It Doesn’t Come Easy

I’m feeling a little discouraged this morning. It didn’t help at all that after my less-than-stellar results at the easel today, I followed a Facebook notification to one of our local art groups and saw this gorgeous painting of the Christmas tree at Union Station:

Tammie is one of the most talented artists in our Tri-County League. Her work leaves me speechless. Of course, it also leaves me feeling a bit disheartened. We should never compare our art to anyone else’s, and it’s not that I’m drawing comparisons here. It’s just that art comes so easily to Tammie. I’ve often said that “everything she touches turns to art.” I’ve said, too, that Tammie “doesn’t create art… she is art.”

For me, though, art will always be a struggle. It’s getting easier in some respects, and in other respects, it doesn’t matter so much anymore. I’m not striving for perfection. I’m mostly content to just do the best I can and let my art be whatever it is.

But then along comes a morning like this one. I settled into the studio eager to get started on today’s project — painting a simple cylinder in primary colors. In some ways, this painting project was similar to one I completed two years ago — to the day, in fact.

Here was that “pot” — the first element of what would become a simple “potted plant” still life:

 

At this stage, I had not yet painted any shadow, but all the same I was proud of this pot! It’s lopsided. I know this. But, all the same, it’s recognizable as a pot. You can see that it’s rounded, and I think you can see, too, that this cylindrical pot is hollow.

When I painted this pot two years ago, I happily sat there looking at it, smiling, and thinking, “I painted a pot, a real pot.” Today, I’m sitting here looking at another painted pot, but I’m not smiling. I’m thinking, “Well, from a distance maybe it’s not too awful…” And then I’m sighing, shaking my head, and wondering if I will ever truly be an oil painter.

Want to see today’s “Primary Pot”? Actually, this isn’t a “pot” but a solid cylinder, and I’m not happy with it.

In this exercise — unlike the “Potted Plant” painting — the wall and table were deliberately left unfinished. The assignment was more about (a) drawing on the canvas with paint, and (b) mixing shadow colors. I think I succeeded with the shadow colors. Maybe the shape of the shadow is a bit wonky, but — from a distance, at least — it’s slightly realistic.

I’m not sure how long it took me to complete this “unfinished” painting — it’s done on half of a 9″ x 12″ sheet of canvas paper — but after making the final strokes to add a bit of highlight to the left side, I turned away, feeling utterly exhausted. How could painting something so simple be so hard? Not only that, but look at the results. I put a lot of effort into this, and this was the best I could do.

That’s when I took a break, logged onto Facebook, and found Tammie’s gorgeous painting. Discouraging, yep. Disheartening, for sure. But, for me, this is what art is. It’s about learning what I can. It’s about doing my best. It’s about being who I am.

Today, who I am is a struggling artist who paints wonky-looking, lopsided pots and cylinders.

Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to be one of those artists who can draw or paint anything they see, easily and effortlessly. I think of how delightful it must be to have that sort of talent. It must be nice. I’ll never know.

Art will never be easy for me. I’ve had to work hard to get where I am today, and as you can see, even wonky, lopsided pots and cylinders are a challenge. So why do I persist? Especially, why push myself to learn more detailed techniques and more realistic styles when that’s not how I want to paint?

I do it because I want to learn, yes, even techniques I might not use. I want to know how to create details, how to accurately and realistically depict objects in a still life, how to draw cylinders, spheres, cones, and other shapes that aren’t wonky-looking, lopsided, and ready to topple over. I want to develop whatever skills I can.

So, I’ll pick up my paintbrush again, and I’ll move on to the next practice exercise — painting a sphere. It won’t be easy, but I’ll do my best.

22 Comments

  1. Hmmm… this reminds me of when I was struggling to learn photography and I did every tutorial I could lay my hands on but I never seemed to get the effect I desired. But then I changed my approach, stopped with the tutorials, studied photographers and artists I liked and just created whatever I wanted. Photography is very similar to painting in a lot of ways… you have a subject, the image has content (emotion, texture, composition etc.) and the image has light and shadow. What you create is then entirely up to you, and the more instinctively you create it the more personal and meaningful it becomes.

    I’ve noticed that every time you try this instinctual style approach you create something amazing… take a look back at your posts:
    One brush, one colour, one morning
    Following Pissaro’s advice
    The cosmos is revolving… again
    Foresight is always good
    Waste not want not
    And probably loads of others in older posts where you’ve created something really nice using a more instinctive approach. In fact you’ve written a post on this very subject – throwing away the books.

    You still need to master certain techniques of course, but what I found was that instead of trying to do everything, just concentrate on the techniques you feel most comfortable with and concentrate on getting really good at just a few of them. For example, I concentrate just on black and white images with an emphasis on shadow and light. I do other stuff as well, but this is my main focus. And then spend loads of time on mastering those particular techniques!

    But don’t stop experimenting with your other stuff, because you’re discovering all sorts of great artists and techniques and your posts on these are really interesting. Just spend a lot of time on mastering the techniques that really appeal to you..

    Sorry for the longish reply but I think your work has great potential, you just need to focus on what really appeals to you. All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate the reply… no response is ever “too long”. 🙂 You are so right about trusting instinct, and that’s just what I’m learning now. I’m been moving closer toward that approach since last summer, and now I am starting to “throw away the books”, not just with watercolor, but with oil painting, too. I’ll keep reading and studying “how to draw” books because that’s my weakest area. I do need to learn different techniques and practice, practice, practice. For the oil painting and watercolor, though, I think I’m come to a point where I’ll learn more “hands on” than I can from books and demonstrations. I have now joined “Artist Network” (there will be a post coming up about it in a couple of days) and I think this will allow me a more “freestyle” approach as I work on my own. As I try different techniques and different styles, I can use the site as a resource when I have specific questions. I feel this approach will give me more opportunity to go in my own direction, more choices as to what I need to learn.

      As you’ve pointed out, I struggle most when I’m trying to “copy” or “follow” some specific instructions, and as often as not the subject or style isn’t something I really want to pursue. Yes, I need to learn the techniques, but I have been going about it the wrong way, I think.

      So, yes, please, wish me luck! I’m going to enjoy this new, more intuitive approach to creating art.

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    2. You seen to be pretty competent at landscapes in oil, so if that is what gives your pleasure and ‘comes more naturally” to you, why not seek to perfect your skill at that. You don’t have to master everything, and even when we retire from our official work, we don’t have infinite time. I’m speaking from experience

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      1. It took years before I had time to take watercolor classes, and I made good progress and began to feel confident with my materials and techniques. But: I took a workshop on transparent fluid acrylics and liked the idea of not having to frame my paintings under glass, so I ended up spending time and money trying to master this new medium and just got distracted from transparent watercolor and stopped doing what I was good at. I also was aware that I hadn’t done enough life drawing, so I began taking classes in that, although I soon realized that dry media showed my lack of skill with line and shadow (technique), although I could draw pretty much whatever I was looking at… Watercolor was my natural medium and I could have spent all those hours improving what I was good at, instead of trying to master unfamiliar tools. Did I really want to paint nudes? No. I had found a watercolor niche (realistic still life that somehow suggested human relationships) and I stopped having time for that because I thought I ought to be taking life classes, because that was traditionally part of an artist’s training. Instead, I wasted years (when I could have been improving my real art) by trying to make up for missing out on art school when I was young. I wasted years of my 60s, and now I’m physically not able to do what I used to enjoy. Our time is not infinite, and we shouldn’t have the attitude that “I have to eat all the vegetables and clean my plate before I allow myself to eat dessert.” At retirement age, we can focus on what really gives us pleasure, and accept that we can’t learn everything, but we can learn a lot about one or two things.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes, exactly, and I love you way you’ve expressed it here. I’ve had this somewhat misguided notion that “eating all the vegetables” would be beneficial, even if I didn’t like them all. But I’m really beginning to see the folly therein. I am going to narrow my focus more and concentrate on landscape oil painting, having fun with watercolor, and doing a bit of drawing. As a fairly new student of art, of course I’ve wanted to try everything, learn about different media, and gain some familiarity with different styles. Little by little, I’ve learned to start putting aside things I don’t really like — painting in acrylics, working with pastels, using colored pencils — and now I just need to take that idea a little further and keeping weeding out things are essential to what I really want to do. 🙂

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      3. I know what you’re talking about for sure. I’m 69 and puttered trying to do this and that with different mediums and ending with nothing much. Last year was the first time that I concentrated. Time does run out. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to see some of the results that I’m proud of.😊

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      4. I see more and more clearly each day now how important it is for me to “narrow down” my interests in art. It’s been fun to pursue lots of different things, but I’m ready now to be more focused on what I’m doing, ready to settle into being “a landscape oil painter” more than “an avid art student” trying to learn everything all at once. I guess what I’m saying is that artistically, I’m starting to “grow up” a bit. 🙂

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      5. I’m coming to the same conclusion. I’ve tried following along with different “oil painting courses”, and I’ve thought that trying a variety of things — like still life painting, as an example — would ultimately help me with landscape painting too. I’m sure it would. I think learning new techniques from all types of painting can help us. But I think I can learn the same techniques more easily by focusing simply on doing the landscapes I love. So, I’m definitely changing my approach a bit — both with watercolor and with oil painting.

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  2. I feel your pain. Sometimes you just need to walk away and take a break when frustration sets in. But here are a few thoughts that came to me while reading.

    When drawing manufactured items, compared to organic items (like cylinders and pots compared to trees), it’s good to remember that organic things are sometimes naturally lopsided, whereas manufactured things are created with the help of precise measurements. In other words, it’s okay to use tools to help reproduce manufactured structure. 🙂

    Rulers, compasses, grids, tracing paper or light boxes, photo references, etc. … real, professional artists have used tools like these for ages when trying to replicate something with less forgiving lines and proportions. It’s not cheating or a weakness to turn to them. Tools that help us correct lines and portion are actually fantastic tools for learning how to increase observation. And professional artists today rely on an even wider variety of tools and techniques then previously to reproduce things not drawn *only* from their imaginations. So even if the only tool available is a pencil, taking the time to measure, compare, and correct lines and placement can yield better results than freehand.

    If using a tool feels like a “cheat”, consider that every profession has its preferred tools. Imagine doctors trying to perform surgery without their table-spread of possibly needed items available. Doctors aren’t “talented geniuses” who insist on working only with inspiration and an intentionally limited set of tools. They need to make very good use of *all* the tools and knowledge available for the sake of saving their patients. By contrast, artists often get boxed into restrictions because of there is this general notion that they *should* be able to work with only their hands, a few paints, and their imagination. There is this myth that you’re not a “real” artist if you use technical tools to correct your observations or marks. But artists can and should feel free to use whatever knowledge and tools are at their disposal, just like other professions do, to create the painting they envision, especially when replicating manufactured, measured forms. Think like an architect if you want more precise portions. Is this side the same length as the first? Measure it with something to see. Is the subject’s eye too close to the ear? Compare its placement with other things like the brow or corner of the mouth. Where do these things spatially line up from different angles? And if they don’t, it’s okay to grab a ruler, compass, or whatever else helps fill in those gaps. The time that it takes to measure or use tools is just part of the process. And art IS a process, so often tools save time that would otherwise be spent erasing and guessing and fretting. Tools will help train the eye to see what is correct. Then, eventually, our estimations will get better. But they still won’t be exact. So, the only *real* restriction in art is … don’t copy or steal other people’s works and call them your own.

    Also, it’s really hard to draw a perfect circle or other basic shapes freehand! And it can be time consuming to draw that circle over and over and over again trying to make it perfect. People often say, “I can’t draw a straight line,” but the truth is not even really good artists are good at drawing perfectly straight lines. So, they rely on tools and techniques to save time and help create that perfection, or at least the illusion of it, even in freeform. A combination of short strokes, comparative measurements, and lots of patience for the strokes that have to be erased and/or redrawn multiple times can help.

    So, those are my suggestions for frustration with things like this. … Also, too often people assume that basic shapes are easy *because* they are basic. But really, the more simple the shape, the less there is to distract the eye from imperfections. Therefore, there is more pressure for those basic forms to be perfect. (A vase by itself gets all the attention on its design. But a vase filled with flowers has something organic to balance out and distract from any imperfections in itself.) … Otherwise, just take a break and come back to it when you’re refreshed. Breaks are part of the process, too. 🙂 Like in music, “The pause is as important as the note.” (Truman Fisher)

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    1. All good suggestions. I guess part of my problem is that I’m so clumsy and uncoordinated that it’s hard for me to use “tools” — like rulers and compasses. I’m horrible at measuring LOL. In truth, I don’t really want to draw “perfect” or “realistic” images. I just hope with time that some of the overly “wonky” mistakes will go away. More and more, I’m starting to move away from all the “how-to” books and exercises, at least with oil painting and watercolor. I think that will be a huge step in the right direction. I want to focus more on doing paintings that I really love, not stressing myself out doing frustrating exercises. I think I can learn as much — or more — from doing what I love rather than following “demonstration” paintings in books or videos. A little guidance will be good from time to time — I signed up at Artist Network — but mostly I want to take charge of my art experiences now. 🙂

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      1. Oh, I’m horrible at measuring, too. LoL … As much as I would love to learn how to sew, my impatience with measurement usually screws up whatever I’m trying to make!

        But unless you’re doing technical art you don’t need to be that technical with measurements. For example, you wouldn’t need to know the measurements of a sidewalk to draw it. But a ruler could help keep the lines straight, parallel, or move toward a vanishing point. On forms, like cubes, cylinders, and pyramids or cones, straight edges of any object can help keep sides or sizes uniform. Or, one way to kind of hit a middle ground between perfectly straight lines and wobbly freeform lines is to use the ruler to mark dots or dashes at midpoints and corner, and then use short freehand strokes to connect the dots and dashes. The more dots and dashes, the shorter your strokes, the straighter the lines.

        For circles and ellipses, compasses can be a little tricky, but again, the lighter the sketches in one direction and then the other, the better. In other words, don’t try to do full circles. Do a few parts of the circle with just the barest marks to act as guides, then freehand the rest. Or a lot of artists actually trace small plates, coaster, jar lids, etc. Freehand circles are also sometimes better done in quick, smooth motions from the wrist. But I find that only works on big canvases. The smaller the circle, the smaller the motion.

        And I see nothing in your paintings that suggest you are clumsy or uncoordinated! 🙂 I just see instances where tools are one way to help with lines, no matter what level or type of art you’re doing.

        And all art uses spatial skills to some degree to compare one item to everything around it, even when we’re unconscious of doing it. This is why you see a lot of artists holding their pencil or paintbrush at arm’s length to compare their subject to their art. For example, there’s usually one eye’s width between a person’s eyes. So, regardless of whether your subject has big or small eyes, you can use your pencil and thumb to estimate the size of one eye, compare eye 1 to eye 2 to see if they are about the same size, and then imagine a third eye between them to make sure they aren’t too close together or too far apart. You can then use the pencil to imagine a line from the corner of the mouth up the side of the nose toward the center of the eye. They should align. … Simple comparisons like that are more about spatial placement than precise measurement.

        Of course, it’s very important that you do pick projects you love and that don’t frustrate you. I know you’ll enjoy moving in that direction. 🙂 But playing with measurement and comparison are habits that can follow you into any project. You still get to choose how relaxed or precise you want to be about it, depending on style and subject. It’s kind of like squinting at the moon and pinching it between your fingers. And it becomes so small that you can hold that size between your fingers and move it to paper. Or pay attention to how shadows shift and change in light. Kids play at this kind of thing all the time, but it’s good practice for spatial skills. And spatial skills are what help us judge the “correctness” of proportions of familiar objects. It all depends on how much of that correctness you want in your art. (Picasso threw it out the window for sure!) LoL … So, it’s flexible. I just think a lot people are afraid to reach for tools because they think it means they’re cheating, so I wanted to bring that up. Tools are not cheats. They can help us and teach us in the process if we want to move in that direction with our art.

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      2. I do try to use “sighting” and “comparative measurements” when I’m doing graphite drawing. Sometimes those techniques work for me, sometimes not. Like everything else, it’s a matter of practicing. With landscape painting, I don’t usually have to worry too much about precision. I don’t need a lot of straight lines (unless I’m adding a building of some sort), and my style is naturally somewhat loose. That’s one reason why I enjoy landscape painting. I don’t have to concern myself with getting things “just right”. As long as I have the perspective essentially right, I’m good. And when I do paint buildings — such as a lighthouse or a barn — I have used a ruler or straight edge. I think those are necessary tools for a painter. With my watercolor and my oil painting, I’m working a bit on making shapes and painting them… learning more about how to stay inside the lines, and at the same time, learning to see the lines simply as “guides” and loosely paint around the guidelines. I really am learning a lot — about drawing, about oil painting, and about watercolor — as now that I’m learning, too, to focus more on who I am and what I want to create, all that I’m learning is going to be more effective than ever (I think.)

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  3. I’ve just had a week of the same feeling..am I ever going to get better. I did a portrait commission of two people from such a crummy picture that I should have refused, but didn’t and they didn’t like it. Then another person did a wine and paint party and they wrote in fb that “painting isn’t that hard”. Hmmm…to do a good one darn well is!

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    1. I know the feeling. Yes, there are discouraging days, and sometimes it feels hard, for sure. Who was it that said “Painting is easy when you don’t know how… but very difficult when you do.” I think that was Degas, and he’s definitely right.

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    1. Thanks. I always take heart when I look at Cezanne’s still life paintings. He painted a lot of wonky-looking fruits and bowls. Still life painting is always a challenge for me. In the future, I’m going to focus more on the landscape paintings I love to do. That’s where I want to direct my attention. So what if I can’t paint a perfect pot? I can draw and paint landscape scenes that make me smile. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. For me, art will never come naturally. In some ways, maybe that’s a good thing. It makes me very appreciative of how much I have learned and what I am able to do. 🙂 But it does lead to occasional discouraging days.

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  4. hi i think you have moved forward greatly in your art career, and maybe with the cylinder you have focused and tried to hard. instead of being spontaneous, like when you were new to art. i think the cylinder looks okay, maybe needs shadows and shading….

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