Every day we look at jpegs of some readers’ paintings and know that they might do better if they were not so stubborn. In some cases it seems the art and the ego have gone into lockstep. If not rectified, work like this can remain amateurish for life. I’ve always been on the lookout for methods that might help myself and others overcome the problem.
One of the most valuable and proven ploys for upping quality is the “two-easel convention.” This is where you have one easel to paint on, and another easel to evaluate on. For the second easel you can even change your clothes, pour a scotch, have a cigar, sit back, put your feet up.
Here’s an email from yesterday that expresses the problem: “I’m trying to reconcile creation and learning. The artist in me needs to ‘know,’ and the student in me needs to ‘question.’ You said that you have to know what you’re doing at the primary easel and to question what you did or could do at the secondary. I’m shocked how good the thing looks on the primary easel and how substandard on the secondary. It’s disturbing. Could this be a sign of a mental disorder?”
Nothing to do with a mental disorder, it’s all about the yin and yang of reordering thoughts and identifying weaknesses. Incompetence, in my books, is the failure of the critical faculties to interfere constructively with the natural flow.
The secondary easel, to be fully effective, takes some thought and planning. A quick framing honours the work-to-date and gets it temporarily stopped. Knowing that a casual glance at the newly-lit piece often tells more than an hour at the primary easel, many artists find it useful to be quick and easy going, without too much vested interest in the work. Elapsed time and refreshed innocence brings forth honesty. As the eye flits, corrective notes and forward-looking plans are made. Previously unseen boo-boos come at you like tattoos on a teenage girl. It’s really a gift, and the gift comes when you see the work freshly with new vision — as if you were a different person. If this means a temporary split personality, then let ‘er rip. The police can’t possibly lock you up for long.
PS: “If you’re not honest about your level of ability, you may work a painting to death in the attempt to achieve a standard of excellence that you are not yet capable of realizing.” (watercolourist Eric Wiegardt)
Esoterica: Think of the secondary easel as the “agnostic approach.” Agnostic means “I do not know.” When an artist switches into the agnostic mode, a world of miraculous possibilities opens up. You see things more clearly and you tend to be more objective. Further, it’s much more fun than locking yourself into some safe shibboleth that worked a bit for you and others in the past. It’s all about thinking it out for yourself and setting your own ever-higher standards. “Setting high standards,” said the former personal trainer Greg Anderson, “makes every day and every decade worth looking forward to.”
Third easel through other people’s eyes
by Gary Black, Australia
Use this approach and find you develop a different mindset at the second easel. You see your work from a different perspective and can really evaluate it as a “different” person.
I also send emails to my family and a select number of friends and include the current painting including its title. These people view my work on my third easel; their computer. The feedback I get is fantastic and on several occasions the suggestions are incorporated into the painting. Sometimes a title change is suggested that better reflects the painting as viewed by a general audience. This has helped me develop as an artist and to see my work through other peoples’ eyes, with their perceptions and expectations.
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Rest period for reflection
by Sandra Sibley, Columbus, NC, USA
As a freelance writer, I learned early on to let an article or essay rest for a day before proofreading, revising and submitting. I do a much better job of catching mistakes and smoothing out the rough spots in grammar and style. I do the same with my paintings. I don’t work on one for two days in a row, and I move it to a second easel so I can see it in a little different light and reflect upon it. I’m a student and have a long way to go to be an accomplished painter, but I know the best way for me to progress is to use this technique.
Sketchbook as tool
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada
For me the sketchbook is a trial and error tool, much like the second easel in your dissertation. It is there that I reflect; that I try out ideas, which I practice. A sketchbook is always with me, sometimes two or three different formats or paper quality. Like MasterCard, I never leave home without one. The sketchbook gives me the permission to make mistakes. If not, it becomes another “canvas” ready to be exhibited when complete. It is not necessarily for public viewing or scrutiny. It is where I play, where I try new tools, new colors or different pencils. It is my creativity basin or pool.
I am mostly a plein air watercolorist. So when I take out a pristine watercolor sheet outdoors then my mind thinks, “This could possibly end up in a frame, exhibited and sold.” I tend to be less adventurous and to choose “safe subjects” especially when painting in watercolor which permits little in terms of corrections. Therein lies the big difference with a sketchbook. The sketches I do in my books in watercolor are sometimes left unfinished, overworked, re-worked, added to later and sometimes annotated with personal or technical notes. Briefly, they become “my art journal.” It is where I learn, where I feel I permit myself to change, to improve. This learning, I believe, overflows to my first easel, the loose pristine piece of watercolor paper. I use the sketches in my books sometimes as basis for a larger watercolor painting done in the studio.
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Level of ability unknown
by Elizabeth Au, Honolulu, HI, USA
I don’t know if I understand or agree with Wiegardt. I speak for myself and probably others, too, that I don’t know my level of ability, but I certainly want to improve my painting skills. And who is to say what that standard of excellence would be to critique myself, and if I haven’t yet ‘arrived,’ who knows what my capability is, really? I always use the secondary easel idea by removing my painting from my easel to set it up in another spot to look at while thinking about what I might do when I go back to finish working on it.
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A most useful habit
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
The two-easel approach is the most useful habit a painter can form — and it does work. It has been shown that even when we move into a different room at work or at home, the brain starts to think differently. This is shown by how often we walk into an adjacent next room to do or get something, then once we are in that room we have forgotten what it was we were about to do. It is not so much a sign of old age or dementia, but a natural change of the brain.
Having completed work on a different easel and also perhaps in a different room, it enables us to see it in a new light. It is subtle, but it is different.
The joy and flow of paint on the working easel can often blind-side us to what we’ve actually done.
It all sounds theoretical, but try it — it works!
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Accumulated work most revealing
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I just finished teaching one of my four-day plein air workshops. One of the great things about these longer workshops is the ability to do a critique of each participant’s accumulated work. While I talk to each student when they are working on individual paintings out in the field, many issues come to light. But when we line up all of their work side by side, it tells a bigger picture.
Consistency is one of the biggest things that becomes evident for students who are on a strong growth curve. Also it is easier to zero in on problem areas by viewing at least 3 or more paintings. My students themselves often will see areas they need to develop more or problems they need to solve once they are looking at the body of work under different lighting and with fresh eyes.
Attached is a list of criteria that I recently read on an Oil Painters of America blog post that I think was excellent. I am going to begin using something like this for students to rate their own work, and for me when I am looking over a body of my work.
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2- 3- 4-easel convention
by David Coe, Gabriola, BC, Canada
I have used the two-easel convention unconventionally in that I will have 2, 3, & 4 going at once, each spending some time on the wall until it is their time. Sometimes they can be up there two or three times for the more difficult ones.
The attached watercolour spent more than two months untouched after a very small portion had been started, then was non-stop painting until it was done. Then back up on the wall until time to frame, or not.
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What is right or wrong in painting?
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
Let me deconstruct: your basic, unstated, assumption is that there is right and wrong in painting. Or, you may prefer to say the art is of an acceptable standard or substandard (“do better”; “amateurish”). I have a problem understanding your definition of what is right and what is wrong. Without a definition of what your standard is, no comparison can be made. If it is impossible to define a universal standard then nothing can be substandard. Even if you can define a standard, that is only your own personal standard most people have their own values as to what pleases, interests or engages them probably a function of their own ego.
I am prepared to accept that there are painting techniques that are more efficient than others, but we are not all looking for efficiency. Some “tricks of the trade” in say, composition, may cause a piece to sell itself better based on the mechanics of perception, but failure to follow these rules of thumb do not invalidate a piece, although it may make it more inaccessible. But the view that a piece which does not follow the rules is wrong, or substandard, I cannot accept. All that can be said is that the work did not follow the rules.
I accept that some combinations of pigments and arrangement of those pigments please me more than others, but my taste may be far removed from my neighbour’s. I look at the pantheon of art on the walls of the Museums around the world and I find diversity. Some I like, and they speak to me, and some simply do not engage me at all. Are those works that I pass without a second glance “wrong”? No. They are right for others and but not for me.
Can anyone be an arbiter of someone else’s work? We can help others see their work, perhaps in a new light, or explain the visual vocabulary to enable better expression of the artist’s point of view, but the only arbiter can be oneself. Failure to conform to conventional art practice is not wrong, just different.
So help me out here, what is wrong art or substandard art? I’d really like to understand this point of view.
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Final tweak found on kitchen easel
by Brian Romer, Sechelt, BC, Canada
In my case, the second “easel” is actually the wall behind our kitchen stovetop under the two-stage light of the overhead fan, and well away from my always cluttered studio.
Once “finished” on the studio (or plein air) easel, a rather battered “studio frame” is quickly attached and the painting sits in the kitchen for a day or two, before the next one arrives. It is often removed by my wife concerned about cooking splatter and her otherwise always uncluttered kitchen, but it is quickly returned by me once the food is done.
I look at it often, passing through the kitchen, having lunch at the counter, fetching a beer from the fridge, feeding the dog, etc. Seldom do I fail to find a now absolutely necessary final tweak or two by the time the next painting reaches the stove stage.
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Hitting the mark
by Nonny Kudelka, NC, USA
I’ve always used the 2nd easel; I call it ‘resting’: mat it and rest it…
Recently I heard an inspiring talk that used the analogy that someone who’d studied piano for many years, and been active giving concerts and such, would know if someone else was not quite hitting the mark, and what the mark should be. Later, I remarked to a friend that I really appreciated the artwork in the brochure we were given and went on to point out some of the best parts. He replied, “Oh, you play the piano?”… and we both grinned, since he’s been the recipient of pastels of his grandchildren over the years. The point of the talk, of course, was to study your subject until you “make it your own”… the subject at that moment being The Bible…
But it brought up a question I’ve had over the years, and wonder if everyone does this: you see a piece of artwork in passing… do you automatically give it a point on a self-scale?: oo, better than I can do; ew, could be better; oh, nice (same level). It doesn’t go beyond that moment, so I’ve never given it the ‘weightiness’ of ‘judging’ and don’t usually even remark on it… just a personal thing.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The two-easel convention…
Kleinburg Woods ON
acrylic on paper, 22.5 x 16.5 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 Rita Curtis of Wyman Park, Baltimore, MD, USA who wrote, “I like to bring an ongoing painting to a room with different lighting. That’s where I see how those paint passages I’ve fallen in love with fall short of my vision of the painting. It usually bums me out, but I’ll remember now that seeing the reality is a gift.”
And also Laurel McCallum of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “Thank God, I just bought another easel. At last I can begin to face myself.”