If it’s not love at first sight, maybe it’s because you’re doing something right.
|Captain Linda Striping, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas|
One of my old painting pals frequently scrubs out paintings that she feels are going wrong. “Look, I’ve saved a good board,” she’ll say. My surplus plein air paintings, if stacked in one pile, would be about the same height as me. They’re almost all on expensive boards, so I see her point. Nevertheless, I think scrubbing out is generally a terrible idea.
Art growth is all about taking risks. The bravest paintings are sometimes the ones you hate as you’re doing them. That’s particularly true if your experiments are about mark-making. Most of us would rather have someone else’s brushwork; ours is somehow too self-revelatory. That’s not to say that mark-making can’t be taught or learned. Just like handwriting, it starts with general rules and ends up being very individual.
|Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas|
I have a student who paints lyrically until he reaches the top layer in his paintings. Then he feels the need to apply a higher level of finish. It squeezes the energy right out, and obscures his basic ebullience.
(This is not, by the way, the same thing as ‘overworking.’ That’s a bogeyman used to scare beginning painters into not figuring out how to finish a painting. Paint is far more forgiving than most people think, and nothing on your canvas is so precious as to be irreplaceable.)
Scrub a painting out or obsessively overpaint, and you may murder a new idea before it’s even hatched. I’ve lost count of how many times I have set a painting aside in disgust, and then looked at it a few years later and realized it was very good. That’s one reason I keep all those surplus plein air paintings.
|Captain Doug on the ratlines, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas|
We’re not good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. You may set out to paint the iridescence of lustreware, and fail miserably. You are so focused on that failure that you never notice that the color, structure and paint handling in your work is simply stunning. That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.
All this assumes that you have a painting protocol that you follow, one which includes significant design steps. A poorly-designed painting is really the only thing you can do that’s unsalvageable. Your process ought to include thumbnails, notan studies, paint studies, or value drawings. Many people waste lots of time producing mediocre paintings because they’re too impatient to design carefully. But if the design is good, you have to work hard to wreck a painting.
|Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas|
Still, you often can’t tell until the end whether you’re going to pull it off or not. RebeccaGorrell once told me, “I was really unhappy with it till the last half hour—a good recurring lesson.” She’s so right. Paintings sometimes gel after a long hard fight. The only way you’ll know is by continuing to slug it out.