting, potentially inspiring, or beautiful, things around us. We’re busy, tired, distracted. Hardwired to notice threat, we’re more likely to attend to the things that could go wrong, than to appreciate the musical quality of the wind, or an unusual shade of green.
Except when we train ourselves to do otherwise, as artists of all types do.
“But, I’m not artistic!”, at least some of you protest. To which I would suggest you might broaden your definition of art. To make art where you find it.
Have you ever read a sentence that made your toes curl with understanding, so moved you copied and posted it so you’d see it again? Shared a photo of a sunset? Picked and dried a wildflower that reminded you of a trip to the mountains? Kept a rock you found on the seashore and set it on your windowsill, next to the others you couldn’t leave behind?
I could go on. The point is to recognize your role in creating your experience, to look closely beyond the familiar, the easily unnoticed. To discover whether your artful witness can spark joy, no Marie Kondo style tidying up required!Continue reading
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?
Learning to paint with acrylics
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.
It’s a funny time to ask, having already created a blog to share my evolving artistic endeavors. Yet the question has nagged at me anew since my very recent foray into blogging. Although it’s possibly a tangential inquiry, I also wonder how sharing is connected to the creative process. All might agree that art is a form of expression. Does that mean, almost by definition, that creative output should be shared? Is this perhaps a variant of the age-old query: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
If we don’t share the things we create do they really exist? To what degree does the act of sharing, and the response generated, change the work? If we do something and no one is there to like it on our chosen social media outlet, did it really happen?
The last question is a joke, really, but I do think one’s relationship with social media and the intentions behind sharing through the varied online options are worth examining. What if no one likes a post? Does that mean it wasn’t worth making? Should one aim for popularity or post the pieces that are most personally meaningful?
Maybe we first need to understand what drives us to create something in the first place. Why make another painting? Why share a photo? Why write a blog post or poem or story? Are the motivations highly variable? Or is there a universal drive at work?
To articulate my personal answers about the reasons for creativity is more difficult than I had expected. And maybe that’s the obvious reason we make art – to express things that are challenging to characterize or explain in linear form. Asking why we create things may ultimately be akin to asking why we exist or why we breathe. I understand some folks make things for utility or monetary gain. But isn’t there something more?
For me, creative expression feels like my soul’s urging, something to fill the corners of my being, a way to expand an otherwise partially inflated balloon. As such, my sense of wellbeing is directly proportional to how much creative energy I generate and adequately express. Sometimes I make excuses – I’m so busy; My technique is too primitive; My thoughts are disorganized; I’m not good enough. And every time I say no to myself in these ways, I feel my energy wither. The possibilities for myself shrink, the balloon deflates, and I become fatigued from holding myself against the beautiful current that might guide me to a better place.
Creative by nature?
We are all creators, aren’t we? Sifters and shifters of energy in different forms? Not everyone paints or writes, but we all make something new by virtue of our presence and choices about how we express. And don’t we all look for ways to be ourselves most fully? Don’t we all feel best when we allow ourselves to be swept up by a wave of creative energy, in whatever form that takes?
So why not share? Whether imperfect or still in development, why not let others see what we’re like in full expression? Because when we do – when we offer ourselves in fullness, even in the early stages of our chosen craft – maybe that is when making art becomes an act of love.