Painting is a game of psych-out

The worst painting I’ve ever done is the one I just finished, always.

The road to Seward, by Carol L. Douglas. One advantage to painting on the road is that you don’t have time to second-guess yourself.

I’m not going to show you what I painted yesterday. I hate it. There are many reasons for its failure, not least being that the lobster smack Joseph Pike, its focus, left before I’d finished my transfer to my canvas. Faced with the choice of working from my sketch or editing my composition on the fly, I did the latter, with disastrous results. I hate the colors, I hate the composition, and as soon as I finish this, I’m going to scrape out the canvas to reuse it. (I seldom do that, but I’m woefully short of 11X14 canvases right now.)

Is it really so bad? I texted an image to a painter friend who responded, “Not your best.” Later, another artist saw it and said, “That’s not too bad. I think it’s redeemable.” So perhaps I’ll take another look before I scrape it out. Or not. I’ve still got an hour to decide.
Dry wash,  by Carol L. Douglas
What was foolish is that I could probably paint Joseph Pike from memory, having painted her hauled out last winter. I berated myself over this choice for a while, until I decided to go home and drink a warm beverage and warm up from the cutting wind.
I often say that my worst painting ever is the one I just finished. I can see only its flaws, not the many ways it works. On the rare occasions when I do like a painting the moment I put my brush down, my judgment is equally bad. A month down the road I’m bored with it. Those paintings seemed fine at the outset because they demand nothing from the viewer.
Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy, by Carol L. Douglas
Other artists have told me they feel the same way. Why? The moment a painting is born, it’s measured against our expectations, not its own virtues. We mean to paint about one thing; instead, our subconscious minds lead us to explore a different issue altogether. Later, we’ve forgotten what was in our imagination, and the painting stands or falls on its own merits.
Yesterday’s painting was supposed to be about the sheet of water coming forward from the boats. Instead, it’s about the seawall behind. Doesn’t my subconscious know that I’m tired of bouncing up against walls and want to feel the depth of space instead? No, because my subconscious apparently knows me better than my conscious mind does itself.
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
This is the game of psych-out, and every creator plays it. There’s always a gap between our inner vision and what we produce, and it’s a space where we can do a lot of psychic damage. In a world of Instagram and Twitter, our full range of failures and successes are competing against everyone else’s best work. It’s easy to feel like an incompetent. But if you go into any working artist’s studio, you ought to see a slush pile. That’s the place where unsuccessful paintings go to die.
What’s the solution? It’s to go out today and paint another painting. Either it will be much better, which will make me happier, or it will be so bad that yesterday’s looks good in comparison.