Posts Tagged ‘challenges’

Findingtheedge

February 8, 2012

• DOING THE WORK
• FAILING WITHOUT FALLING
• WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT
• DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE
• FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER



DOING THE WORK


Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a good friend a few days ago:

hey john

saw your message on FB. glad you like the new one. in my opinion, it’s okay, but i missed what i was aiming for. the battle is still to keep myself from over-finishing! the painting was actually better at an earlier stage, but i just had to keep going. i am getting better, though. i’ve been painting like a madman for the past several weeks, sometimes several a day, but most of them get gessoed over, to become the blank canvas for my next attempt. some of my canvases have 3 or 4 or more layers on them by now. not a bad thing at all. just a  period of intense study and i am growing at a mad rate! dreamed for years of getting to this point with my painting, where i was actually doing the bold, exciting things i always pictured, and it’s finally happening. i just never consciously realized the degree of focus and amount of time that would be required to get to this intensity. now, of course, it seems obvious, now that i’m in it. consciously i dislike being in nebraska in winter, but from a broader perspective i’m able to see that i had to isolate myself to this degree to get to this level of absorption in my work.

As I suggest in the above, I’ve been painting pretty much every day for the past several weeks. I’ve been working as an artist and painting professionally for over 30 years, but I’ve never gotten to this level before. I look back and realize that I THOUGHT I was a serious painter, but I really wasn’t. I hadn’t gotten close to the level of intensity and commitment I’m experiencing right now.

I always knew it was all about going into the studio and DOING THE WORK. But I guess I never realized how much work it requires. Or to be more specific, how much concentrated work. Stopping and starting a lot doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as being able to focus for long periods, like months, at a time. I’ve finally put myself into a position where I’m willing and able to do that.

One way I know I’m really committed (other than the amount of time I’m spending in the studio) is how many paintings I’m gessoing over. (For you non-painters, gesso is the white stuff we put on a canvas to prepare it for painting.) Lately I try to approach every painting as an exercise, as an experiment where I try something out to see what happens. If it turns out well enough to keep, great! If not, great—and time for the next exercise.

But I still have lapses. Like the big “statement” painting I wanted to do of Manuel.



FAILING WITHOUT FALLING


I was feeling kind of confident at this stage—this is a few weeks ago—and I decided what I was going to do was a big “statement” painting. I wanted to do something that would pop off a gallery wall, that would WOW people.

This is not a bad goal in itself, by the way. But when it’s the ONLY goal, you’re in trouble.

Anyway.

I chose a photograph of Manuel to work from, and cut myself a BIG piece of canvas, and got out my sponges.

Manuelbytree bigfailed

The photograph of Manuel I chose to work from.

Manuelbytree bigfailed1

Progress at the end of the first day.

Manuelbytree bigfailed2

At the end of the third day.

Manuelbytree bigfailed3

Oops.

Everything went really well—for a while. I was using sponges, I was loving the size of the painting and the freedom it gave me to move, and I was accomplishing interesting things both with “brushwork” and use of color. And I was excited about the energy and presence in the face. But—I went too far. Of the 4 images you see above, the next-to-last one is where I SHOULD have stopped. It was going so well, I just had to “finish” the face. The result looks like bad plastic surgery. The life and authenticity in the face went away and it got “pretty” and lost its oomph. So after several days of work, I had to gesso over this one.

But that was fine. I wasn’t even that upset. All I had to do was let go of my expectations that this would be the big WOW painting that would blow people away. And I was able to do that, because I realized that was a bogus goal anyway. Plus I knew how much I’d learned in the 3 or 4 days I spent on the painting.

(Big change from the days when a ‘failed’ painting would depress me for days!)

What happened next, though, was not a painting. I decided to do some rough sketches, not out of creative fervor but because I took a look at my bank account!


WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT

Rough sketches are an important source of income for me. Small, affordable sketches are a lot more accessible to most collectors than big expensive paintings, so my sketches sell pretty fast. When money starts looking like it might be an issue, one of the first things I do is sit down and do some rough sketches. This makes it sound like I do it just for the money, but the fact is, it’s great exercise, and no matter what prompts me to sit down and do it, once I begin, I lose myself in the drawing, and sometimes amazing things happen.

If you’ve been a follower of this blog for awhile, you’re aware of a recurring theme: my quest for MORE BOLDNESS! MORE COURAGE! LOOSER, MORE ENERGETIC BRUSHWORK!

Which wouldn’t be a recurring theme at all if it weren’t so damn hard to accomplish!

It’s hard because of FEAR. Fear that the artwork won’t turn out well, whether it’s a blank canvas staring you in the face with its threat of failure, or a painting that’s well on its way and you’re suddenly afraid to take a chance of ruining it by being too daring.

So as I sat down and sharpened my pencils and began to sketch, I had a revelation. I thought, what if I did it wrong from the start? What if I FAILED before I even began? Then there would be nothing to fear!

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Here are a couple of the first drawings I did by 'doing it wrong.'

So I began drawing a nude, but instead of trying to do it right, I just started making random marks all over the paper. Once I had quite a few of these WRONG marks, I started making some that were maybe not so wrong, marks that were sort of heading in the direction of the image I was working from. Then I started making marks that were very close to the source image, but I kept making wrong marks, too, at random, just to remind me that there was nothing precious here, nothing to fear ruining.

This had an amazing effect. I felt free! I started enjoying the act of drawing so much I found myself wondering why I’d never let myself have this much fun before. Sure, drawing had been fun sometimes, but mostly it was work. All of a sudden it wasn’t work anymore! I’d always known that letting myself “do it wrong” was a key to creative freedom, but I’d never before found such an effective way to trick my mind into letting me do that.

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Here are 2 of my favorite drawings of all I've done in the past couple of years--and they happened by letting myself do it wrong.

This unleashed a whole series of exciting new drawings, drawings that were filled with energy, movement and life—and gave me some insight as to what I needed to do in my painting to get to that place I was aiming for.

Over the next few days, trying to apply this new insight I’d gotten from drawing to my paintings, I had some ups and downs…

IMG 5641

This one I liked well enough to keep.

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This one I didn't.

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Interesting, but not interesting enough.

IMG 5656

Promising, but not promising enough.

My turning point happened with a landscape.


DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE

I chose a photograph I’d taken recently in Santo Domingo, a sunset shot of the waterfront.

IMG 3912santodomingo twk1

This one started out well. I liked the pencil drawing because it had a lot of energy. Then I began painting. After an hour or so, I stood back and…

Santodomingo inprog firstone

OMG. It sucks.

OMG. It totally sucked. How did that happen?

It took a bit for me to realize that, while I had begun with the intention of ‘doing it wrong to set myself free’, I hadn’t done that at all! My old habits had kicked in so strongly I hadn’t even realized what I was doing until I stood back and saw what a boring painting I’d created.

Santodomingo inprog no2

I took another piece of canvas and totally started over.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I tore the painting down and tacked up another piece of canvas, and began again.

With total concentration and a very strong intention, I focused on doing it wrong, on painting and enjoying moving the paint around, on playing, with absolutely no worries about whether the painting ‘worked’ or not. It was working just because I was enjoying myself!

You can guess what happened. An interesting, lively painting happened!

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Santo Domingo 1

And when I stood back from that painting, and realized it was good, it was fun, it was alive…I almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory! I almost went back in and ‘finished’ it.

Which would have been a HUGE mistake.

Along with the quest for boldness comes this companion challenge: learning when to stop. Part of it is the fear that others will call your work ‘unfinished’, and the rest is just enjoying the painting so much that you forget to watch for that magic moment when everything is in perfect, breathtaking balance. Not a perfectly even, stable, symmetrical kind of balance. No, the kind of balance where everything is poised to fall to earth but somehow is holding together. A balance that takes your breath away because you feel like you’ve been allowed to enter that timeless moment, that instant before everything collapses. That’s what I want in my paintings.

I began to approach it with this painting. I got even closer with the next one…



FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER


I wanted to take the dangerous balance idea even further. I chose a photograph of Eduardo as the taking-off point.

Eduardo source

Not sure why, but Eduardo is my go-to model when I want to try something edgy. He's like a blank canvas for my creative urges…not exactly my muse, but close.

I stayed very awake through this painting. I kept my awareness always on the whole painting, not on making it look like the photograph, but on that precarious balance I was aiming for…because I knew if I took my eye off the tightrope for even a second, there was a chance I’d fall to earth.

Eduardo 2up

And it worked.

I painted and painted…but I also left a lot of it alone. And when I heard myself say, I love it but it’s not finished—

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Ipanema Towers 12

—I stopped!

Title image

January 31, 2013



When I got back from my Dominican Republic trip on December 12, it took me about a week to catch up on stuff—“stuff” meaning work that wasn’t drawing or painting. Then I was finally free to begin creating art again.

I’d been thinking about painting most of the time I was in the D.R., wishing I could do some. I was very impatient to get back into my studio and start splashing paint onto canvas.

I was so excited to start a painting…

…right up until the moment when it was time to actually GO INTO THE STUDIO AND START A PAINTING!

Then I found all these things I absolutely had to do first. Like making sure my art database was up to date. Rotating the art on my website. Looking at pix of naked guys online. Checking Facebook.

Anything but actually painting!

I always forget about this when I’m away and can’t paint. When I can’t, then I really want to do it. But when I CAN, I find all kinds of things to do instead.

I guess this is human nature, and painters are no exception. It’s always easier to do the less risky stuff.

Finally, though, you just get to the point where you know you have no choice. You have to paint. Doesn’t even matter what you paint. But you have to get started.

So that’s what I did. I began with some landscapes. Safe stuff. And I actually didn’t do too badly. Here’s one of the acrylic sketches I did of the beach in Las Terrenas.

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I followed that with a nice little painting of the road to Las Terrenas.

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Then I did a larger painting that was more of a commitment. “Sunset in Las Terrenas” was kind of a safe, conservative painting both in terms of style and subject matter, but it turned out well, and I felt like I was starting to get somewhere.

1555

This one's called Sunset in Las Terrenas.

So I decided to do a figure, and I chose a photograph of Manuel with a towel to work from. I had high hopes for this one—I drew it right on the canvas and the drawing had lots of good energy. Then I started painting and—it all went to hell. On the face of it it’s not that bad…I could have finished it and it would have been perfectly okay. But I was not aiming for “okay.” There was no energy, no excitement. For me, working on a painting under those conditions is a kind of torture. So I painted it out.

Failed manuel w towel 3up

This one didn't work out…

I was having trouble because I wasn’t clear what I was aiming for, I just knew it needed to be something exciting and daring. Hard to get somewhere when you don’t know where it is. I just knew where it WASN’T.

The problem—if you want to call it that—is that I spend a lot of time looking at art by other artists. (If you’re interested, you can see some of the art I find inspiring by checking out my boards on Pinterest, especially Art I Like, Abstracts and Bold Brushwork.) I see things that excite me and move me deeply, and I want that kind of energy, emotion and excitement in my work. And that’s great, because it gives me creative energy. But it’s not so great in that it doesn’t give me any direction. Or I should say it gives me TOO MANY directions. There are so many things I want to try, but when you get into the studio, you kind of have to just CHOOSE SOMETHING and begin. You do need to have some idea of what you want to do.

Except sometimes you don’t.

I was so full of energy and so unsure of what I wanted to do with it, I decided to just put up a blank canvas and start throwing paint at it. My goal was not to create a painting, but just to PAINT. I figured this was a good way to tackle the paralysis that was threatening to keep me from painting at all.

And it worked!

Here are some of the results (I didn’t save any of these, but I did take pictures to keep track of my progress).

IMG 5533 exercise

The first exercise. It sucked, but it didn't matter. In fact that was kind of the point.


IMG 5535 exercise

Exercise piece 2. I'm starting to have more fun here as I really realize it doesn't matter what I do.


IMG 5536 exercise

Exercise piece 3. I actually kind of liked this one. But not well enough to keep it. I didn't want to start getting attached to these while I was still using them to loosen up.


IMG 5537 exercise

Exercise piece 4. Each one got a little more energetic and interesting…I was startingto get more confident.

I thought the first one pretty much sucked, but reminded myself it didn’t matter. The point was not to make a great painting, but just to paint. So I did another one. And interesting things started to happen.

Just the act of mixing paint and then using my sponges to make big, bold strokes on the canvas was liberating and energizing. What was happening was, I was starting to get my confidence back. I did this sort of thing for a couple of days and I started to feel limbered up, so I decided to try another figure painting. Again, I chose a photograph of my newest model, Manuel.

1556 source

Here's a photograph of Manuel at Playa Escondida near Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic. I decided to try doing a painting of this one.



This one went pretty well. The loosening-up process had really done what I needed it to do. It also helped that I painted this one pretty much entirely with sponges, which is a good way to keep myself from getting too careful. It also forces me to work large, which is good for me.

1556 inprog 4up

Manuel at the Beach, in progress.


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Manuel at the Beach, the completed painting.

This one was kind of fun, although I felt I was still playing it a bit too safe. Doesn’t matter; it turned out well and I like it. At this point I just needed some successes to get my confidence back.

I followed this with some more abstract exercises. Again, I didn’t save these; they were exercises to get me in shape for the next painting.

IMG 5543 exercise

Another exercise piece. Looking at this one, several days after doing it, I almost wish I'd kept it. It's better than I realized at the time. Oh well, it served its purpose.



IMG 5544 exercise

I don't feel anything was lost by my having destroyed this one. But it did do what it was meant to do, which was to get me expressing myself with paint, without self-judgment.


And the next painting was another one of Manuel. This was a smaller work, nothing too earth-shattering, but a nice piece, solid, fairly loose, and I felt good about it. More confidence building, more of the day-to-day studio work you have to do to get good enough that you’re prepared when lightning does strike.

Rainymorningstudy 2up

The source photo and the painting, which I entitled Rainy Morning Study.

When I finished Rainy Morning Study, I went right back to my ‘exercises.’ And something happened that surprised me. One of my exercises turned into a real, solid abstract painting that I liked a lot. So I kept it! It’s called “Good Company.”

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This abstract painting is called Good Company.

Excited about the abstract I’d just done, I decided to try another one. This one, too, worked out. Although it wasn’t as spontaneous as Good Company, I like the energy of it. It’s called “Inside Job.” (Both those titles just popped into my head when I finished the paintings, thank goodness. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to come up with painting titles.)

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I titled this one Inside Job.

So after 3 weeks of warming up I feel like the creative juices are starting to flow again. I like the fact that I never know what will happen next, and while I’m not sure where this abstract stream in my work will go, I’m enjoying it, and I do know that it doesn’t matter that much WHAT I’m painting, as long as I AM painting.