Raising the Bar

Overall, I think the lesson I’ve learned recently about being able to fix mistakes in art has been a valuable one. I’m finding, though, that there’s also a drawback to that idea. Now that I’m better able to make changes and corrections in my oil painting, it’s made it harder for me to be satisfied with my work. I’m continually going back, changing things, looking, re-evaluating, going back, changing things, looking, re-evaluating… and yep, getting caught up in a frustrating endless loop of self-criticism.

Here’s the latest painting to have been subjected to my “Oh, Maybe I Can Fix It” approach:

 

Now, there is a story behind this painting. It originally began as a desert scene, one inspired by Edward Hopper’s art. This, incidentally, was over a year ago. I’d been reading about Hopper, watching documentaries about him and his art, and I set out to create something in a similar style. I had a very nice underpainting completed, but I never went beyond that point. For months the canvas sat on my drying rack. I just didn’t want to finish it. Finally, I accepted the fact that — as much as I love Edward Hopper’s paintings — I don’t want to paint in Hopper’s style. I wasn’t moved by the desert scene.

So, recently, I put the canvas back on my easel, and set about transforming it. Now it’s no longer a stark desert scene, but a scene of autumn trees and a gently flowing stream. Although I like it better than the original desert I had in mind, the truth is that I just don’t really like this painting. To me, this is “just another painting”.

Now, I want to be very honest here — honest with you, and honest with myself. The way I see it, this isn’t a bad painting, really. Goodness knows, if you look back at my earliest oil paintings, this becomes a veritable masterpiece. There are some good things here. I love the skies and the clouds. I think the composition is good, too. What you’re looking at here, by the way, is the most recent version of the painting. For several days now, I’ve been “fixing it” — changing this, re-doing that, adjusting colors here, re-shaping an area there. Mostly, what I’ve actually been doing is making a big mess out of it and making myself a bit crazy in the process.

In short, I have “fixed” this painting so many times that I’m sick of it! I don’t like it, but I don’t want to touch it again. In fact, I’m not sure I ever want to see it again. I’ve come to a point where, even though I’m not happy with the painting, I simply don’t know what else I could do to make it better, at least not without creating more problems than I might solve.

Working with this painting, though, has helped me realize again that art can never be about perfection. If it were, we would all fall short. If I’m striving to fix every little glitch, I’ll never complete a painting, and worse still, I’ll never be happy with anything I do. So while it’s important for me to correct things that need to be corrected, I have to draw certain lines and not attempt to make every landscape a masterpiece.

Art, I’ve been told, is largely an act of resolving problems. We look at our subject, look at our painting, and try to solve problems we see. We need to correct proportions if they’re off. We should try to achieve the correct perspective. We need to be reasonably accurate, at least, with our lights and shadows. But what we mustn’t do is to search for problems that don’t really need to fixed. Sometimes, they’re not worth the time and trouble. Most of all, we don’t want to get so caught up in “making things better” that we start fixing things that aren’t really broken.  And let us never forget, that as often as not, it’s the imperfections that give our work character.

Having the ability to correct mistakes and make changes in my oil paintings does make me a better artist, for sure. And it does allow me to raise the bar a bit, to set slightly higher standards, to expect a little more from myself. But I can’t take that idea too far. Sometimes, enough is enough. Sometimes, I will still have to walk away from a painting with a bit of disappointment. The really important thing here, I think, is always doing my best, learning from my mistakes, fixing them when possible, and knowing when I’ve done all I can. That’s when it’s time to walk away.

 

10 Comments

  1. I like this painting of understated fall foliage and a peacefully flowing stream. No drama, just a peaceful reminder that nature’s small sights provide as much refreshment as the grand vistas.

    I am such an art hobbyist that I have a low goal for happiness. I realize that very few of my dabblings are frameworthy. I know when it’s time to stop trying to rescue a painting and I just ask myself what have I learned? Have I been happy in the process up until the time when I cease trying to fix it? That is all I need to stay motivated.

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    1. When I first started painting, I really struggled with knowing when it was time to stop. I finally learned that lesson, and then learned that I can go back and “fix” things I don’t like, so yep, as you put it, it’s now about knowing when it’s time to stop trying to rescue a painting. That’s the lesson I’m working on now. I’m glad you like the painting. 🙂

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  2. “It’s the imperfections that give our work character.”
    My grampa told me, “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”
    He also said, “Perfection is what camaras are for.”
    Although I can appreciate the skills required for computer-generated artwork, the precision often makes it ugly. Show me freehand sketches and I smile.

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    1. Indeed! I’m learning more and more than “perfection” in art is something I’d rather avoid. It’s true in any art form, I think. I have in mind an incredible opera singer whose performances are technically perfect… and yet, for me, they always lack some emotional feeling. Perfection is good where it’s needed, but art isn’t one of those places. 🙂

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  3. Hey Judith… Good post… You reacted to a post I made about fixing a recent failed drawing… Drawing and painting are all about seeing, attempting, correcting, and refining… Stage by stage… Foundation, Structure, Light, Shadow, Details, and Color … My credo is… Progress not perfection… PS… Wonderful site… You are a gifted Observer and Writer… and fearless Artist… Progress Not Perfection…

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    1. Thanks, Tom, I appreciate all the kind words. Learning art has been one of the most interesting (and rewarding) experiences of my rather long life. I enjoy sharing the journey with others.

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    1. Thanks. As you know, light is one of the elements I’ve been working with a lot over the recent months. I still have so much to learn, but I am seeing how much it can add to a painting. I think at times, though, I tend to over-do it. 🙂

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