A shifting definition of good work

Cape Cod Cool, 10×10 acrylic (October, 2018)

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.

PaintNite 2014 (first acrylic painting)

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.

Years later…

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.

New Medium, July 2018
(2nd acrylic painting)

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.