Newsletter

Winter 2018 / Volume 1 / Issue 3

Why isn't my painting working?

I recently did a painting that has to be one of my worst. I was on the verge of destroying it when I realized that it could be a learning experience for me. A couple of years ago I went through many of my paintings and plein air sketches. There were several I disliked so I took them into my woodworking shop, turned on my band saw, and cut them up into pieces! I had been holding on to them with the idea that someday I would fix them. This time, however, instead of turning on the band saw I decided share with you what I am learning from my mistakes.

“Pine Creek Grist Mill” at Wildcat Den

Before we even think about putting a brush to canvas to create a new masterpiece it is critical that we know WHY we’re painting. Take time to read this month’s article by John Pototschnik. He helps us understand the benefits of taking the time to figure out the idea or concept for a painting as well as how that process takes place.

One of the major mistakes I made with this painting is that I had no concept. Honestly, I didn’t even consider what I wanted to express before I began. Mixing and putting paint on canvas is exciting to me. Those first few expressive strokes get my blood racing. I tend to think that maybe once I’m in “the zone” magic will happen.

Initially I felt tremendous. I had a sense that this painting would definitely be the best one I’d ever done. Viewer’s emotions would be aroused; the art world taken to new heights! Time passed. I took a break and sat back with coffee in hand and observed my work. Yes, it was still going well, but there was an uneasiness and the initial euphoria was beginning to fade.

Little questions began to nag me. Are the trees blocking the view? Do I have an entrance to visually walk around and experience the work? Maybe the background needs to be a different cooler color. Does the water really feel like it’s moving? Have I used the right blueish color for the foreground snow, and what direction is the light coming from? Does it feel like a warm light shining on that middle ground snow and Mill? Wait a minute, where is my center of interest?

I calmed down and decided that if I moved the two foreground trees everything would be fine. I’d be back on track with this good painting (already beginning to be downgraded in my mind from masterpiece). I made changes to the piece. Turning out my studio lights that evening, I thought that perhaps the morning light and a good night’s sleep will renew my idea that it looked pretty good.

Several days passed. I continued making modifications. Stepping back and looking, I kept trying to make myself recapture the initial secure feelings I had when the painting began. My uncertainty was growing. Still, I reasoned, it was pretty good. Indeed, there were many painterly strokes. The mill did look like it had weathered many winters. The water was flowing, and, yes, I did feel the light shining down on the snow by the mill. So I decided to take it to art class to show my students.

At the gallery I prominently displayed it and intentionally positioned a light to make sure everyone saw my new painting at its best. The first student to see it turned to me and asked, “Do you like it?” I half-heartedly responded that it was ok and that I’d probably work on it some more. (This seems to be a standard reply used by artists when viewers don’t react with infinitely glowing words!)

That afternoon I went back and really looked at the painting. I realized it was destined for the junk pile. Not because of the reactions I had heard, but because I had known for some time that it wasn’t working. I simply hadn’t wanted to admit it. I had done everything I could to fix it yet it still didn’t feel right.

Here is the lesson. I have a painting of a mill that looks good, near a stream with water that looks great, on a background that sets back and gives atmospheric perspective. Trees are in the foreground and a feeling of sunlight is on the middle ground snow. An artist can render objects to look great, but when missing the supporting reason, its value to the viewer dramatically decreases.

Concept first, then strong composition and accurate rendering are all necessary for a good painting. My approach to this painting was similar to a builder trying to build without any plans simply because he or she loves to pound nails into wood!

Next time you pick up your brush to begin a new masterpiece, learn from me. Take the necessary time to come up with a concept. Consider what it is you are feeling about your subject matter. Compose your shapes to support your idea. Excellent composition is what separates the ordinary paintings from great ones. You can do it and in the future so will I.

p.s. Writing about my experience to you resulted in a new challenge within myself. My desire to really consider WHY I am painting what I am painting was so strong that I actually went back to Wild Cat Den last week. I spent unhurried time there truly observing my surroundings. And now, as I work on notan sketches, the concept for a new strong painting is beginning to form. Stay tuned for next month’s blog, I think you’ll find it interesting! 

Determining the Concept

By John Pototschnik

David Leffel, in Linda Cateura’s book Oil Painting Secrets from a Master, says “The idea for a picture comes before you begin to paint. It is the artist’s way of seeing things.”

When someone designs and builds a house or just purchases existing blueprints…before any of that…a decision has been made, an idea has been finalized as to the style of house desired. It might be Colonial, Ranch, Country, Contemporary or Victorian; whatever the choice, that decision is the concept. It is called that because everything that follows is a result of that choice.

For example, if the concept is Victorian, which is a tall, narrow, decorative, multistory, with bay windows and cone shaped turrets, but in the building stage you constructed a low profile, single story, unadorned structure with wide overhanging eaves, would the result be Victorian or Ranch? Obviously, it’s Ranch. What happened? The concept was not adhered to.

Similarly, for us artists, if the decision is to depict a landscape shrouded in fog, but the painting actually produced contains intense color and high value contrast, the concept and finished piece have become incompatible.

Below is the photo reference used for the painting “Texas Hill Country”. The demonstration reveals how the photo influenced the final painting but had little to do with determining the mood for the painting. The concept for this painting was all about the mood. Now when one considers this photo, there are lots of possible concepts. Just consider the many ways in which the scene could be cropped. In addition to that, just about everything can be moved, removed, added to, or changed in some way. The basic information is still there. For example, the road and fences could be removed creating a vast pasture with cattle…and we haven’t even begun to consider the many moods of nature that could make this a very exciting piece. Anyway, I hope you get the idea. Every painting needs to begin with a clear concept.

Photo reference for “Texas Hill Country”

So, even before the canvas is selected, a decision must be made as to what we want to communicate. In fact, that decision will determine what size and proportion of canvas is ultimately chosen.. Once the concept is established, don’t deviate from it or the likely result will be a confusing, discordant painting…or one significantly different from the original concept/idea. The main idea needs to remain the main idea throughout. That doesn’t mean changes can’t be made during the painting process, they just need to fit within the main idea without creating disharmony.

For the painting, “Texas Hill Country”, the big simple idea was to maintain the feeling of expanse, isolation, and sheer silence. I felt a sunset with its diminishing light would add great drama, and in light of the impending darkness, increase even more the sense of utter quiet, isolation, and even apprehension. The very faint sound of the distant vehicle brings the scene to life.

With all these things in mind, everything following: drawing, composition, values, color, even the quality of the edges, must be consistent with the chosen mood.

Beginning stage: Palette choice is white, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and lemon yellow. Canvas is toned with various mixtures of UB/AC. Block-in begins.

Mood is established. Block-in is sufficiently complete.

Seven benefits for first selecting a concept

David Leffel, in the book mentioned above, believes that just as a writer’s theme must precede plot and character, and they in turn must express the novel’s theme…composition gives substance to a painting’s concept.

Leffel goes on to offer seven valuable benefits for first selecting a concept. Working with a clear concept will:

  1. Keep the technique under control because you’re forced to work within the constraints of your concept
  2. Provide consistency throughout the canvas
  3. Help identify what to emphasize and what to downplay
  4. Help pull all elements of the painting together, thereby creating unity
  5. Help you know when the painting is completed
  6. Give you a sense of direction
  7. Give a sense of fulfillment when you have accomplished the given task

“Texas Hill Country” – 16″ x 20″ – Oil

Helpful tips for determining a clear concept

  1. Paint what you enjoy and understand. Painting is difficult enough, so begin with something that stirs your soul.
  2. Think. Fine painting is more than an emotional outburst.
  3. What is it about the subject that deeply and instinctively appeals to you? a) Composition of the subject matter elements? b) Color relationships? c) Lighting? d) Overall mood/value relationships? e) Action, activity, movement? f) What emotion does the subject activate within you? (Fear, awe, joy, peacefulness, etc.)
  4. The more clearly and specifically we can determine the items listed above, the more clear we will be in communicating our concept.

I have found through many years of teaching that young artists, when working from photos, have a very difficult time moving beyond the reference material. The photo dictates the concept, the composition, color and detail. The mind tends to disconnect and the hands go to work. If I’m not careful, I can fall into the same trap very easily.

Some of this is due to lack of ability but often it is because insufficient thought was given to establishing a concept.

I hope this helps. First things first…THINK.