“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.
“The cast shadow creates an effect just like a splotch of ink that is dropped on a subtly modelled drawing done in delicate halftones. For this reason artists generally eliminate, or soften, cast shadows by toning them down, so that the form beneath can be read.”
— Nathan Cole Hale,Abstraction in Art & Nature, page 17
A cast shadow is the one that “falls on the ground” when the sun or strong light shines. It is more like a dark glaze than a streak of opaque black; we still see a lot in a shadow. Yes we want tonal contrast in a painting for visual interest, a fair distance between the lightest and darkest tones, but tread softly, with colourful dark footprints, don’t stomp shadows in with flat black. A cast shadow isn’t the same throughout either, it gets lighter the further away it is from the object creating (casting) it, and the edges softer (less distinct).
A form shadow is the “dark side of the moon”, the darker tones on the opposite side of an object to where the light’s falling. These are even softer than cast shadows. They are essential for creating the illusion of 3D in a painting or drawing. How much form shadow you see depends on the light direction; if most of the subject is in direct light, there’s very little (unless you walk around to view the other side of it). If you find the thought of two types of shadow confusing, try labelling a form shadow as “lack of light” instead.
Every drawing should tell a story, the tale of the looking, the seeing, and the making. …the drawing is as much about the artist as it is about what is being drawn.”
Drawing Projects by Mick Maslen & Jack Southern, page 20
The “tale of the looking” are the lines/marks in a drawing that have led to the final drawing. The lines in the wrong places, the imperfections, the hesitations. Don’t erase to eliminate, but leave an echo which will add to the final drawing. Drawings that show how they were created, what the artist looked at and how they progressed, end up far more interesting than neat, clinical, faultless drawings. Drawings with individual personality rather than drawings with bland facelift perfection.
Drawing Tip: If you can’t help but desire that every wrong mark is eradicated, then work without an eraser. Start with light pencil marks and move slowly towards darker as you find the “right lines”. Try working with a hard pencil, such as a 2H, initially, then swapping to a 2B.
?There are always new emotions in going back to something that I know very well. I suppose this is very odd, because most people have to find fresh things to paint.”
— Andrew Wyeth, quoted in The Helga Pictures, page 94
Being familiar with a subject isn’t the same as knowing everything about it. On the contrary, I think the more you paint it the more you discover. In landscape painting, weather, season and time of day all have an impact on what you’re looking at. Your own mood influences your perceptions on that day. It’s never identical.
A painting need not be one moment in time, but various moments, combining observations, experiences, and memories into one image.
These two lines have been generating images in my mind since I came across them on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website. (Poetry is visual and emotional life put into words; it helps show the world anew. Like art, you have to hunt around for the bits that’ll resonate with you.)
In paint, there’d be a some “rain colour” in the sky, and some “sky colour” in the rain. Or perhaps a “mother color”, which is a color used in every mixed color in a painting (it may itself be mixed or a single pigment colour). I’m mostly seeing is as combinations of two favourite colours — Prussian blue and burnt umber. Together with white, these produce beautiful greys.
Adding a fourth colour will give a sense of season and time of day. Sounds like a series… Prussian blue, burnt umber, titanium white plus one other until I’ve worked my way through all my paint tubes. Or perhaps “plus one other and whatever yesterday’s other was”.
Whenever you find yourself thinking “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how” add a three-letter word to your mental dialogue. Add the word “yet”. Say “I can’t do it, yet” and “I don’t know how, yet“.
Give yourself permission to spend time learning, as well as to stumble and fail while you strive. Abandon the expectation that it ought to come easily (whatever that “it” is) and use the fear of failure as motivation to continue rather than quitting or not trying at all. Learn to “Fail better”1, be open to “what if I…” curiosity.
In the same interview that yesterday’s motivator quote was taken from, artist Alan McGowan mentions the Zen philosophy of a “beginners mind”, saying it is
“not easy to do and it’s quite scary because there’s always the chance that it will not work at all, that it will turn into a big mess… There can be an expectation from others that one should always be successful, that a picture should in some way be an expression of expertise, especially as I teach as well. But that’s a bit of a trap. The risk of failure is for me an important part of the whole process of painting (and drawing) and so you want to keep that possibility open; that it could all collapse.”
Stop caring so much about it looking to others as if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re busy learning and discovering as you go along, so you do indeed not always know whether what you’re doing will be successful. But the end product (a “good painting”) isn’t the sole objective, and often not relevant at all. Having an intriguing and interesting journey is also an objective. A drawing/painting that’s about observation, about the process and techniques, not about ending up with a pretty picture.
A beginner’s mind means: 1. Focusing on the moment. What might be the next step in a painting’s creation. Not obsessing about what the finished painting will be.
2. Endurance. Sticking with it, layer after layer. Don’t be preciously protective about any “good bits” in every single drawing and painting. (Ideally none, but that’s near impossible.)
3. Embracing uncertainty and working through it. Don’t habitually erase and restart; go forwards not backwards.
4. Enjoying the journey. Enjoy the art materials you’re using and try different paints, papers, brushes, colours etc. to find new favourites and fall in love anew.
5. Being patient and impatient. Grant yourself time to learn while being constantly eager to learn more.
In order to truly see nature anew and not merely register it, habitual perception must be made more difficult…
“[by] merely suggesting rather than sharply delineating objects, emphasising ambiguity and openness, employing serial methods, and including the viewer in art [a painting] becomes an incarnation of the creative process.”
— Art historian Karin Sagner-Dychting writing about Monet’s late paintings, Monet and Modernism, page 29
Or put another way: look harder and don’t put in so much meticulous detail. Don’t tell everything in a painting, leave parts open to interpretation for people to determine their own story from it. Don’t have detail across the whole painting down to the single brush hair level, but let what looks real from a little distance dissolve into pieces of colour as you look closely. It’s far more interesting.
I believe in what the subject makes you do, yes, I do believe in a subject in the sense that it’s your starting point. And I suppose I am essentially a romantic. I believe in the sort of emotion that you get from what your eyes show you and what you feel about certain things. … I don’t really know what I’m painting. I’m just trying to paint!”
— Joan Eardley (1921-1963), BBC interview 1963
I’ve been looking a lot at the flower/field/landscape paintings by Scottish artist Joan Eardley. I like her abstraction, with enough realism to anchor it, giving viewers a path to connecting with and understanding a painting.