F*** this painting....or fix it?
Jun 6, 2022
Sometimes things just don’t go right... Until they do?
So I began these “Weekly Paintings” recently. The idea is to spend a day (around 3 or 4 hours) doing an alla prima painting to satisfy my desire to work in Impressionism, but not step on the toes of my studio work. It also gives me a chance to play around with design, color, and paint application. All of this, of course, influences my more finished studio work in a (hopefully) positive way. And it’s fun. I love it. It goes well. Until it doesn’t.
Sometimes you just have one of those days. At least I do. I forget the things I’ve done a million times. Maybe it’s because I’m just tired and can’t seem to get my head straight. Maybe you can chalk it up to the old phrase “you can’t win ‘em all”. It probably doesn’t matter. But I’m willing to bet most of us have those days.
When it happens, there’s one of two options. 1. Give it the ole f*** it- toss down the brush, maybe trash the painting, and go get a drink. Sometimes that’s fun. Sometimes that’s the only option. 2. Carpe diem that mofo. Obsess, problem solve, change, and repeat until you go cross eyed, paranoid, and hope your painting is better than the garbage you seem to believe deep down in your soul that it just may be. Shakespeare sums it up in Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them
Last week I had one of those paintings. Suffer the arrows or take arms? I took arms. Painfully. Here’s a rundown of what happened and what I did to fix it. Maybe you won’t make the same mistakes? I’m crossing my fingers for you.
So first, I did a drawing for this little painting. Not unusual in general (though I don’t typically draw out my alla prima paintings for sake of time). I just wanted to make sure I could get this little baby head just right. It took much longer than it should have. In the end, I sat back triumphantly and saw.... It was waaaaaay too centered. Painfully so. What a bad design. What a bad composition. How the hell did I miss that?
Ok. No problem. Just wasted a little bit of time. Instead of redrawing the whole thing from scratch, I could do a transfer. I trace the drawing on the canvas with some tracing paper. Then I try to erase the canvas. No dice. That graphite is smudged and in too deep. Fine. Whatever. I take out a new canvas to transfer to. Then I smear willow charcoal on the back of the tracing paper (so the new drawing will be transferred with willow). I lay the tracing paper on the new canvas, and.... I charcoaled the wrong side. That’s right, I completely messed up the transfer paper. And I had already erased/smudged the hell out of the original cavas. Palm to forehead now.
I should have walked away. This was already two hours in and I felt back at square one. But I persevered. I tried to salvage the basic lines from the original canvas, applied the transfer more correctly to the new canvas, and filled in the rest of the drawing as best as I could. Composition saved.
Time to PAINT! I laid out my beautiful Michael Harding colors - I love the lakes he has in his oil line. They are to die for- colorful, powerful tinters, inexpensive - these bad boys can paint a sunset.
I painted furiously. I swung for the fences. This was going to be a painting in which everything glowed and color was in maximum force.
Not a good idea, as it turned out.
I forgot a simple rule of painting and color. If you push the chroma everywhere, no individual parts of the painting have a chance to sing. I loaded sky with intense yellow. I blasted water with chromatic pinks and orange and yellow. I loaded the sand with crazy orange and blues. I threw almost pure yellow lake deep into the rim light of the hair. Nothing could sing under the garish pigment vomit I had unleashed on the canvas. I left the studio limping, thinking maybe I was over reacting. My wife seemed to think the painting was ok....
I came back the next day and observed my painting with a sickening feeling. Not up to par. The color was bad. I could concede this one, or crack away again, violating my alla prima vow. I scrapped my palette and prepared for battle.
I remembered the idea of the hierarchy of color (there’s necessity for a hierarchy of everything in painting), and began adjusting. I minimized some color (especially the sky) and simplified sections of the painting to make things more clear and make sense. I finally felt like I had something, a winner. Then, the next day, my wife saw it.
“Your horizon line is all wobbly,” she said.
“That’s not a horizon line,” I respond, “its a sandbar.”
“Well it looks like a horizon line, and it looks weird.”
Well damn. I broke a cardinal rule of painting (at least the type of realistic painting where you want things to look right and resonate with past paintings and present viewers). Things need to make sense. Rockwell writes about it in his autobiographical book on how he makes paintings. He writes that with every painting he would make someone would point out something that wasn’t quite right, so make sure everything looks right. An older book on classical painting (the title escapes me at the moment) tells us things should be clear and ideal before they are beautiful. I think it was referring to figure (and maybe sculpture?) but the lesson remains. The top line needed to become more clear. It needed to be an actual horizon line.
I pulled out the palette knife and cleaned up the line. I also noticed I was disenchanted with the fact the all of the marks seemed very similar. It was missing some devil may care suggestion of detail without painting detail. Everything had become built up to a similar level of paint application. This might be fine for a more formal and literal studio piece, but not a loose impressionistic painting. Solution? Drybrush. With some large strokes to the sand, the painting finally felt complete.
Three days? Big sigh. Lessons to recap? 1. Make damn straight you like the composition before you start. 2. Intense color everywhere isn’t glorious, it’s garish. 3. If you paint something the way it is and it looks weird, its weird- change it. 4. Variety is the spice of life (when it comes to brushwork).
Unfortunately the initial bad taste of the painting will always be left in my mouth and I will always wonder if it can qualify as good. Maybe time and distance will give me a different perspective. But hopefully the memory of this God awful experience will aways remain so I won’t make the same bonehead mistakes again. At least for a while....