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Captain of your own ship

Is your painting led by your subconscious or your analytical brain? Both are important.
Christmas Eve, by Carol L. Douglas
Rebecca is a friend and very-occasional student. Yesterday she lamented that an object in a painting had changed size as she worked on it.  “Maybe it’s fine to look at, but it really bothers me about my skillset, that I can’t keep things proportional,” she said. From a distance of more than 2000 miles, it was easy for me to see that she had overwritten her underpainting as she proceeded.
Perhaps a more detailed drawing to start would give her some lines to color in, I suggested.
“I’m trying so hard not to go there right now, but point taken. I definitely did give up on drawing the truck, as it was getting truly awful, and just left it for the paint to make sense of,” she responded.
School bus, by Carol L. Douglas
I understand this problem; it’s why my sail in my current nocturne keeps kissing the edge of the canvas even as I use a ruler to try to force it across the edge. That, too, started life as a very loose exercise; heck, the boat has already been three different places on the canvas.
Either we draw carefully and discipline our hands to our brain, or we let our subconscious rip and deal with what it hands out. Clearly Rebecca’s subconscious mind thought smaller was better for that truck. Looking at it in relation to its setting, I think her subconscious mind was being more artistic than the bald truth of her reference photo. By making the truck smaller, the painting had room to state a universal revelation: the sea is so great and my boat is so small.
The subconscious has been a big deal in painting ever since the Surrealists became interested in the probing of Sigmund Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts. The Surrealists were not just interested in exploring the relationship between the conscious and self-conscious; they wanted to see rationalism overthrown, both personally and socially. They believed that art that comes from our subconscious is more powerful and authentic than the products of our conscious, analytical, minds.
Christmas night, by Carol L. Douglas
That made them try all kinds of games to draw the subconscious to the fore: automatic writing, dream interpretation, free association, and a kicky 1920s parlor game called Exquisite Corpse. But the subconscious is designed to run in the background. The Surrealists who continue to have the greatest influence today are those who also spent the time to analytically master their craft: Giorgio de ChiricoMax ErnstYves TanguySalvador Dalí, and Alberto Giacometti.
Perhaps the greatest artist to marry subconscious imagery to painting was Marc Chagall. His was a world of ghostly floating figures, scale inversions, transparent wombs, and animal/human hybrids. They are not his individual dreams, but the collective imagery of a people. Chagall painted through the bitterest years for European Jews in modern times, but his canvases are not terribly frightening. He didn’t give in to night terrors.
A demo painting for the Bangor Art Society.
The problem with our inner mind is that most of us don’t like it that much. That’s why we’re constantly trying to blot out our brushwork and trying to school our shapes into photographic conventionality.
I sometimes amuse myself by painting landscape from abstraction, which is a loose form of automatic writing. In fact, all of the paintings illustrating this post were done with no reference. It’s a rebellion against literalism, an attempt to push my analytical mind back a bit before it crowds my soul out entirely.

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.