Let Me Count The Ways…

My husband and I were in the back room this weekend looking at all the oil paintings sitting about. He’s a very handy fellow, and he’s talking about making a storage area for me, as well as a drying rack. He also wants to make frames for the paintings I want to hang on our walls. He’d been shopping with me, you see, and when he noticed how costly frames can be — especially for fairly large paintings — he figured he could save us a lot of money with his woodworking skills.

As he was going through the paintings, taking a count, I kept shaking my head. “No, I’m not framing that one,” I told him as he pointed to one of my earliest oils. “No, not that one, either.” He kept pointing, I kept head-shaking. “All those are going to be recycled,” I explained.

He is, of course, my biggest fan. In his eyes, everything I paint is worthy of a gallery showing. Fortunately, I’m much more realistic about the value of my paintings. I’m a beginner. While my early works do show promise, most of them are fit only for the recycling bin.

In looking over the paintings I’ve done in this past month — have I really only been oil painting for a few weeks? — my husband could see definite progress. After assuring me once again that he liked everything I painted, he also admitted that it did make sense to recycle the early “practice” paintings. “You’ve learned from them,” he explained, and he’s right.

But have I learned enough? Sunday morning found me shaking my head once again, this time as I stood at my easel contemplating the painting I was working on. Surprise, surprise, it was another mountain scene.

Mountain View by Judith Kraus 16 x 20 Oil on Canvas Panel

This was, as you can tell, another attempt at painting two separate mountain ranges, and as with my first attempt — Getting Carried Away — I wasn’t able to successfully create the right colors. Either the distant range is too light, or the nearer range is too bright, or probably both. I suppose the right approach would be to mix the darker color first, and then tint it with white to use for the peaks in the distance, even though those are the ones that are painted first.

It was the same mistake I had made before, and I was left wondering how many more times I’ll have to commit that particular error before I really learn the lesson.

Once those horrible too-blue mountains were in the picture, I knew I hated it. Soon, a parody of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was reciting itself in my head.

“How do I hate thee…let me count the ways.”

I started mentally listing all the mistakes I had made in this painting, and even though I considered grabbing my trusty rag and wiping it all away, I just wasn’t up to it. I’d been working on this painting for several days, and emotionally I didn’t want to see all that effort literally “wiped out”.

“I hate it. This is going to be another for the recycle bin.”

But, even though I came to this realization mid-way through the painting, I went ahead and finished it. And I made more mistakes, even at one point accidentally grabbing a brush out of my cleaning bucket — I was distracted at that moment — and unintentionally smearing solvent across the bottom edge of the panel. Oops! Not good.

So, the painting ended up with:

  1. Horrible colors
  2. Too much paint in places
  3. Too much solvent in other places
  4. A lopsided, misshapen, out-of-proportion treeline
  5. A mess of trees and bushes in the lower-right corner
  6. Weak or non-existent reflections

I could keep going, but what would be the point? The point in all of this is that mistakes happen, and despite the claim that they’re really “happy accidents”, that’s not always true.

Mistakes are opportunities, of course. Recently I heard it said that failure is merely a chance to begin again, this time more intelligently. I believe that.

The trick, of course, is to learn from our mistakes. So now, as I go through all those early paintings waiting to be recycled and turned into something else, I’ll be asking myself “What went wrong?” Even more, I’ll be asking, “How can I do this better the next time?”

With practice — and a lot of recycled canvases — maybe I’ll find the answers.




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