This morning, Edward Vincent of Victoria, B.C., Canada wrote, “Often the early stages of my paintings have a strong graphic structure with powerful notan. But as the painting progresses, this gives way to a weaker image. It seems the critical graphic design is often reduced as one strives for compositional balance, detail and finish. It’s as if a committee is taking over. Do you have any thoughts on this situation, and how do you overcome it?”
Thanks, Edward. Most of us know exactly what you’re talking about. How many times have we watched our first courageous strokes deteriorate into a cluttered mess that looks like the work of fussy ne’er-do-wells. This happens for several reasons and they’re mostly psychological. You can go a long way toward fixing the problem by first lying down on your couch.
You need to know that when you begin you’re generally in “big-brush-layout” mode. Feeling yourself in the safe zone of “just starting,” your painterly confidence temporarily triumphs over your natural human tendency to refine.
In short order, all of this changes. When you see your start is not bad, a sort of guilt kicks in and tells you it can’t be all that easy. This is when you start to compulsively add material, that is, you begin to give too much.
Each of us has our own ways of giving. We need to understand what those ways are, and what they serve. For example, while you’re on the couch you might need to quietly chant the mantra, “Details do not a painting make.” Your “servant brain” may be telling you to put in that little house over there, those seagulls flying, those blades of grass. You need to know that small additives often lessen the big picture.
Tucked away in our cortex we have a dossier of our own wonderful issues — recipes and ploys that have worked in the past or a precious collection of winning ideas and motifs. We all have them, and the more we paint, the more of them we have. Our servant brains think we need to distribute this stuff around our work because our hard-won skill-sets tell us we can. With the self-knowledge that this condition exists, we need the self-discipline to flush the Rolodex, arise from the couch, and cleanly begin. Our work will be purer, fresher, stronger and more powerful. “Less is more.” (Robert Browning)
PS: “It is one thing to praise discipline, and another to submit to it.” (Miguel de Cervantes)
Esoterica: One of the persistent bad habits is overworking. I have so much longed for some sort of neural vacuum cleaner to exorcise this devil. A route that many workshop instructors take is to strictly adhere to a proven, controlled process. While this approach may work in some cases, in my love of freedom I’m not going to soon adopt the system. I believe creative people need to become both their own best teachers and their own best counsellors.
A nod to nature
by Joseph Hutchinson, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I work hard to make sure that nothing in my work is too carefully solidified. I use a counterpoint — rough up the edges, distort perspective and mess up the geometry — a nod to nature. Over-painting and glazing give an atmospheric quality. Like Cezanne and Diebenkorn, I try to generate small feelings — little moments of beauty and sensation that occur when sight and memory filter through my mind, then to the brush and then onto the canvas. I hope others can share that in my paintings.
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Spooked but relieved
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA
I’m at once relieved to see that I’m not alone, and simultaneously spooked because it seems you’ve been inside my head!
Time and again I let those big, loose beginning strokes get lost in a fog of “fixes.” I get a painting to a certain point, then back up, sit down and try to imagine how to resolve the painting — all the while fending off that guilt voice. “It’s not finished. It couldn’t be finished this early on.” Snapshots of paintings in progress have shown over and over that the beginning “naive” painting had so much more energy than the refined version!
Devil in the Detail
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England
Your latest letter on flushing the Rolodex reminded me that a while ago I did a cartoon on this very subject which you can view here.
I do a regular life class and it’s a universal and immutable truth that the drawings done in the five minute poses are on average fresher, more dynamic and more interesting than the drawings done in forty minutes.
Our sacred space
by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA
When writing I have had to lie on my couch many a time. Also, I am a Christian Science practitioner, and in my metaphysical work for others, I can apply many of the ideas you present. Your letter on willingly being alone in a small space and (my interpretation) going deeper rather than scattering one’s thoughts among others, i.e. being willing to be alone with God to work things out, is an example. I recently said good-bye to a son and his family as they returned to the mid-west, after gracing my Rhode Island home and community for a year, and at the same time my Mom, my dearest friend, passed on. Your letter “The Sacred Space” reminded me that our greatest satisfaction and personal growth often comes from our losses and our going deeper into our own wealth of substance in God. This is not to say that we won’t then get opportunities to share this new richness of self, but these opportunities will have to come on their own and cannot be contrived. We simply need patience and willingness to work things out in our own private, sacred space.
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Early stage phenomenon
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
As you have rightly reassured Edward, most of us do know that feeling early on in a painting and have been tempted to let it be, even in the early stages.
Of course we plow on with the work and often see the initial impression vaporize that was borne by big bold brush strokes and punched-in darks.
I don’t think super-realist painters would get this feeling but rather those who have a liking of impressionism. I have watched demonstrations where that initial powerful impression is completely lacking. Many artists fiddle from the start.
Recently, I started painting a wet street scene and I was certainly nowhere near finishing but really liked that impression of the painting. In reality the darks were too dark and shapes unrefined but it gave an impression of the day that would have been lost had I gone on.
Before sending it to a show I did fiddle! Some more reflections were added and straight away it took away from that initial feeling.
What I did learn from the whole exercise, though, was I need to stop much earlier than I do. I also feel allowed to have darks that are a bit excessive just to accent the light. I’ve always read and been told not to use black paint but it is now one of my favorite colors – mixed with other colors.
I’m looking forward to hearing how other artists have discovered this phenomenon at the beginning of their paintings.
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Realize concept in stages
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
We all fall victim to overworking. Several things come to mind when this happens. One is not having a clear idea of the concept of the piece. The initial idea was not thought out enough and you feel that it will develop as you work. Not so. The other thing is work in stages. You decide how many stages to set up for yourself. For instance, the first stage could be the drawing or concept, second, the lay-in of general color, third finish, fourth the clean-up, five the “details.”
Doing this gives you time to realize your concept in stages and allows for changes. After each stage, stop, get a cup of coffee, walk the dog, kiss your spouse, make lunch. This last idea takes some discipline.
Get away from it physically and mentally. It has been shown in studies that when we let go of a problem temporarily, generally, the solution presents itself.
Artist as collector
by Leslie Kruzic, Orange Park, FL, USA
I wonder what you might have to say about the artist as collector and vice versa? I am an artist but also love buying art, especially from artists I personally know. I have a limited budget, but never try to deal people down. I tend to wait until they paint something that I like in my price range. I feel there is nothing more gratifying than producing a beautiful or interesting piece of art — except maybe sharing it with others.
(RG note) Thanks, Leslie. Many artists build significant art collections. When I look around at my own, and remember those that I have owned in the past, a fair percentage were not paid for with cash, but traded. One of the great values to me has been the educational value of having something really fine around my home for a while. Further, when you buy the work of an up-and-coming artist you confirm their sense of self-worth and give encouragement to their careers. I still very much appreciate the well-known artists who bought my early work.
Fried paper bags with that?
by Mary Jo Van Dell, Stillwater, MN, USA
I greatly agree with much of what you say in your recent letter on “Humblebragging.” On the other hand, if we just shut up and paint in our studios and without getting in the game, so to speak, don’t we run the risk of snuffing ourselves out or getting left in the dust?
I have been a full time painter for thirty years. I was born on a cold winter day in a house without heat; we had fried paper bags for dinners most evenings. Well, close. I have been supporting myself on my income as an artist for a long time. I have had to work the marketing aspect of it as well in order to create income. I now have an employee who helps with the marketing. We have arguments about this very subject with me on your side. However, I also need to note that I would not be able to support myself through my paintings if I did not somehow promote myself and my work.
So, as much as I agree with you, I also know that we, as self employed artists (unless you’re otherwise privileged and don’t need the income), need to make a little bit of noise to let someone know we’re out there.
How do we draw the line between marketing and bragging, or are they one and the same?
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Enjoy the past comments below for Flushing the Rolodex…
Featured Workshop: Catherine Stock
Field and Stream
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Henry Donaldson of Falmouth, ME, USA who wrote, “Excited about a weekend class with Henry Issacs on Cranberry Island, Maine, Skip Lawrence said, ‘Paint the dog, not the fleas.’ ”
And also Susan Young of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England, who wrote, “I’m the world’s biggest sinner for starting to put detail into a previously relaxed composition. The only time I resisted it was the only time I sold a painting at a local well known Arts Festival.”