A Method to my Madness

Insanity, it’s been said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that definition, I might well be called crazy because my recent art practice has been based on taking a familiar “woodland scene” idea and painting it over and over and over.

Here’s the most recent version:

Gentle Morning (2)
Gentle Morning — Another Woodland Scene

There’s a lot I like in this painting. My head was still filled with thoughts of Monet from the art club luncheon, and after some of the loud, jarring color combinations I’ve worked with recently, I wanted to return to soft, subtle hues. I do like the colors in this painting. My trees and trunks are getting better, and I’m happy that my grass in the foreground is starting to look a little more realistic.

For me, this painting shows that I am moving in the direction I want to go. Sometimes my paintings leave me feeling that I’ve wandered far astray from where I want to be; at other times, it’s reassuring to feel that I’m getting closer to becoming a real artist.

As I thought of posting this Gentle Morning painting here, I laughed. Surely everyone is getting weary of seeing the same tiresome scene over and over. That’s when that familiar quote about insanity popped into my head. Yes, people must surely think I’m insane, I muttered to myself with a slight shake of my head.

But is it really so crazy? I pondered it for a moment, and I realized that there’s much to be gained from doing things over and over. I happened to glance over at the piano — which is so close to my easel that I sometimes use the bench as a table — and there I saw the music for Rondo all Turca, or “Turkish March” as it’s popularly known, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When our grandson, Carsen, recently visited and we watched Brain Gamesthis little march was played as background music.  So I got it out and performed it for him.

I could not have played this delightful little rondo had I not previously practiced it, doing it over and over until my fingers had learned what keys to strike, what touch to use, what dynamics to play. This is what practice is all about.

Of course, good practice is more than repetition. At the piano, we have to practice correctly otherwise we’re just ingraining mistakes and bad habits. With visual art, however, I think we have a little more leeway, a little more chance to playfully and freely explore different ways of doing things even as we’re essentially doing the same thing over and over.

When I think back to my earliest days of learning to draw a few years ago, I recall how I would take a single, simple illustration from a how-to-draw book, and I would do it over and over. Each time I would look at it to see what was different between my drawing and the original. Oh, had I made this shape too thin? I’d correct it the next time. Hmmm, maybe now I’ve gone too far in the other direction. Next time, I would work to correct that mistake.

In a similar way, I’m following that learning method again with landscape painting. Although I’m not copying a specific reference photo over and over, I’m starting with a basic idea. I’m making changes each time I paint the scene again, but all the while I’m still practicing the same essential elements.

So, what have I learned from the insanity of figuratively walking through these woods each day?

  • I’ve learned to create lights in the skies that give my paintings a sense of mood and atmosphere
  • I’ve learned to create softer, mistier effects in the middle-ground of my paintings
  • I’ve practiced making trees and tree trunks, then highlighting them
  • I’ve practiced creating pathways
  • I’ve worked to improve my foreground details, practicing on grassy areas
  • I’ve worked a little on adding water and creating a rippled effect as well as reflections
  • I’ve learned to mix several varieties of a color when adding grasses and bushes
  • I’ve been reminded of the need to consider values when using colors
  • I’ve practiced using a palette knife
  • I’ve tried using various brushes to create different effects

Of course, I can find flaws in my Gentle Morning scene. I think the composition would work better if the water were lower on the canvas. And while I loved the pinkish hue of the pathway when I painted it — and do still love the color — I wasn’t sure where to go with the path. It draws a bit too much attention to itself, I think, and it doesn’t seem to “set in” to the painting. I still have a very narrow range of values. The painting might seem better balanced had I used some of the darker green in the background.

But, you know what? None of that really matters to me right now. At this stage of my learning, the objective isn’t to come away with perfectly-executed paintings. It’s all about practicing, about learning different techniques and doing them over and over to improve my ability to use those techniques. It’s about finding out where and how I can use a palette knife, figuring out what brushes work best for me, about trying different ways to add the grassy details my landscape paintings need.

What I’ve learned most of all, is that it’s really not insanity to do things over and over. I’m seeing different results, and that’s exciting. I’m looking forward to grabbing my paints this morning and seeing just what I can do with my woodland scene next.


    1. Thanks. Using the same idea and making little variations has been really helpful to me. It’s fun to do similar paintings using different colors or to play around with slightly different compositions. It’s giving me a chance to try things and learn what works and what doesn’t.


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