The Evolution of a Painting
If you’re anything like I used to be, you think that real artists know exactly what they are doing.
They sit down at their easel or table with an idea in mind. And when they start working, they proceed steadily until that idea has been realized, at which point they sit back with a satisfied smile and start planning where they will show their masterpiece.
I really used to believe that’s how it worked, but I don’t anymore. Because the more artists I have met, the more I realize there is no one way of working.
My own process, I now see, is to fumble my way towards a painting, creating failed pictures and ugly images as I go, and painting over top of everything I don’t like until finally, something clicks and I have a picture that speaks to me. And often, the finished painting is nothing like the picture I had in mind when I started. This works for me, I suppose, because my work is about what I feel, rather than what I see.
Whenever I try to paint a specific landscape, either from photos, sketches or memory, I wind up disappointed. My paintings lack depth and interest. But the minute I let go of that specific place and just focus on how I feel – either how I feel about the place or how I feel about something happening in my life – that’s when the interesting paintings emerge.
But to get to the painting I like, I now understand that I have to go through a lot that I don’t. I will spend hours applying paint that will never be seen again, destined to be buried under layers of other paint. I will choose colours I subsequently reject. I will start with a composition that I’ll change at least twice before I’m done.
It’s not pretty but it works. And the sad thing is that, before I understood my process, I gave up on countless paintings when the first attempt didn’t go as planned. Just think how much I missed out on!
Here’s a photo diary of a recent painting, “When Sky Meets Land.” I worked on this painting over a couple of weeks.
My original intent was to paint the wild and windy moor just up the road from my house. I started with generally realistic colours but the painting was just doing nothing for me.
I sometimes suffer from a mild form of depression and I worry about things I can’t control. Recently I haven’t been feeling great, so I dedided to focus on that feeling and the painting completely changed.
Feeling I might be onto something, I continued and lost what I liked about the picture
So I just went to town, focusing on the dark feelings and losing the painting even more
In the past, I would have given up at any of these stages. But I know better now. I took a few days and then settled down to work some more. This time I focused on bringing together the emotion with the original wild, windy moor that inspired me to paint in the first place. And that’s when it came together in just a few hours.
I love this painting. It expresses exactly what I hoped to express. Yes it was a long and winding and sometimes ugly journey but I now see that I’m probably not cut out to do it any other way.
So for anyone who paints or draws or sculpts or in ANY way creates, this is what I want you to understand. There is NOTHING wrong with your process. Don’t force yourself to follow someone else’s approach just because you think that’s the right way to do it. It isn’t! It’s the right way for that person but it’s unlikely to be the right way for you.
Find your own way. It might be structured or chaotic, tidy or untidy, fast or slow … it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it is authentically yours.
I wish I had learned this years ago.