Do What You Can — Or What You Can’t

Many times we’re told to “do what we can,” and that’s good advice. As a general rule, doing something is preferable to doing nothing, and if we’ve been procrastinating because we’re not sure how to do a particular thing, just “doing what we can” is often a good way to get back on track. Once we get started, we can figure it out.

The idea of “doing what you can” is similar in some respects to “just do your best,”. Doing our best is, presumably, enough to get us through a rough spot. We’re often assured that “doing our best” is what really matters. I’ve probably said that many times here in this blog.

True enough, doing our best, or at least “doing what we can”, is a good approach — most of the time. But it’s occurred to me today that there are a few weak spots in this otherwise sage advice. If we only do what we can — what we’re capable of — we aren’t really going to learn, grow, and improve. If we focus on “doing our best”, we’ll be less likely to make mistakes and, therefore, less likely to have the opportunities we need to develop our skills and abilities to their fullest.

Of course, I understand that the real meaning of “doing what we can” or “doing our best” is based on questions and doubts about our proficiency. You’ll notice that the advice is usually prefixed with “just” — “Just do what you can. Just do your best.” It’s a nice-sounding way of saying, “Yes, you suck and we both know it, but just do what you can. Yes, indeed, you really do suck, but just do your best, and we’ll say that it’s all right.”

“Just do your best. Just do what you can.” Well-intended words, of course. But not really all that encouraging if we think about the unsaid sub-text.

Sometimes, though, the idea of “doing what we can” or “doing our best” is meant as a starting point. It’s akin to Maya Angelou‘s suggestion to “Do the best you can until you know better,” which is followed up with an injunction that “When you know better, do better.”

But something has to happen in-between “doing the best we can” and “knowing better”. We have to learn. We have to practice. We have to work to get better and bridge that gap.

For a self-taught artist, practicing has a few pitfalls. I may read dozens of books and watch countless art videos, but that’s not always enough to help me see and understand proper techniques. I don’t have a teacher standing over me to suggest different methods or to assist me in developing specific skills. I’m left with a “trial-and-error” approach that can lead to a lot of frustration.

There are many things I can’t do well in art. My weakest area is my inability to paint thin, fine lines. For a landscape artist, this is a serious problem. I want to paint trees, branches, twigs. I want to paint thin blades of grass. I need to develop the skill, yet it continues to elude me.

Earlier this morning I took to my easel to create an “imaginative” quick study. I had a reference photo — a lovely waterfall surrounded by lots of leafy trees. But my assignment — part of my 100-day creative adventure — was about using artistic license to change a scene in some way to better reflect a specific mood.

I gave it a bit of thought and made a few decisions. I would not paint the lovely summer scene but would instead transpose it to winter. I liked the idea of trying to create a “frozen waterfall,” but what about all those bare trees?

First things first. I gave a little consideration to other factors I’ve been studying. My intention was to create a “winter afternoon” scene using warm light, cool shadows, and a somewhat complementary color scheme of reds and greens. Yes, snow is usually depicted with cooler tones, so this sounded like a fun challenge.

But again, what about all those bare trees? Well, they didn’t turn out very good, but it was not for lack of trying. Here, see for yourself.

I did, indeed, have lots of fun with the rocks and the waterfall. I liked the somewhat unusual — or at least unexpected — color combination of the warm red with the cool, dark shadows. But, oh, those trees!

I no sooner began adding the trees when I wished I hadn’t even attempted them. I liked so much about the painting. Those horrible trees simply ruined it all. That’s when I realized that maybe it’s more important to do what we can’t do than to stick with what we can.

“I can’t make these thin, fine lines, so I need to practice them, over and over. I need to keep trying different things until I figure out what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it.” In other words, while I was doing the best I could with what I knew, that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I needed to learn more so that I could do better.

And so I stood at my easel painting branches, branches, branches, branches. I tried several different detail brushes. I thinned my paints with water. I thinned my paints with medium. I tried holding the brush with different grips. I tried painting twigs upward and downward. I kept painting lines until I’d reached a point where there was nowhere left to paint any more.

In the end, I did get a few fine lines in there, but not enough to say, “Yes, I know how to do this now.” But I learned something very important. When there’s something we can’t do, shying away from it and trying to avoid it isn’t going to help. So I’m changing my philosophy now. I’m no longer going to advocate “doing what we can.” It’s much more important, I think, that we do what we can’t, and that we keep doing it until we finally can do it.


    1. Thanks. I love trees, and I want so much to paint trees that really add to the beauty of a landscape. Getting all the branches and twigs is still beyond my abiity. So, I’ll just keep working on them until I finally find techniques that work for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Your trees look fine! It’s ironic that you want to paint fine lines. A lot of landscape artists find ways to avoid it. Well meaning people often tell me to use my big brushes. I say yeah, but to me it sounds like the guy who told Bach he wrote too many notes. I’ll be interested to hear if people give you the same advice if you enter tree paintings in shows. Detail like line work is out of style. I like to paint fine lines in trees too. I use small brushes, thin oil paint on top of Maroger medium. A large paper with a tree makes the lines look tinier than a small paper.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like leafy trees but i want to be able to paint bare trees too. And blades of grass. I love trees so much! I want to have enough skill to capture the individuality I see among them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Like you, I’m self-taught. When I first started this art path, I struggled with what you’re talking about in this post. One of my old careers was teaching adults so I had what I thought was a good foundation for my plan to “become an artist.” I set up a blog I called “My First Year at Pretend Art School.” I bought books & supplies suggested by people in the books. I gave myself assignments in art history, color theory, etc. I trailed around after “real artists” online, asking questions & do everything I could to absorb their knowledge & skills thru my computer screen. I contacted an art professor at our local community college & asked if I could informally (as in, lurk on his website & social media accounts to gather information). I joined online art forums & tried to fit in, asking rookie questions but trying sooo hard not to act like I was clueless bec I was afraid the members would toss me out. I set up learning objectives & lesson plans. And I posted work for sale as prints, online. I figured that all the positive & supportive comments I received were truthful, & that I was actually turning into an artist! But – as you say – with no real teacher I couldn’t learn properly. I also couldn’t be honestly critiqued! What complicated everything was sales. I sold work (prints). I even licensed a piece. WOW! But with no realistic voice over my shoulder, no sensible & skilled artist guiding my progress I let my self off the hook time after time. “Good enough.” Obviously what I made WAS good enough, at least for the people who spent money to buy from me. But that’s where your definition of art discussion comes in. The stuff they bought was [maybe] art to them but I knew in my heart that I was unskilled & clueless, that most of what I produced was accidentally “OK.” Then life intervened & I had to spend tome doing other things. A few years went buy; I did art but only what I loved. I rarely tried to improve my skills. What a waste of time, but I still sold a few prints and people kept telling me how good everything was. I’m going to be 70 this year (assuming I live that long) & have recently decided to try again to teach myself but only those things I really want to learn. There’s still no real teacher but THIS time I know the pitfalls ahead. One thing I know for sure is that the last thought in my head won’t be “I wish I’d spent more time trying to master pastels.” Nope – at this point in my life, pastels exist to help me make things I want to see. So do all of the other art tools, techniques, etc. Beyond that “there be dragons.” That said, every day – EVERY DAY – I work to learn how to do some kind of art thing as well as I can in order to do what I want to do. Your tree branch practice is a superb example, I think, of how to do the self-teaching thing. You diagnosed what you saw as an area you wanted to improve & you set up a plan to improve. And you did! That’s marvelous!! I’ll stop now bec this comment is very lomg & I don’t want to overstay my welcome (assuming I haven’t already). Anyway – I think what you’re doing is terrific & so is how you’re doing it. 🤗 PS – I’m not going to proof this so I hope it’s legible. 🙃

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. For me, there’s no such thing as a comment that’s “too long” when we’re sharing our thoughts and feelings about art. It took a long, long time for me to truly believe that I was an actual artist. I’m an artist not because my drawings or paintings are good — some are, but some are real stinkers — but because I’ve developed some awareness of what art is all about. I have an understanding of the process by which we create art. I’m familiar with various media, know how to use different tools, and have gained experience in a lot of different areas. What I’m trying to say here is that it’s not what I do that makes me “an artist”. It’s my approach, it’s my attitude, it’s my mindset. Overall, it’s my desire to create and my williness to put myself out there and try new things that has truly helped me evolve into “an artist”. There is still so much to learn! Art is a never-ending passion, and I’m excited to be discovering so many different ways to create visual art.

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