One Thing I’ve Learned…

I’ve learned a lot about art over the last 6 years. That’s how long it’s been, you see, since I uttered those now infamous words: “Well, I guess I have to learn how to draw.” That moment in time, as insignificant as it seemed then, truly changed my life.

Indeed, I’ve learned a lot about art, a lot about life, a lot about myself. But, let’s not get all philosophical here today. That’s not the point of this post. This post was intended to be all about one lesson in particular that I’ve learned.

What is that lesson? It’s the simple truth that mistakes can be corrected. In similar fashion, things can be improved. We can change things we’re not happy with. Yes, that’s definitely true in life, but for me, it was a difficult art lesson to learn.

One reason why I’ve struggled a bit with drawing and painting is from the concern of making a mistake. It’s true that pencil lines can be erased and corrected. With ink, the corrections may be a bit more difficult, but even there, it is possible to fix mistakes we’ve made. No matter what medium we choose to use, there are tricks and techniques that allow us to move past problems. Most of the time, at least.

I’m not here to quibble about whether or not every art mistake can be corrected. Again, that’s not the point of this post. I’m here to share my personal experience about one important lesson I’ve learned involving the art I do and the mistakes I make.

In short, I’ve learned a lot about re-doing my landscape oil paintings. I’ve finally developed some ability to go back and fix problem areasI’ve discovered that I can change aspects of a painting that I don’t like. I may not be completely successful at it yet, but I’m seeing progress. That’s a rewarding thing. That’s satisfying to me.

In the past, you see, a painting was either good or bad. Of course, my good paintings weren’t great, but again, that’s beside the point. My bad paintings, however, were truly awful. So, I had no choice but to chalk them up to a learning experience, and either throw them away, or, if possible, use them for additional practice, or to cover them completely and start over with a new painting.

The worst problem, I think, was that more often than not, I could tell when a painting was going wrong. Why continue working on a bad painting? Out would come a paint rag, and soon I’d have my mistakes all wiped away, leaving me with an ugly canvas covered in a grayish, brownish mud-color, and a keen sense of disappointment at having failed one more time.

Last year, however, I made a new rule: NO WIPING AWAY! No matter how awful a painting was going, I had to see it through to the bitter, inglorious end. That meant having ugly paintings sitting around the studio, ugly reminders of those failures. That was not fun.

It was, however, insightful. Seeing those bad paintings made me think more about them. What was wrong with them? Where, exactly, had I failed? As I learned to identify what was wrong with a painting, I began to see how maybe I could make it right.

I began picking up some of those awful paintings and putting them back on the easel. I found that I could repaint certain areas, make definite changes in colors, and do a lot of little “tweaks” to turn things I didn’t like into things that were… well, all right, at least.

Take a look at one landscape I’ve been working on recently. Originally it was intended to be an autumn scene, although that’s really neither here nor there. As I painted the scene, I knew I didn’t want to use autumn colors. I started with the skies, of course, working with several different blue pigments. In my reference photo, the distant hills were also a deep blue. I liked it, or so I thought. Blue is still my favorite color, so why not create an entire landscape using it as a predominant color? Why not create a “blue mood” with the painting?

Those were my thoughts, and this was the result:

Note please that the painting you see here was not yet finished, but I think you can see where I was headed. I intended the grass to be blue-green. Everything would have a touch of blue. I thought that would be quite artistic.

As I looked at it longer, though, I didn’t like all that blue. It was too much. Much too much. And so, when I returned to the painting to finish the grassy foreground, I also went in to change the colors of those too-blue distant hills. I changed the color of the pine trees. I took out all that overbearing blue and used the soothing greens of nature.

Here is what the painting looks like now:

I like the “not-so-blue” version of the painting much, much better. What I especially like is that I was able to see that I was on the wrong track, I was able to identify what I was doing wrong, and most of all, I was able to step in and make the changes. I took a bad painting and made it better.

And that, my friends, is the point of this post. What I’ve learned is that I don’t have to wipe away bad paintings. I don’t have to merely chalk paintings up to experience now. I can fix things. I can change things. I can do whatever I please — within reason — and create paintings that I like.

For so long, my oil painting has been hit and miss. Sometimes I’ve gotten lucky with a “hit” and come away with a painting I was proud of. As often as not, my paintings were “misses” or “near misses” at best. That was how it was, I thought. Art for me was a bit of a “what you see is what you get”, and that was the end of that.

Not any more. I’ve learned that I can take things I don’t like and turn them into something I like a lot. I’ve learned that creating art is not a “one-shot” act. I can do things over. What a marvelous lesson to have finally learned!

13 Comments

  1. “I’ve learned that creating art is not a “one-shot” act. I can do things over. What a marvelous lesson to have finally learned!” – good thoughts! I’m just reading Brian Eno’s diary from 1995 (A Year With Swollen Appendices – republished in a 25th anniversary edition last year), and he’s working with one David Bowie on the Outside album. The material created in that gets constantly reused throughout later albums, reworked, used as a starting point, hacked up… whatever. If it wasn’t a good idea, why not, and can you make it a better idea? Eno’s Oblique Strategies can help with that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s actually one of the reasons I love Erykah Badu’s music so much. So many themes – and sometimes whole songs! – show up in her other works and become brand new entities every time they appear; like you said, mashed up, reworked, etc.

      I’ve decided to apply things I’m learning while reading about art, which I am always doing. Actually, something I’ve learned even from teaching and performing in the arts but is true in all things (in my opinion): there are no failures, only learning opportunities. I’m appreciating everything I make, as a newbie and hopefully ongoing, not for whether it is a success but for what it taught me that I can take to the next piece.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So true, and I know from experience that we do learn a lot more from mistakes and failures than from our successes. And I love incorporating things I’m learning into the artwork I’m creating. I like, too, that a lot of my art is becoming freer, more of that sort of “artistic mish-mash” I’ve admired in other artists. Not everything “works” though — but it’s fun to see what does, what doesn’t, and to figure out why. 🙂

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  2. Fixing is possible! Fixing is worth your time and effort. Fixing means you have absorbed so much knowledge and progressed so much further than you thought. Fixing for me usually involves a seam ripper and scissors, but fixing is a very, very good thing!

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    1. It’s been a very significant lesson for me to learn. I’m now a bit more watchful, I think. If a painting starts “going wrong”, I can stop and think about how to correct it and get it back on track. Sometimes that means letting it sit for a day or two. It’s a good feeling to have a bit more control over the outcome now. 🙂 And, yes, seam rippers are handy tools to have. I don’t do a lot of sewing now, but I’ve ripped out my share of bad seams in the past. It’s sometimes frustrating, but definitely necessary.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Inthink the background hills should be misty and v light bluish foloowed by warm blend of yellow ochre n sap green in the front land and deep green Plus bit of blue plus black for trees

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  4. I totally agree! I’m a COMPLETE newbie at art but I’m trying to find the beauty that’s hiding even in “mistakes.” I actually like both versions of the painting. Also, I’ve read articles where people say they let their “bad paintings” sit a while and sometimes come back and have a totally different take on them. Sometimes, but not always. I like the lesson of remembering that we can always make changes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Learning to make changes and corrections in oil painting has been a huge leap forward for me. In the past it was essentially “try it and see what happens” — sometimes with good results, sometimes not. Plus I wiped away so many “bad” starts… for a long time, I hardly finished any paintings because I was struggling. Now, if something starts going wrong, I can step in, fix the problem, and continue. And even if there’s something I don’t like afterward, I can still step in again and make changes. I might not always be successful with it, but I have been able to take a few “not so good” paintings and make them a little better.

      Liked by 1 person

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