A Sorry Sight

Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. Unfortunately for me and my art, that often means leaving something half-finished, if even that, and that, my friends, is something I’m working diligently to avoid.

It’s easy to make a start — sometimes even a promising start — and then walk away, letting the painting remain unfinished. I do it often because I have gotten off to a good start, and I know that anything more I do will spoil that good beginning. But there’s nothing to be gained really by having a collection of unfinished paintings sitting around, so one of my new rules this year is that I have to finish what I start — and especially I have to resist the temptation to wipe away what I’ve done.

I start a painting, I finish a painting. That’s how it is, and that’s why you’re going to see a lot of sorry sights, like my poor disfigured tronie who is looking quite pathetic today.

Yesterday’s imageTronie 1 (2) seemed to have a bit of character. There was, somehow, a suggestion of something quite human about the man. At least that’s how it felt to me.

Today he simply looks ridiculous. Now the shape of his head is all wrong, the lights and shadows have all but disappeared, and he’s just a very sorry sight.

“It’s a tronie,” I hastily explained to my husband earlier this morning when he made an unscheduled visit home from work and carried a few things downstairs. I wished I could have thrown a curtain over poor Piet to hide him from view, but there was no time for that. I had to grin and bear the embarrassment of having my husband view this awful thing on the easel.

“A tronie,” I explained. “It’s supposed to look weird.”

Yes, I fell back on my new knowledge of art history and appropriated the word for my own purposes, making of it a convenient excuse for bad art. That, of course, is not what a tronie is all about. So, what happened? Quite simply, I tried to finish my “study in light and shadow”, and obviously it did not go well.

Instead of using light and dark flesh tones, I worked today with black and white, wanting to once again exaggerate  the lights and shadows.  I made quite a mess of it. First, my lights and shadows were too distinct and unnatural, and then, after blending, they were all but gone. I tried again. I played with the eyes, tried to add a bit of detail, and only succeeded in making them cartoonish.

If I did anything I like, it would be the hair. I darkened it, and in the process I was able to create a sense of actual hair by using a coarse, bristle brush. (See, I have learned something!)

Now, if I step back away — far, far away — from the easel, I can still see something human about poor Piet. In many ways, I think he’s a reflection of who I am — an artist who wants to create, an artist who is struggling to learn, and thank goodness, an artist who is willing to do something ridiculous as part of that process.

Yes, it’s a sorry sight, and maybe I’ll never get better. But as long as I keep trying, I guess I should feel good about my art. Had I left this little painting unfinished, I would have gained nothing. So, I made a mess of it. So what? Each time we pick up a brush and add a stroke of paint to a canvas, we’re increasing our understanding, improving our abilities, and adding to our knowledge.

I’m not a good artist. I may never be a very good artist. But I’m going to keep painting.




  1. This painting is really neat and teaches a viewer a lot about facial structure, shadows,values, composition, and expression. Please don’t ever say you aren’t a good artist. You are amazing. You may often feel disappointed in your work, and that’s OK and maybe even natural, for your understanding of art is still developing, so perhaps you don’t always see the art in your work or your work doesn’t achieve your conscious aesthetic goals. But I see the art in your work, and usually the pieces that most discourage you are the ones I find the most meaning and pleasure in. I see them and feel they were created by an artist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a feeling you would find something you liked in this one. It’s true that the works that disappoint me the most are usually ones you find promising. I’ve actually gotten into the habit of looking at paintings like this and saying “Now, what will Cathy Tea see?” It’s a helpful strategy, and I can see interesting things in my “tronie”. I think most of my discouragement with this came from the painting process itself — my inabilities to blend my lights and shadows. That’s largely because I’ve been away from painting for a while. I definitely need to get back at it and spend more time painting, practicing my brushstrokes and blending again. Having the new studio makes it feel almost as if I’m starting all over. Does that make any sense? It’s like this is an opportunity for me to re-learn everything, try new things, and develop new habits. It’s exciting, but it’s intimidating at the same time. I know I’m beginning to see “art” differently, and I’m gradually finding my way to who I want to be. There’s just so much to do! So many things to try!


      1. I can definitely understand having to relearn the process in a new environment! Light, the physical placement of materials, the smells and sounds! So many new things to learn! I also understand the frustrations with limitations in developing technique. I feel that daily with cello, often with drawing or painting, with piano, sometimes even with writing!

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      2. I explored my feelings a little more in the post for tomorrow. Right now, I have to create some really, really awful art. I tried explaining why… not sure it makes any sense though. 🙂 I hope you’ll drop by tomorrow to read about it.


  2. Portraiture is really difficult. Do you like to work in charcoal? It might make the painting turn out more the way you want it to if you draw it with charcoal first a few times. Then draw it again with charcoal on the canvas. The old Dutch masters drew it in charcoal first. I didn’t see all the steps you went through. I admire your courage to try a project that hard. He has a ton of personality so far!

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    1. I do like working with charcoal, especially for portraits. This was just a quick project — nothing more than grabbing a pencil and making a few quick marks on the canvas before I began. I wanted it to be a sort of “slap-dash” approach to portrait painting, something to have fun with. I enjoy drawing portraits. Learning to paint them in oil is a whole new thing, and it’s more difficult than I’d expected. For the next portrait I paint, I probably will use your suggestion and draw it out first in charcoal.

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  3. If you hit a wrong note when practising the piano, do you call yourself a bad musician? No, you don’t of course, they are part of practising. The difference with the visual arts is that your wrong notes stare you in the face. You are practising. The result here isn’t what you had in mind, you just hit a wrong note, maybe lack of technique/skill, maybe lack of vision of what you actually want to do, maybe just a bad day, maybe you are trying to play Rachmaninov whilst you should be doing 3 blind mice. It’s something I have thought a lot about recently, and I may think about it some more. Don’t be discouraged, I admire you for showing your wrong notes, for not being so ashamed of them not to share.

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    1. Yes, our “wrong notes” in art do stare at us, and at everyone else who comes by. I wanted to have fun with “Piet”, to play with lights and shadows, but I’d hoped he would turn out a bit better, so I was disappointed in the result. I know the problem is mostly my trouble with blending in oils. I’m definitely “out of practice” and that’s where I made such a mess of this man’s face. I might let him sit over there in the corner for a while and then — once it’s all dry — see if I can play a bit more, try reshaping his face, re-doing his facial features. It’s actually fun to play with “ridiculous paintings” like this. I feel very free. After all, I certainly can’t mess it up! 🙂


  4. Sometimes as artists we struggle with the realization that not all paintings will be great. I can understand your disappointment at what you were hoping for did not immediately match what you did. I have the same struggle sometimes as well. I have begun reworking paintings that don’t seem to be working and they get better. When they don’t I scrap them and reuse the canvas for a new work. Maybe you could continue to sketch your paintings in paint on the canvas in acrylics, let that underpainting dry then being the painting for real in oils. I find that way very helpful in blocking in a tonal pathway that assists when I apply the colour. I love that you chose such a strong happy painting to study.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s all a process of experimentation for me. I’m trying different approaches. Should I sketch first? Pencil or charcoal? Should I do an underpainting? Acrylic or oil? Values only or color block-in? I go from one method to another… still haven’t found what really suits me yet. So while I’m learning, I just hope to have some fun doing it, along with those discouraging moments that are inevitable in art. Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions!


      1. Yes experimentation is great. Since I’ve been staying safe at home I have experimented with plain air painting in the backyard, landscapes and still life. I am taking this enforced stay at homeness to play with lots of things, even my textiles. I too am having fun. I am enjoying watching your playtime. 😊

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      2. I tried doing a bit of sketching in our backyard one day. You’ll see the results coming up in a post next week.


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