Vincent van Gogh’s various paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase (e.g. Sunflowers 1888) are probably his best-known flower paintings, but he also painted growing flowers, such as these irises. I enjoy not only his use of colour and mark making, but the way he makes flowers fill the whole composition and flattens the depth of field (an influence from Japanese art on him). A floral colour field, to apply a concept from a few decades later, and another influence on my painting, Rothko.
Given Monday’s Motivator to Keep Striving, I thought I’d share work-in-progress photos of one of the paintings I’ve been working on this week, one that’s been testing my resilience. Wildflowers are something that have bounced around my mind’s eye for some time, but a subject I’ve not translated into paint much. “Listening to Trees” was the first time I painted foxgloves to my satisfaction. My idea with this painting was for it to echo myforest paintings, but be only flowers. It’s a large canvas, 1×1 metre (about 39×39 inches).
The first photo shows where the painting was when I downed brushes yesterday. To my mind, very much still a work-in-progress that lacked oomph. It needed more tonal contrast, a stronger sense of sunlight, pinker foxgloves. The last thing I had done was to add a stronger dark tone using a mixture of Prussian blue, burnt umber, and perylene green. It was a bit streaky but once dry my plan was to do something similar with some “sunlight” and “blue sky”, then reassess.
How long would this take? Would it work? Doing it is the only way to know. I might make it worse, but ultimately that’s irrelevant as it’s not right now anyway.
Awake at four this morning thinking about this painting, I headed back into my studio to give it another go. I dug out some fluid medium, cadmium yellow, phthalo blue, and titanium white, then played around with very fluid paint and gravity. This photo shows where the painting is now. I like it more — it’s less static — but will reassess once it’s daylight. Studio cat seemed to approve though.
Update: I ultimately decided I did like what I’d done and made only minor tweaks.
If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?
1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.
2. Vary Your Approach
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.
3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.
4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.
5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.
6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?
7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?
“It is the only point of getting up in the morning: to paint… to make something even better than before, not to give up…”
“If I knew exactly what I was going to paint in the next minute why would I want to do that?”
— Lucian Freud, quoted in Breakfast with Freud by Geordie Greig, page 10 & page 213
Not knowing exactly what you’re going to do next isn’t the same as not having a good idea of what you’re going to do next. It leaves room for possibilities and change, for letting the painting and subject suggest things to you and responding rather than sticking rigidly to a path determined before you picked up the brush.
If you do have a specific thought about what you’re going to do but then the painting suggests something else, follow it to see where to leads. You can always go back to what you’re originally thought to do (writing a note in a sketchbook helps remembering what it was!).
Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?
If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?
I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).
A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.
“… indigo with terra sienna, Prussian blue with burnt sienna actually produce much deeper tones even than pure black. What I sometimes think when I hear people saying ?there is no black in nature? is — there doesn?t have to be any black in paint either.”
— Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo van Gogh. June 1884
Talking to another local artist about the differences and similarities between our paintings, one thing that came up was her use of black. Often strongly as one of the final layers on a painting; thinly glazed in places, quite opaque in others. This layer is not mixed with colours, it’s embracing black as a pure colour. It’s striking and dramatic.
I tend to work with a mixed black, and to invite ‘happy accidents’ by not being meticulous in mixing the colours together so that occasionally I’ve suddenly got a bit of blue (or red or green or whatever else is in there), emerging beneath my brush or knife.
It’s a choice of style and working method. Neither is better. Explore both, feel which you prefer; it may even be it’s not an either/or for you.
“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve?! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can?t draw/paint. Of course I?ve always desperately longed to. Can?t afford classes. And if I just ?go for it?? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it?s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax
We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.
Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.
I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).
Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.
Failing to reach your painting aims? Perhaps it’s not that the destination is wrong. Try changing the starting point.
There’s that story about the tourist who stops for directions in the Scottish Highlands and asks for a famous beauty spot. He is told: “If you wanted to get to there, you shouldn’t have started off from here.”
Budding artists saying they are unable to achieve their desired results in a painting invariably assume the fault is somewhere in their ability to finish. But you should consider that perhaps you have started off from the wrong place, and this is why you’re unable to reach your destination.
So let us look at beginnings, starting points for paintings. A blank canvas is the starkest of all beginnings for a painting. It is a void which is often spoken of as having ‘great potential’, but often it causes consternation and procrastination. If there is no clear start, how do you take the first step. There are several, classic, methods for moving the starting point.
1. Preparing the Ground
Psychologists tell us colours are related to emotions. These relationships need not be the same for everyone, but by simply covering the canvas with a monochrome colour you have taken the first step on the path, created the first signpost, set the emotional quality of your art work in progress.
2.? Creating an Ink Blot
Most people know about ink blot tests, those images used by psychologists to spur the imagination and access the deeper parts of your psyche. Well you can do the same with your painting. Smear one or more colours across the blank canvas. Not only does it remove that frightening field of whiteness, but you will start to see things in the abstracted patters of colour and tone. You will be starting your painting with a greater degree of creativity, the colours will act as a muse, getting those ideas sparking. Its easier to get to a destination when you start up high; you’re now rolling down hill and picking up momentum as the destination approaches.
?3. Getting the Packing Right
The two ideas above take you forward in the journey, but what about stepping back slightly? If the problem in your final artwork is the composition, then you should take the time to work on thumbnails. Vary the shape and size of the thumbnail; it could be your initial choice of shape for the canvas is wrong, that it should have been an extreme landscape rather than a squat portrait for instance. Or the positioning of major elements in the painting didn’t quite come together, and the thumbnail gives you the opportunity to move things around. A thumbnail gives you the chance to ‘pour over the atlas’ a bit before stepping out on the journey.
4. Taking your Studies Seriously
The first step with any holiday destination is to look at the guide books and holiday brochures, right? So what about a painting? The first step for inspiration is to get out there and paint a few studies. This is not the same as making thumbnails, you are not looking to find the best composition, but at what inspires you to do the painting in the first place.? Studies are about form and colour and tone, capturing what you see and/or what you imagine. They should be done with a free hand, allowing the creative side of the brain to take over, and allow you to discover those little aspects of a painting which will enthral and mesmerise the eventual audience. And remember, once you have your masterpiece, there is also a market for smaller, modestly priced pieces of original work.
Next time you finish a painting and are dissatisfied with the result, think about where you started the process, rather than thinking your artistic skills are at fault.