When Will I Ever Learn?

When I recently shared a photo of my messy, flooded studio, I had an unfinished oil painting on the easel. You might have noticed it, or maybe not. That was several days ago, and while I intended to get back to it and complete it, life — and the weather — had other plans. The painting is still sitting on the easel, still unfinished.

Here it is:

Untitled — Work in Progress Oil Landscape by Judith Kraus 16 x 20 Canvas Panel

 

Why am I sharing an unfinished painting? Good question.  Mostly I’m sharing it out of frustration — not with art, really, not with painting, but frustration with the flooding in the studio and a lot of frustration with Word Press. It looks like there have been a few more changes, so once again I’m having problems with my posts not formatting correctly. I’d love to be in my studio today. I’d love to be painting, I’d enjoy picking up my paintbrushes and refining this scene a bit. But between the mess and my frustrations, that’s probably not a good idea.

So, I’m taking a good look at this oil painting, liking a lot of what I see, and thinking about how much I actually have learned since I started using oils in late 2016. When I look at a work such as this one and mentally compare it to my earlier paintings, I can certainly see progress. That’s a good feeling.

Sometimes, though, I have so shake my head and laugh at myself a bit, because one particular lesson has been very hard for me to truly grasp. Time and again I learn the lesson, but then I promptly forget all about it.

Take a look at what I wrote in this blog back in December 2016, in a post titled “What I’ve Learned.”

I can’t tell how a painting will look while I’m working on it. Now, this might seem like an odd thing to say, but it’s true. It’s really, really true. As I’m painting, I’m usually shaking my head, frowning, and thinking that ‘This just doesn’t look right.’ It’s only after I step back from the easel that I can actually see that all my little blobs of paint really are creating the proper illusion.”

A good lesson to learn, yes. But I somehow forgot it.

Look now at what I wrote in this blog last year as I shared a few thoughts about another work in progress:

“I turned away from the easel and walked toward the stairs. I stopped, looked back at the easel, and I truly gasped at what I saw. There was something there, something besides masses of grays and dark grays and bits of color.”

And another moment of surprise from May 2020:

“From five feet away, my winter scene painting actually looks like a river covered with patches of snow and ice.”

Indeed, we really can’t tell what a painting looks like while we’re standing at our easel. At least, I can’t. And yet, over and over again, I forget how important it is to put down the brushes, step back, walk away, and look at the painting from a distance.

I’ve been learning that lesson again with this “unfinished” landscape, and I’m really hoping that this time the lesson will “stick”. All the while I’ve worked on this, you see, I’ve been fretting about it. I don’t like this or I don’t like that, and I really need to change this, or maybe I should re-do that… and on and on with all the doubts and questions, even when the work isn’t complete.

I was feeling a bit discouraged about it, really. That’s why I finally shrugged, put my brushes down, and turned to walk away. But then I looked back. I was puzzled. I didn’t understand what was happening, because the painting that I thought looked so awful — up close — looked much different from across the room. How could that be? That’s when I had to laugh at myself a bit. “When will I ever learn?” I asked myself.

Stepping back from a painting is a good thing to do for several reasons:

  • We really, truly can’t tell how the painting looks when we’re up close. It’s easy to feel discouraged while we’re working because we’re focusing on individual elements of the painting, not seeing it as a whole.
  • When we step back, we can take it all in, so it’s much easier to see particular places where additional refinement is necessary. We can’t accurately make this sort of assessment when we’re standing up close to the work.
  • Stepping away slows down the painting process, and for me, this is a good thing. I’ve found that alla prima painting isn’t something I enjoy. I need to let certain areas dry before I add lights or shadows. I need to take time for mixing color variations.
  • When we’re at the easel, it’s tempting to “fuss with” a painting and overwork it. As long as I’m close to the canvas and have paint on my palette and a brush in my hand, I’m apt to keep adding strokes here, there, everywhere — especially in places where it’s not needed. I’ve spoiled a lot of paintings by “over-tweaking” that way.

Time and again we talk about art “speaking” to us. Our paintings do talk, but we have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. The lesson I keep coming back to is that our art speaks more eloquently and more honestly when we’re not too close to it. In order to really see — and hear — we have to step back.

I do find it amusing that I first learned this lesson about a week after I started oil painting. Yet here I am, almost five years later, still learning that same lesson. It is an important one, but it’s one that I so easily forget! I do hope that this time the lesson will really “sink in” to my brain. I hope that the next time I’m working on a painting and it seems like it’s all going wrong, instead of getting frustrated or discouraged, I’ll just step back and see the bigger picture.

As for what more I’ll do with this unfinished work… I want to refine the brush strokes on the trees, maybe add a few branches. I want to highlight the lights on the tree trunks and add a bit of interest to the immediate foreground. I want to add more light and add more shadow. I’m open to suggestions, of course. What do you think the painting needs?

 

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