Imagination Required

Through my recent “art therapy” — my own personal experience at healing my hurt inner child artist — I discovered a lot of defense mechanisms, little tricks I’ve devised over the years to keep that hurt child protected. One of the strongest is the idea that “If I’m not really trying, the results don’t really count, right?” In other words, when I’m faced with an especially difficult task in art — a complex drawing, a detailed painting — I do it very half-heartedly. Even that would be a generous assessment. Less than half-heartedly. I make no attempt to complete the assignment because I know I would fail. Rather than face one more failure, it’s easier to shrug it off and say, “Well, I didn’t really try.”

This is an example of one such art assignment. It’s from my current 100-day oil painting adventure, in a chapter about painting the effects of weather. Here the idea was to show a rainy day, and specifically to learn how to paint the soft, rippling reflections on the pavement.

The scene was that of a young couple standing close together, staring off toward a distant skyline. A few buildings are slightly visible in the background. The man is holding a red umbrella — leading me to ask why it is that in painting, all umbrellas seem to be red except for those that are simply black.

I was supposed to draw this scene out, paint it, and then work on creating all those luscious reflections. I do love the reflections of a rainy day, but with one look at the young couple, the wrought iron railing, the distant skyline, I shrugged it off. This is not a scene I could draw easily. This is definitely not a scene I could paint. Never mind trying to get the reflections right! This assignment was far beyond my abilities.

Cue the defense mechanisms. Hear that inner voice saying, “Well, just put a few marks down. Do something but don’t worry about getting it right. Just grab a little paint and spend a couple minutes on it. That’s all you really need to do.”

So, yes, that’s what I did.

I started by roughly drawing in the figures, then struggled with that umbrella. I love rainy days, and I do love umbrellas — in all different colors — so why was it so hard to draw one? The ribs of my umbrella went in all different directions. It hardly looks like an umbrella at all — unless you use a lot of imagination.

The same holds true for the rest of the scene. I painted this very quickly on canvas paper with water-mixable oils that were thinned out. It’s not at all like the lovely image in Carolyn Lewis’s demo painting from Mood and Atmosphere in Oil Painting, but with a lot of imagination it is what it purports to be — a young couple standing under an umbrella, staring off into the distance through the rain. There are even watery reflections on the pavement, if you have enough imagination to see them.

Now, had I not told you what this scene is, would you have known? Would you have realized that you were looking at a red umbrella, a rainy day, and a young couple standing close together? I’m not sure.

Even so, I was pleased to see that — with imagination — I could tell what this painting was supposed to be, reflections and all. Maybe the next time I encounter a “rainy day scene” to paint, I’ll feel a little bit more comfortable, a little more willing to move past that old defense mechanism that shuts down any serious attempt before I can even begin. Or maybe not. Maybe I still need to guard that inner art child a little longer. As long as I can use my imagination, that might be all right.

28 Comments

  1. I really like this. Yes, being told makes it more obvious, but even had you not shared that information, it can be seen. Otherwise the viewer could have used their imagination to bring out their own brand of childhood magic. I really do like this because in its softly blurred rendition, one is allowed to envision more possibilities.

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    1. I liked it overall, yet I wish I could have handled that umbrella a bit better. Still, it gives me hope that with more painting practice, I might be able to paint a scene like this with slightly more realism. I do like the loose, impressionist style though.

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      1. I think that no matter what we do, and no matter how it turns out, we always wish that we could have done something better. Are we not after all, our own worst critics? I do understand what you are saying, and I agree, that with practice you will have more control over the results. Still, I think that along the way to greater control, we create many keepers.

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      2. As is my writing for me. I think that when we allow the creative side to express itself, we are allowing the inner part of us out to explore and play and in the process, bring us answers. Then when someone comes along and has even a remote understanding of what we are presenting it encourages us even more to play.

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    1. Thank you! When I showed it to my husband after painting it, he couldn’t tell what it was LOL. But, then again, he doesn’t have a lot of “artistic” imagination.

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  2. Of course we can tell what the painting is ‘supposed’ to be! We are always our own worst critics and you have listened really hard to that unhappy inner child. Look hard in the mirror–you ARE that artist you have always wanted to be. Don’t try to fit into someone else’s mold because you and your work are unique. Keep at it–you’re doing great!

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    1. Thanks. My husband had no idea what the painting was until I told him, but I think that’s because he’s not involved in “visual arts”. His only connection to visual art is me. 🙂 Plus he has vision problems, specifically problems with colors, so it probably just looked like a blob to him. He can’t distinguish reds and blacks from each other.

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  3. If you do your painting like you are serious about the outcome, starting with a tight drawing and painting each part to the best of your ability you can kill the inner child voice that says you can’t do it. You can paint better than you think you can. Probably better than the idiot who caused your insecurities as a child can paint. My home ec teacher in high school bullied me and acted like I’d never learn to sew. Then I learned how to sew and as an adult I’m sure I could sew circles around that old witch! hahahaha Don’t let fear of failure to stop you from doing your best. If you want to goof around with paint and just see what happens, that’s fine and fun too, but there’s more to it if you’re serious about it and it can be good for your self esteem to conquer a difficult painting. It doesn’t happen without a good effort and maybe more than attempt. If it fails you try again next year.

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    1. Thanks for the sage advice. I think I’m doing a bit of both right now… sometimes settling in to really do my best, and at other times letting myself fall back on those old defense mechanisms. Just recognizing them has helped me a LOT! My whole “art therapy” process has been valuable. It’s helped me bring a lot of fears out in the open, and that’s helping me become more expressive with my art.

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  4. I think trying to make it good is sometimes important but trying to make it good also means trying to do what you already know works. Sometimes not trying is a way to manifest new ideas and new styles. It’s a way to let the unconscious artist emerge. That doesn’t change the dynamic you describe but it does mean you can get fruit from lots of different kinds of trees.

    I really enjoyed this post!

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  5. Gee, I hate to dash your negative expectations but yes, I really did recognize two figures (didn’t decide if they were a “couple” or not) under an umbrella in the rain. I’ve probably seen too many impressionist “rainy streets in Paris” paintings. 😜 Since I didn’t see the original source material I have no clue how close you came to accurately depicting it and what’s more I couldn’t care less. The best way to shut yourself down as an artist is to insist on perfection at every step. Is the result interesting? Do you like it? If you came across this image not knowing what it was “supposed” to be would you find it intriguing? You haven’t found out who you are as an artist yet. Let your experiments help you instead of demanding that they meet someone else’s expectations. ❤️

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    1. Yes, art can be soothing, and definitely gardening can be. We’ve had so much rain and cold weather here… not much of a garden out this year. I’m looking forward to better days.

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  6. Yup, I’d of seen it as just that! But I do understand where you are coming from, we all have our own built in defence don’t we. Mine is always ‘oh it’s not finished yet’ ☺️

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