Making Something from Nothing

Where art is concerned, some days I probably should not get out of bed. That was how I was feeling one recent morning when things just weren’t going my way at the easel. I would actually be embarrassed to tell you what my original idea was for this painting, but here’s what I ended up with.

Hell on Earth (3)
Hell on Earth – California Wildfires

Much has been said — and written — about concepts in art and about starting with a specific intention. All of that is well and good — when it works. Sometimes, though, our best intentions go awry, or as poet Robert Burns famously put it…

In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley…

I hear you, Mr. Burns, loud and clear.

This particular painting went far astray, but I was forced to wander along with it. I have a new rule, you see, strictly enforced, that no matter how awful a painting is going, I cannot under any circumstances wipe it away. I must learn to live with — and hopefully correct — my mistakes.

So how did this painting begin? Where did it go wrong? Just what happened here, and why?

Well, it began with a good idea. Soft lavender blue skies meant to serve as a lovely backdrop for a stand of evergreen trees which would be part of a snowy winter scene, one I hoped I might be able to copy and print out as Christmas cards for family and friends. Obviously we took a wrong turn somewhere!

The sky — which I had painted on a previous day — looked good. But when I added the evergreen trees, they didn’t look so good. They looked awful. I couldn’t get the shapes right. They were all off-balance, crooked, and growing together in an ugly mass of color. No matter what I did, those trees just weren’t looking good. I thought maybe they’d look better when I added snow to their boughs, but if anything, they only looked worse.

That’s when I started to reach for that handy paint rag. I obviously wasn’t going to end up with a pretty Christmas card scene, so why bother wasting any more time on it? But then, I remember that new rule.

No matter how awful a painting is going, I cannot, under any circumstances wipe it away.

I was stuck with my awful painting, stuck there with paint on my palette, and the prospect of a wasted morning. What to do, what to do? I wasted a few more minutes simply staring at the mess I’d made, but then I felt that rebellious little ridiculous streak that had helped me through the problematic “outdoor objects grouping” lesson with my poster paints and newsprint.

It was time again, I knew, to be ridiculous.

So, I grabbed one brush after another. I smeared oranges and reds on the canvas panel. I blended gray into the sky — not consciously creating anything, just putting paint down, trying different brushstrokes, and not really giving a hoot about how the painting looked.

I added strokes of black toward the edges, along with a rich, deep violet. I took my palette knife (yes, I’m still practicing with it) and scratched in random lines here and there. Twigs? Sticks? Tree trunks? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. I added in a few lines of white and gray to create contrast in the foreground.

And at some point I stepped back and saw a fiery scene. I saw smoke billowing above what was once a verdant forest.

I’ve painted a fiery forest before, when I was practicing monochromatic color schemes. In a similar fashion, I hadn’t set out to paint fire, but as the painting developed, that’s where it led me.

In both instances, the paintings brought thoughts of California and the wildfires raging there. Not a day goes by that my husband and I don’t think of these fires. With a daughter living in Southern California, we worry about the dangers she and her husband face.

Once I began to “see” the wildfires in this painting, I added the stark, bare tree, hoping it would become both a focal point as well as a symbol of the devastation and desolation in California.

And a song started playing in my head, not one of fire or danger, but one that spoke to me at a very personal level. It’s a song by Air Supply, all about “making love out of nothing at all.

I can’t say that I love the painting I made, but I was pleased that I managed to create something out of the nothing I had on my canvas. In the past, I would have just wiped it all away, but that’s no longer an option for me.

As a result, I have a completed painting with a narrative. And even better, I did learn new techniques while creating this. What began in frustration ended with a finished work, and while it won’t be one I show off, it’s one I’ll always remember painting.






  1. I can understand how frustrating it is to lose your original painting idea, but I think in this case it was for the best! Your painting is deeply moving, and feels just devastating. I think it’s magnificent ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I was happy to come away with a finished painting, even though it was far from what I’d intended. Making that rule about not wiping off the canvas is really going to be helpful for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes painting or any form of art is like story writing. You think you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it will be all about, only to change your mind partway and decide on another avenue of adventure. Heck. I do it all the time. Only a small percentage of my stuff was finished with the original idea. And even then– there were always the color changes. Have a wonderful holiday, Judith.

    Liked by 1 person

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