“I tell myself that anyone who says he has finished a canvas is terribly arrogant. Finished means complete, perfect, and I toil away without making any progress, searching, fumbling around, without achieving anything much.” — Monet, 1893 (Quoted in Painting Outside the Lines by David W Galenson, p49
It can be terribly demotivating when you feel like you’re constantly struggling to create satisfying paintings while those around you seem to have it come easily. But are you seeing the artist’s process and progress, or looking only at the end results? The few selected pieces the artist shows the world are not the full story, they don’t tell you how many paintings were never finished, how many hours were spent pondering a pristine canvas. Doubts and fears are part of the process; reconcile yourself to this, then use them as motivation to keep pursuing the impossible.
This workshop day was spent creating a tree painting under my guidance, using techniques I include in my own forest paintings. It’s partly about mastering the techniques involved (torn strips of masking tape being key) and partly about learning to be patient, building numerous layers to create a sense of depth rather than stopping at the first layer (and not to be precious about it). It’s an approach that takes a faith in the process (especially the first time you do it!) so I demonstrated each step on my own 25x25cm canvas before we tackled it.
We started with a coloured ground done in dark turquoise, then all used the same set of acrylic colours on our palettes: Prussian blue, cerulean blue, burnt umber, green gold, Sennelier primary red, cadmium yellow deep, lemon yellow, and titanium white.? The results speak for themselves; one of these four paintings is mine, but which one?
Focusing on drawing techniques: pencil control, different ways to hold a pencil, working from light to dark and dark to light, quality of line, continuous line drawing, spatial awareness through blind continuous line, working from memory and observation…
[Kahn] “…plays with imaginary color in an otherwise commonplace landscape. The simple image of a river bend becomes a chromatic fantasy ‘so entirely about color that you don’t even think about dark and light’.”
(Source: Wolf Kahn page 90)
How realistic does colour need to be in a landscape painting? How far can you intensify it before it becomes unreal, and does that necessarily mean it doesn’t work? How much can you enhance what you see to create an emotional impact or to convey the strength with which you experience the landscape?
If you let colour overtake everything else in the composition it becomes a painting with its roots in realism. A painting about colour rather than landscape, but the roots give viewers a way into the painting. A way to relate to it and feel you’re able to understand it (or some of it) rather than being completely lost about what you’re looking at as often happens with pure abstracts. Whether you limit the realism to ‘roots’ only, or add a few more aspects of the landscape (‘branches’ and ‘leaves’), that’s when an interesting dance can happen as you juggle realism and abstraction.
3. Two unused tubes of Green Gold, one Golden, one Winsor & Newton. The Golden version is a Series 7, so not an insignificant find (read: it’s an exquisite but expensive colour).
4. Postcard sent by a friend from Tuscany in 2011 featuring a painting by Pierro-della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, that she said had its own museum in a hilltop village.
5. Postcard from National Portrait Gallery in London of one of my favourite paintings in their collection, Justin Mortimer’s 1992 portrait of Harold Pinter, which is two-thirds red negative space. (Both postcards had got shifted from the front of a shelf to between books.)
6. Exhibition catalogueMonet et l’abstraction/Monet and abstraction, which delayed the tidyup for some time as I flipped through the pages. Monet’s late paintings, where he uses nature as a starting point but it’s mostly about pattern and colour, as some of my favourites. “The object no longer defined the pictures subject, which was now subject to the painterly gesture … The image is no longer a hermetic snapshot of reality, but a place where sensations are assembled in a duration that is also a state of harmony, an even expanse in which memory is fed by the simple pleasure of seeing.” (page 95/6)
7. A note in my handwriting that says: “I have the beret of awesome artiness.” I’m still pondering this; I imagine it came from a conversation with the In-House Art Critic about different hats one wears in life.
When you’ve finished a painting, take all the “what if I” and “maybe I should” thoughts and apply them to a new canvas. Do another version of the painting, aiming not for an identical twin but a sibling, similar but not exact. It helps you develop ideas further, see what results if you do try something you didn’t before for whatever reason, gets things out of your system for better or worse.
I don’t believe “Art is never finished, only abandoned”.* There are definitely paintings and drawings in which you reach a point when it’s as clear as a road sign: stop now, it’s finished. More often though, you get to a point where you begin to wonder whether it might be, whether doing more will enhance or overwork it. Here are some things I use to help me decide if it’s time to down brushes or not.
Am I Tweaking?
If I find myself tweaking a little thing here, and another there, fiddling and fussing about with random small changes rather than doing something definite and decisive, then it’s time to stop. Put the painting aside for a while, overnight at the least, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes. Sometimes I’ll immediately see what it still needs, other times I’ll decide it was indeed finished, and, yes, there will be times when I’m still unsure so I leave it to be pondered.
A paintings I think is almost done, but not quite, I like to put somewhere I can see it often during the day, from different angles and distances, in changing light, as I go about doing other things. Not to forget the looking at it in a mirror and turning it upside down options, both of which help you see it anew.
Am I Bored?
Tweaking a painting also happens when I’m bored with or tired of it or just not in the mood for it. Never mind why, perhaps I’ve struggled too much with it, it doesn’t change that I am not fully engaged with it, so? it’s time to put the painting aside for now. I’ll decide on another day whether to continue with it or overpaint it.
Am I Protecting a “Good Bit”?
If I’ve stopped working on a section of the painting because I really like it, protecting a “good bit” for fear of messing it up, then it’s time to check it’s integrated with the rest of the composition. There’s the danger the “good bit” ends up feeling like it doesn’t belong and it may be the very thing that needs additional work.
There’s a balance between stopping before you overwork a painting and stopping because you’re too scared you’ll mess something up. If you always stop, you’ll hinder your artistic development. When I hit this point I may well stop working on that particular painting but immediately start another using the same idea. Not to create a duplicate, but to push the idea further, using what I’d learnt from the previous one without the fear of messing it up. Think of? the paintings as cousins rather than twins, a series rather than copies.
Am I Finished for Today?
Amongst the numerous things I’ve learnt from friend who’s a wildlife artist, Katie Lee, is the mantra “as good as I can paint it today”. That a painting may not be as I’d visualized it or wish it to be, but to allow myself to stop as it’s as finished as I’m able to make it today. A year from now I may be able to take it further because my skills, style and preferences will develop over time, but today I’ve gone as far as I can with it.? There’s no rule you can’t at a later date paint further on a canvas you once thought was finished.
Have I Consulted the Dark Side?
Does the painting want a stronger dark or lighter light? Is there sufficient tonal contrast, or have I been seduced by colour (again!) and it’s all too mid-tone? Is there a focal point or pattern (for more abstracted paintings) that pulls the eye around? Are there any stray bits of colour that sit awkwardly in the overall composition?
Stop Sooner Rather than Later
You can always add to a painting; it’s a lot harder to undo something. Tomorrow is a new day. Decide then whether to continue rather than now.
______________________________________ *Note on the Quote
The quote ?Art is never finished, only abandoned? gets attributed to both Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. As far as I can ascertain it’s a paraphrase of the French poet Paul Val?ry (1871–1945), from his 1922 poetry book, Charmes ou po?mes:
“In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished?a word that for them has no sense?but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”
“If you persist instead of giving up, then comes the one moment at which there is a chance of going forward a little. And not only do you have the impression of going forward a little, but sometimes you suddenly have the impression — even if it is only an illusion — of a tremendous opening.”
It can, undoubtedly, be hard to keep at it. I don’t always, and sometimes when I do things go from bad to worse. I tend to persist for a bit (a “bit” being anywhere between 10 minutes and a few hours), then put it aside for another day. For a time when I’m able to think of something specific to do with it or willing to let go of what I’ve already done and be dramatic or willing to be more patient with it. Some of the paintings I’ve been most pleased with had frustrating starts. (The converse applies too.)
How do you keep at it? You just do, in the knowledge it’s a marathon not a sprint. The memory of those times when suddenly you know what a painting wants, or you inadvertently do it, provides the motivation when you’re struggling uphill. Persistence creates endurance; endurance enables persistence.
I was asked by someone who got married on Skye this summer if I would create a sheep painting for her in which the weather was sunny and the Cuillin were in the background. A few other details in the composition also relate to the occasion. This animated .gif is a sequence of photos taken while it was in progress:
Here’s the almost-final painting, and a detail from it showing the tiny flock on the hillside. The title the in-house critic and I agreed on: “Love View“.
If one of your artistic goals is to work in a freer, more painterly and expressive style, don’t focus on fighting against what you already do, but introduce new techniques and approaches that simply don’t allow for tight, highly controlled painting. Try everything, ideally twice (to get past the “this won’t work” and “this is ridiculous” thoughts). Find the approaches that work for you; as always different things work better for different people.
1. Use the ‘Wrong’ Hand
Our dominant hand, whether it’s our left or our right, is accustomed to how we do things. It’s built up muscle memory and does things on autopilot (that “I know what an apple looks like” thought). Putting your brush or pencil into your ‘wrong’ hand instantly reduces these. Yes, it feels awkward. Yes, things won’t go exactly where you wish. But this reduction in co-ordination is what will help you create expressive rather than rigidly controlled marks.
With practice it feels less awkward and you gain control. Do it a lot and you may even reach the point where you use both hands together, which is useful for working faster, or swap a brush from on hand to the other to reach the edges of a large canvas.
2. Reduce What You See
Don’t switch on a light, but work in reduced light where you can’t see every last bit of detail. Take off your glasses so you can’t see your subject or what’s on your canvas as sharply (depending on your eyes). Try lighting a still-life with a bright lamp from one side (oblique light) so there are strong cast and form shadows that reduce how much detail you see. If you can’t change the light, squint (half close) your eyes so the lights and darks in your subject become stronger. Don’t paint what you can’t see, even though you know on an intellectual level it’s there.
3. Leave Stuff Out
Not every petal is needed; our brains are adept at filling in missing details and interpreting shapes. Doing so engages us with a painting, so it’s in fact better not to put down every single bit of information and leave some for the viewer to ponder.
Take a hard look at your subject, trying to decide which are the essential bits (strong shapes, colours, tones) and put down these only, then add a little more suggested detail on top.
Exercise: Do it with line several times, each time reducing how much you had in the previous. 20 lines, 15, 10, 5 to convey the essence of the subject.
4. No Outlines
Resist the temptation to draw a precise outline and colour it in. Objects are three-dimensional, they don’t have outlines. Paint the “inside” at the same time as the “outline” and quit trying to have perfectly neat edges. What we see as an edge changes when we shift our viewpoint anyway; uneven edges adds a sense of this. And as you step further away from the painting the edge neatens up visually.
Outlines are like bicycle training wheels, they support and protect, reassure us we’ll go where we want to without falling off, but they also restrict movement, hold us back. Hold the composition in your mind’s eye, clarify and work it out in a sketchbook, then use guidelines not outlines, suggestions and reminders rather than prescriptive lines on your painting.
5. Leave the Drips
Resist the impulse to tidy up pain runs, drips and backwashes. They add a fluidity, “happy accident” moments, and mark making it’s hard to do deliberately. Work with drips, let them run where they will. Let drips dry and then layer over without trying to obscure completely.
6. Use an Awkward Brush
Take a piece of dowel or a stick at least arm’s length and tie or tape it to the handle of a ‘normal’ brush. Put a large piece of paper on the floor, tape it to the wall or canvas on your easel. Now paint… you’ll find the long brush handle exaggerates the movement of your hand and arm, creating longer marks on the paper than you’d usually make, as well as reducing your overall control somewhat. Don’t fight this by trying to make smaller movements!
Brushes with unruly hairs or stiff with dried-in paint will take you away from neat brushstrokes. Resist the temptation to tidy up the marks. If need be, sharpen edges in the final round with the painting, but not midway.
Check where and how you’re holding a brush. Don’t strangle it by holding down by the hairs but hold it higher up the handle. Shift your grip on it from how you’d use a pencil to how you’d hold a tennis racket (across your palm, four fingers folded over handle, thumb resting on fingers). This encourages you to work with your arm rather than wrist.
7. Try Unexpected Colours
Instead of obsessing about whether you’ve got accurate colours, worrying about mixing the perfect green before applying it, use unexpected, unrealistic colours and focus instead on ensuring it’s the desired tone (value). Our brains register tone strongly, and surprising colours will read “right”. The resulting painting can be a lot more emotive and dramatic. If the idea frightens you, try using something unexpected for a coloured ground and let small flecks show through.
8. Use the Invisible
First paint your subject with clean water only to familiarize yourself with your composition (okay, not if you’re using oils, for that you can do this with solvent or oil!). Then take some fluid colour and let it flow into the wet areas. Don’t try to stop the paint from spreading or worry about the colours becoming ‘wrong’. Wait until you’ve finished, then see if you like the result.
9. Get Protection
Masking fluid enables you to block out areas in a watercolor so you don’t have to worry about accidentally painting there, and masking tape does the same if you’re working on canvas. For example, instead of meticulously trying to paint around the petals of a white daisy in a watercolour, paint the petals in masking fluid first. You can then paint freely knowing the white of the paper is preserved.
10. Use a Brave brush
Use a brush that prevents you from painting tiny details. At least an inch wide, wider if you can get yourself too. Varnishing brushes are great, as are decorating brushes (if it’s too thick, cut off some of the hair with scissors). Use a flat brush not a round one as the aim is to significantly?increase the width of the painting strokes you make. Use it side-edge-on as well as flat, dab down a corner for “dots” and end-on for speckles.
A big brush encourages you to use your whole arm rather than only your wrist, to make broad, sweeping strokes.? The painting below, “Edge of the Cuillin” was done with a two-inch (5cm) brush, followed by smaller mark making on top.