“…the Sum of its Parts”

There’s a saying about some things being “greater than the sum of its parts.” True enough in many areas of life. Just consider a recipe, for instance. The individual ingredients might be good, but when you combine them in a delicious dish you get something that’s definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

For me and art, though, it doesn’t always work that way, and today was a good example of that. Before I share the still life painting I did this morning, let me digress a bit.

Earlier this year, I took part in a series of online art workshops, one of which was conducted by Trupti Karjinni from Blue Pine Arts. In her workshop — with watercolor — she took us step by step through the different elements we would use in creating a landscape painting. Once we’d successfully learned to paint each individual part — the clouds, the grassy fields, the distant trees — we took that knowledge, put it all together and created a complete scene.

I was impressed by Ms. Karjinni’s teaching method. It made sense. The result truly was a landscape watercolor painting that was greater than any of the “individual parts” we’d painted in our practice time.

Now, back to the present.

Recently I signed up for a 5-day still life painting course with Kelli Folsom. I’ve painted along with Kelli before using some of her free video tutorials, and her teaching methods have always “clicked” for me. When I received the invitation to join the free still life class, I signed up. I knew it would be fun, and I knew I would learn a lot from it.

Kelli, just like Trupti Karjinni, took us through a series of practices. One the first four days, we painted small studies of various objects. These were a grape, a dark glass bottle, an orange, and a brass bucket. These items represented different surfaces and techniques for still life painting.

Working on an 8 x 10 inch canvas panel divided into four sections, I completed my studies:

You’ve previously seen the orange, and now you can look at the other objects. I can’t say that I was totally satisfied with any of these, but at the same time, they are recognizable for what they are, and I did learn from each.

On the fifth day came the real challenge — putting these items all together. It should have been simple. After all, we now knew how to paint each individual part. True enough, but sometimes successful art requires more than knowledge.

I was not happy with my completed painting. While it should have resulted in a still life that was “greater than the sum of its parts”, it resulted in this sad scene:

Egads! What happened? Well, life happened.

One pitfall was that I painted this after completing the brass bucket study. I was away from the studio for one day, you see, so I was playing “catch-up” on assignments. I wasn’t fresh and eager when I began work on the final painting.

My palette was already a bit messy, and even though I spent a little time cleaning up and re-organizing before I started the complete still life scene, it just wasn’t the same. My brushes were a bit messy, and honestly, my mindset wasn’t the best. While I looked forward to finishing the painting, I was thinking of other things, too. My day was a busy one. I had a lot scheduled.

And while I don’t want to put any blame on our precious Flower Child, she was being a bit too curious about my paints, brushes, and medium.

“No, not for kitties. Not for kitties.” I kept shooing her away from one thing after another. She’s a cat. A curious cat. Of course she wanted to get into everything.

Finally she settled onto her window ledge where she could watch from on high, but by that point I was really out of the mood for painting a still life — or anything else.

So, my color mixing was hit-and-miss, at best. My enthusiasm was lacking. My brushstrokes were careless and erratic. And what’s all that pink tone in the foreground? Well, I had another grape there, but it was so misshapen and so out of proportion that I finally just painted over it.

This still life was done alla prima, which is not my favorite method for oil painting. I’ve come to prefer a slower, more careful approach. I’ve learned that I need time away from what I’m working on, that I need to step back and see what’s taking shape on my canvas.

Had I taken that approach and worked on each item slowly but surely, I’d like to think I could have turned out a better painting.

Now, here — if you’ve been following this blog for a while — you might think back to my frustrations with a still life class taught by Tony Curanaj. We worked on our painting for what seemed an eternity! At least, he did. I didn’t spend nearly as much time meticulously drawing and painting as Tony Curanaj, so, of course, I didn’t produce the same sort of highly realistic still life he completed during the class. But, that said, I did finish the project, and I was pleased with some parts of it, such as the glass bowl — my first attempt at painting glass.

Here, again, I find myself getting stuck somewhere in the middle of things. With drawing, I want to move beyond simple child-like drawings, but I don’t want to go all the way to hyper-realism. With watercolor, I want to learn better techniques, but I don’t want to go so far that I start taking myself too seriously and spoil all my fun. Now, with still life painting, I don’t want to do quick alla prima paintings all in a single session, but neither do I want to go to the extremes Tony Curanaj teaches — with multiple drawings, tracings, value studies, color studies, and a whole lot more.

Eventually I hope I’ll find the “middle ground” I’m seeking in all of these things. I think I will. I say that because each day I become more confident about being an artist, more willing to try things, and especially more willing to make lots of mistakes. I’m not focusing on results in the way I once did.

Like our curious cat, I’m approaching art with a wondering attitude… wondering what I can do if I pick up this brush, wondering what will happen if I mix these colors, wondering how a painting will look if I add a highlight here or darken a shadow there. I’m exploring — that’s been my personal keyword for 2021 — and I am learning.

Even if today’s painting doesn’t appear to be greater than its individual parts, it’s still been a valuable experience. Hey, just look at the reflection of that orange! See… I did something right. I surprised myself with that one. Overall, experience counts. Every failed painting teaches me a new lesson, and yes, I learned a lot from this.

11 Comments

  1. Remember that the inner critic is the harshest. I always say that we are not born knowing how to do things. The more you play and practice and experience, the more you will be able to hush up that inner critic. Create in the manner that works best for you and pluck from the lessons only what can further your love of what you are doing. Love that you share your thoughts with us!

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    1. Thanks. Yes, the inner critic can be hurtful. I’ve been learning to let go and have fun with art without worrying too much about results. Of course, sometimes those worries do creep in.

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    1. Thank you, Bill. My paintings are better than what I could have done a few years ago, so it’s good to feel I’ve made a little progress. I just felt a little awkward doing the “alla prima” — wet into wet — painting method. Overall, though, I did enjoy the 5-day class.

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      1. I am coming from a more realism art style and just started learning the curves of painting alla prima. Feeling awkward is Accurate! haha

        We have to embrace the ups and downs. Not everyday can be a good day, just enjoy the process, rmb the good days and don’t fuss over the bad days.

        Mandy.

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      2. Yes, indeed. I’ve learned that bad days always lead to better ones, and overall I’m feeling much more comfortable with art and not worrying quite so much about mistakes. 🙂 Good luck with alla prima. It can be tricky.

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      3. It is super tricky for me. It’s a whole new language. Glad to hear that you are embracing the mistakes. We have to, else we will never grow and be better. It is a skill after all, and all skills have its own contract of agreement 😂

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      4. Yep, I agree. I love both alla prima imperfections and realism “perfection” at the same time. Hope to incorporate both in my own paintings someday! Slowly but sure ❤❤

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