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Flogging the tulips

May 21, 2017

Well, that sounds misleadingly kinky.
But what I’m really referring to is the obsessive state one can get into when a painting isn’t working. I’ve had a couple of those recently, and have learned from them.

First I was working on a tulip-themed painting from a past photo of mine. The composition kind of inspired me, and some of the unopened tulip shapes as well. Qua style I was hoping to work loosely and spontaneously.
When I was a few days into it, I saw it tending toward my familiar way of working – more realistic and tighter than I’d hoped. I kept adding to it and changing it hoping to get more spontaneous as the layers built up. I like the right hand corner, showing some of the underpainting, but that’s it really.

flogged tulips, may garden 002 copy

I finally gave up on it because you can’t plaster a layer of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ strokes onto a boring painting and expect it to look as if you’ve been working that way all along, and:

  1. It wasn’t fun anymore.
  2. I didn’t like the original composition.
  3. I didn’t really want to paint flowers.
  4. It didn’t ‘sing, hum or give off light.'(one artist’s description of the work that soars)
  5. The painting as a whole wasn’t working.

So I stopped and started on some onions from a photo in a book on edible gardens. I ran into some of the same problems. I finally stopped flogging that one (oh, now the penny drops, ‘n’ést-ce pas’?) and gessoed over it.

Now I’m working on another onion painting from a photo and understand that the previous paintings were false starts in prep for this one. It is going well.

Here are the differences between flogging a painting/subject, and developing it:
Flogging
1 You’re trying to rescue or change the painting because it isn’t working
2 It isn’t fun and feels a bit desperate
3 It is hard to stop working on it and take some distance
4 You might be trying to lay some intellectual idea or style on top of a painting that is already fine in its own right
5 Most of your efforts only make things worse
6 You don’t have a clear idea of what you intended with this painting in the first
place

Developing
1 You have  a clear idea at the start about where you’d like to go with the painting qua style, composition, subject, colour, treatment. This doesn’t mean you know how it is going to look or that you don’t take risks, but that you have a general idea of what you want to do at the start.
2  Working on it is a pleasure, it can be challenging, but you are led step by step by your own good habits established over years of working, and by where the painting seems to be going.
3  Working on the painting feels like working with it. You are led by each stroke to the next, but there can be surprises along the way, new colour combinations, ways of applying paint, textures, different strokes.
4  Developing a painting means seeing it getting better and better because of carefully considered, confidently applied strokes, scumbles, slashes, dots, broad areas, etc.

These are the ones I can think of now. I’m sure you’ve encountered others, and I’d enjoy hearing any additions. Basically it comes down to this:

I started taking my painting seriously 6 years ago because I was in love with several artists’ work, and I discovered I also loved the medium; after a long career in graphic design and calligraphy, the minute I picked up a brush, I felt born to paint.

The works I admire look simple and easily done (Cezanne, for example, when in fact he suffered over every painting he ever did). Like many beginners/intermediates, I wanted to get to that spontaneous look right away. But that quality is reached only through discipline and eventual mastery, so that every stroke you set down is confident, because, guess what, you know what you are doing! And it shows. (Now there are some young talents out there to whom the technique comes easily, they have that ease, but they need to develop depth and content.) Here is one I tossed off in a half an hour and it has the quality I’d like in all my paintings. It worked because I’d painted the subject before and was confident and quick.

2 onions

So, if you catch yourself flogging, try to stop, get some distance, or start another painting, look for the joy, repeat the things that are easiest, work best and give you pleasure. Build on those, definitely reach out beyond your limits, but keep an eye on the pleasure factor.

And know when you start, why you’re starting a painting that you’ll probably be investing much time and energy into. Look into your heart and see if there is a connection there with the  subject, colours, composition etc. Try to have a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve at the end of those hours or days.

And go for it!!!!

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