A Lingering Painting Revived

There is something to be said for hanging on to work that seems to be going nowhere. Can a lingering painting be revived?

This is a quarter sheet (11 x 15″) watercolor that was in a stack of unresolved pieces that occupy a drawer or two in my flat files, an Elephant’s Graveyard where works on paper (quite a few) are exiled when they refuse to stay airborne.  Sometimes they see daylight again and come back into usefulness as the backside of a demonstration piece or practice sheet.

At the End-Makapu'u

Makapu’u -End of the Beach  11 x 15″    Watercolor

This painting was probably started around three years ago from a plein air trip to this end of the beach.  It caught my eye the other day…I remembered giving it up as being rather dark and unappealing.  I was originally trying to go after the colors in the water using the darkness of the cliffs as a foil but didn’t feel it had a sufficient exit for the eye and lacked variety in the color.

Approaching it as a stranger now, I could see that with the addition of a few minuscule adjustments I could possibly bring it back to life.  I lifted some paint for figures to provide some sense of scale, lost some edges, and deepened a wash or two. Not more than 30 minutes effort.

The lesson I take from this is that it’s sometimes good to work on multiple pieces and move from one to the next. When you reach an impasse or lose your enthusiasm….just give it time.  There is no expiration date on a painting if the underpinnings of a decent idea might be lingering, waiting to be revived.

Is It All In Our Minds?

I finally completed this small (12 x 20″) ocean piece this morning.  From an earlier post, you may know that it is an imaginary painting; that is, I made it up. It’s constructed from what I’ve visually accumulated from experience, what I wanted to see happen in the painting, and what I find to be moving emotionally.


“It is very good to copy what you see.  It is much better to draw what you can’t see any more, but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which your memory and imagination work together.  You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary”

-Edgar Degas

Rethinking watercolor, part II

We’ve got a big prickly-pear cactus growing here at home, the kind with the foot-long, beaver-tail shaped branches (pads).

It started as a single pad planted  in a dry part of the yard.  The pad took root and after a while the one pad became two, and then two became four or five.  Left alone, the cactus exponentially rambled into a seven foot plant, throwing itself out in every direction. But here’s the important thing.  At a certain point  the most developed branches, those burdened with the most weight, began to bend and eventually broke off, took root and began a new plant. And that’s apparently how they work.

I may regard “breaking” as something to be avoided, but it’s how life moves forward, too. In this sense one can consider the difficult rethinking of their work, in this case watercolor, a really good thing and the breaking a happy necessity for growth.

Much of what I thought I needed to discard is turning out to be old attitudes and mindsets. I’ve unknowingly been playing to the invisible critics (they pursue all artists) without questioning their authority or jurisdiction often enough.  My task now is to loosen their grip on me, primarily by recognizing them, letting them go, and replacing their influence.

Replacement Therapy

When Martin Luther wrote his small catechism, he took the Ten Commandments, and with clarifying remarks amended the Shall Not’s with a positive behavior, sort of a shall do. I guess he knew that it’s best to re-direct existing energy towards a good instead of just saying something is bad.

Because I’ve already exceeded brevity in this post, I’ll simply rewrite the shall do notes from my own critique. They’re personal, written in the terms I use with myself, and may not be the words others might choose.  The parenthetical ( ) statements are my simplified reminders of the new directions. The replacement therapy. I don’t know how successfully they’ll take root yet,  that’s why it’s work.  But I’m finding a new joy and lift in the work again.

From my sketchbook :

What I’d like to see more of…

-Innovation…in subject and viewpoint (enjoy more)

-Richness in values & design (plan more)

-Emphasis on suggestion over delineation (look more)

-Clarity of communication (think more)

a.  Selection, with emphasis on essentials.

* A whole that is greater than the sum total of it’s parts.  Effect first…what is the big effect? Paint that with emotion. See the routine as extraordinary.

DSC_0102 Untitled, watercolor  11 x 15″

Spring Break portrait

My son Erik is on Spring Break for two weeks, and so we’ve been scheduling sittings each morning as part of an attempt to capture the look of him at 14, and the crazy rate of growth he’s experiencing.  I know that it’s hard to manage the sittings at his age, but he’s giving it a good shot, and for me the time spent together is precious because I can see how fast this is all going away.

We’ll have time for, perhaps, three more sittings before school and life reclaim him.  But the likeness is there, and it’s minor shifts and  background work at this point for the most part.  Wish us luck.


Erik at Fourteen, oil on canvas, 20 x 16″

Show me the child at five…

DSC_0007Oil lay-in, 28 x 32 ” oil on linen

Well, it’s nice to get this stage up and running….there’s a circular movement and a pyramidal structure to this painting that is more evident now. By the way, I’m working on a Belgian linen with an oil priming that I did myself, something I returned to doing a couple years ago.  I enjoy creating and working on these surfaces very much.

I also feel I’m finding a good sense of  how I want this painting to come to life.

For this stage,  I establish the overall placement and tones, and the location of my lightest light and darkest dark.  Those represent the extreme ends of the value range, and every other value is going to  fall in between those two poles. And I bring that  light down in value from pure white;  it’s not a pure white, but colored and toned down a step or two.  That’s important, because I don’t want a screeching falsetto at the top of the value range, but something deeper and richer that merely appears white-like.  It determines the tonal key of the painting.

I also am working so that there is the sense of looking up slightly, maybe almost subconsciously.  I’m eliminating the bit of  horizon that was showing to the left in the sketches, which destabilizes the overall effect, making things feel a little more energetic.

I use my largest hog-bristle brushes, ones  that you can really  cover some ground with. I always push myself to work with the biggest brushes I can for the area I’m working on. I grip the brush lightly in my palm at the end of  the handle, like an orchestra conductor would hold a baton, making use of the full length of the brush, and working somewhat at at arms length, so I’m back away were I can see big pieces. The paint is thinned with Gamsol, just enough to give it a touch of a glide on the surface, and I try to complete the lay -in suggestively and energetically.

(If you ever have the opportunity, study the unfinished paintings that museums occasionally have out.  They are gold.  A favorite example, at the Met in New York, is the large and incomplete Greuze mythological painting “Aegina Visited by Jupiter”, which in many areas reveals  the initial lay-in stage. It’s a surprising opportunity to see how a superbly trained painter developed his work. Many other museums have studies and other partially finished works that for a painter are treasures.)

I find that the more I can keep the painting fresh and moving forward in the early  stages, ” sustaining it’s adolescence” for lack of a better term, the richer the painting and the less finicky the final work becomes.  I’ll want more of the sort of energy I see now, in this first stage,  to remain through to the end.  That requires awareness.  Awareness is not painting thoughtlessly, when you are tired, and  means putting the brush down and getting back from the work.

I’m stepping away from the painting often, back eight feet or so. I also turn the piece upside-down while working, so that I can keep the abstract patterns in mind,  separated from the content. A mirror serves the same purpose, and it’s really important for me to take the time to use those tools often.

Didn’t  the Jesuits have a saying, “Show us the child at five, and we’ll show you the man at 25”, or something to that effect?  That sums up how I think of this stage of the painting.  Anything that I won’t care for later  in this painting is probably already rearing it’s ugly head now, and so I’m keeping alert.  One thing  I hadn’t noticed  until I worked on the canvas upside down was how critical the  element in the lower left hand corner really was to the balance of the painting.  I need to pay more attention to it, but in a simple way because I definitely don’t want the eye to get hung up there.

So what exactly happened?

To such a student, if truly gifted, the challenge of crafting such a drawing would be a labor of love and science combined, a happy stripping away of crude and naive misconceptions of the form we inhabit in favor of enlightenment and refinement.

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