One of the biggest lessons I’ve been learning lately as an artist is to be patient with myself and the process. While patience often comes naturally with age and experience, it can also be developed intentionally in your art by forcing yourself to step back from a painting and allow it some time and space. In a previous blog post called “Let the Dead Paintings Die,” I discuss letting go of paintings for good. But in this post, I address giving the work a second chance. Sometimes it takes weeks or months before a painting can “tell” me what it needs. My recent painting, “A New Road,” is a great example of this.
I began this piece nine months ago. I am usually a very fast painter, especially when I am excited about the subject. Sometimes I can finish a large scale painting in a matter of 1-2 weeks… so nine months is a ridiculous amount of time for me. From the start, I was excited about the painting’s potential, but here’s the story of why it took me so long to complete it.
To begin, I painted a color study from life with the model on location and took several hundred reference photos of her in a lovely wooded setting. In my studio, I created five or six concept sketches that had potential as studio paintings. In my opinion, the strongest design was one showing her standing with her guitar, her face in profile, and a dramatic tree extending diagonally upwards behind her. I thought, if I could pull it off, it would be a bold and gutsy decision to have the branch coming out behind her head, with cascading branches and leaves creating a natural vignette above her, and the tall grasses completing the dark framing at the bottom.
But execution of the idea proved to be disastrous. First of all… I’ve never been the kind of artist who delights in painting every single leaf (I am all about shortcuts!). Second, I’ve never attempted to paint a tree this large, in a portrait, with the tree having this much importance in the design. Given that my model, Corinne, had posed for me in the spring, the leaves were not even fully developed yet, they had an airy, wispy look to them—in other words—no structure. No defined shapes. It was a nightmare. At first, I attempted to paint every branch and leaf, still trying to “design” the diagonals and shapes as I went but becoming quickly exhausted and annoyed with it. I let the painting sit for a while, only working occasionally on the figure or the guitar, which both came much easier to me! Then, I decided to go back to my original location and re-shoot the tree. I went back twice, but the summer weather proved a nuisance each time, clouding over when I needed sunshine. Additionally, the tree had filled out and didn’t even look remotely close to the way it had in the spring. I found other trees with similar branch structures to photograph and use as reference.
Months went by. I kept trying one approach after another. I changed the shapes of the larger branches. I tried making everything lighter… then I tried making everything darker. I hated everything I was doing. As I type this, I realize how pathetic all of it sounds!
Finally… this past week, after another failed attempt at resuscitating that stupid tree, I mixed up a giant glob of pale yellow and painted over the entire background with a palette knife. It was invigorating. I was finally willing to let go of my initial design and allow the painting to take a direction of its own (hence, the painting’s title, “A New Road”).
What was my original problem? Was the design truly flawed to begin with? Was I trying to paint something that Richard Schmid might call “impossible to paint?*” It might have been a little of both. But the bigger issue was that I was too attached to my initial sketch and setting, and it was taking away from the beautiful subject: Corinne and her guitar. Thankfully, I was happy enough with my painting of her that I did not give up on the whole thing. One small step towards maturity as an artist is to not be satisfied with leaving a painting, knowing you are only truly happy with parts of it and not the whole. I’ve called too many paintings “finished” that were gorgeous in some areas of the work and subpar in others. Now I’m determined not to let anything slide, even if it means my productivity is going “down” (if you know me, then you know I am an obsessive worker. It’s probably the best AND worst thing about me). I would rather have ten excellent paintings than 100 that are just okay. Hey, maybe this means I’m finally graduating to the next level in painting!
In summary, if a painting is worth rescuing, then do it, no matter how long it takes. And be willing to think beyond your initial concept. Let go of the thing that’s holding you back from making it great, and allow yourself creative freedom to do whatever it takes to bring the painting to the next level! In this case, I repainted the entire background, creating an impressionistic rendition of a sun-dappled path… and it fit the painting perfectly. Hopefully the lessons I learned from “A New Path” will prevent me from scrapping future paintings when all they need is a little time and patience.
Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting (Richard Schmid) Chapter 1 “Good Ideas and Free Advice”, p. 19.