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.

Missing the mark

Other people say it’s good, but you think it’s awful. What do you do with it?
Spruces and pines on the Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This is more or less where my mark-making is today.
Last week I listened to a fellow artist grumble about her painting. I really couldn’t see anything wrong with it; it was quite good, and I told her so. “But it’s not what I set out to do!” she answered. The wind, the rain, and the changing light had robbed her scene of the vivacity she’d first envisioned.
That causes a funny sort of brain cramp in artists. Our vision is so deeply overlaid with the pattern of what we want to say that the gap bothers us. We can’t see the strengths in our work because we’re focused on what is missing. In this case, my friend couldn’t see her strong composition and the brooding quality of the painting because she was mourning the light that had escaped behind clouds. “I can’t even remember what attracted me to this scene in the first place,” she said sadly.
Hedgerow in Paradise is from a time when I was hiding behind fraudulent brushwork. The only thing wrong with it was that it was fundamentally dishonest.
I was curious about this phenomenon so when I got home I asked a musician if this ever happens to him. “Oh, all the time,” he laughed. He told me that he’d just finished composing and recording an album and to him it was totally rotten, because he hadn’t achieved his goals for the project. Still, he published it, and then he started something new.
A long time ago, Marilyn Fairman told me that the longer she painted, the less satisfied she was with her work. I’ve noticed the same thing. If you’ve never been blindsided by the gap between your inner vision and the results, I suspect you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Spring Allee is another painting from the same period. The marks are better, perhaps because it’s a deeply autobiographical painting.
I struggled for many years with hating my own brushwork. I visualized long, sinuous lines of paint. Instead, my finish was always short, abrupt, and energetic. Because of that, I frequently overworked the finish in an attempt to obliterate my own handwriting. That invariably muddied what had started as a strong painting.
Finally, I realized this was a kind of self-loathing. It was akin to always hating yourself in photos (which, I confess, I do). I stopped fussing and forced myself to leave my brushwork alone.
Then I spent a long time in the wilderness. I eventually threw out this painting of Letchworth Gorge because it was so muddy.
If it were someone else’s, I concluded, I would be fine with it. I might even love its jumping energy. But it told me something true about myself that I didn’t understand and found uncomfortable. I felt as if I had to hide this unexamined truth. That’s ironic, because painting is supposed to be forthright, and that was the most authentically honest thing about my work.
Middle Falls at Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. I spent that entire season at Letchworth Gorge and eventually came up with two paintings I thought were credible. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d finally cracked the problem of paint application.
What do you do with that dissatisfaction? This is where wiping out bad paintings is a bad practice. It steals the opportunity to study what has just happened. I’ve learned to leave those canvases alone, carry them home, rack them to dry, and then revisit the work at a later date. By then, my memory of my ambition has faded. I can see the new painting in its own merits. Often, I’m shocked to realize that I love the ones I once hated, and the ones that seemed to be easy successes now bore me.
Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.