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:
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

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!!!!

9 Responses to “Flogging the tulips”

  1. flissw Says:

    you mention that these paintings are based on photos – do you work from life as well? I find working from photos really hard (but maybe that’s because I came to painting from sculpture so it’s the 3d form that interests me)

  2. Thanks for your comment, yes, I work from life as well, but I take your point, there is some quality that gets lost.
    The two onions painting in this post are from life. But I most often take photos because the light is constant and I don’t have to keep a still life set up in my already crowded studio.

  3. Such a meaningful post, Sarah. I can relate to so much in this – glad I’m not alone!

  4. No you’re not alone, Michael. And in the solitude of my studio working, I look forward to posting paintings here for the contact with artists like you, Eoin, and a very few but precious others who respond. Because I don’t exhibit anymore (being totally out of step with the commercial art market), this is virtually the only contact I have with other artists. take care, S

  5. You are right about the right hand corner, very intriguing and secretive. I am so drawn to it because it seems like something is hidden there, something is looking out at me but I cannot quite make out what it is.

  6. I like your take on this, I guess that is part of it, definitely, not wanting to spell everything out. And needing, as the artist, to have mystery there in the making, which is the only way there will be mystery in the viewing. That’s why I eventually dissed the tulips, they were too spelled out and predictable, I’d lost the mystery of that one corner. Thanks Annie.

  7. Liz Powley Says:

    ‘The Zone’, that space your brain finds when a creative work is working well, flowing, zipping along, all the pieces falling elegantly into place – that same space that is elusive as teeth on chickens some days where nothing works. I know your pain 😀

    You are so right about experience reflecting in an artist’s brushstroke. Some artists make it look so easy, but what we don’t see is the years of experience and the dud works along the way. I have been attempting to free up my painting for some years now as my default mode is anxious detail where I overwork a painting to its ultimate detriment. My Hubby has the mantra of ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ and makes a point of dragging me off my work sometimes before I detail it to death. It is an ongoing challenge of mine, so I felt for you when you mentioned being dragged towards realistic.

    An interesting post that strikes a chord in many artists, I’m thinking. Thanks for sharing 😀

    Best wishes,

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