Confronting a disappointing piece

For almost three years now, I’ve been watching my art of oil painting unfold smoothly.  Until now.  I hit an unexpected wall on a painting I had been working on for three months.  This occurrence is so common among artists that it is practically cliché, yet I am struggling  to not view this as a failure.

For weeks now, I’ve been confronting this painting and attempting to interpret a photograph of something very worthy and very personal on the canvas with my oils.  It has been a battle and I am disappointed in the piece.  I began the painting with excitement and confidence.  Yet every visit to the canvas the last few weeks has been a mixed bag of victory and failure.  One moment I say “Yes, that’s it!”, while the next I stand back and just shake my head, chastising myself for the mistakes I just made.  I have heard myself even try to disown it:  “Well, the composition has been off since the sketch.”  “I shouldn’t have used that much burnt sienna.” “That’s not what I meant to do.” “Michael [my instructor] isn’t correcting me.”

As David Bayles and Ted Orland say in their book Art and Fear, “…your art is not some residue left when you subtract all the things you haven’t done – it is the full payoff for the things you have done.  One might as well wish for indulgence to go back and pick better numbers for last week’s lottery.”  In other words, what I did on the canvas got me to this place, and if I keep doing the same things, I am likely to keep getting the same results.  Where have we as artists and marketers heard that before?  I was working smoothly before, but now I’m stuck, so chances are that I altered something that was working well.

With the gracious and patient help of a loved one, I was able to talk through this to figure out what was altered.  I take photographs of my works in progress, so flipping through the iterations was a huge help also.  Two reasons emerged for the rift between my vision and what is on the canvas.  One is environmental, the other is entirely of my own doing.

Let’s tackle the environmental one first, because I need your help, readers.  Michael, for reasons outside of his control, moved out of the studio from which I’d been learning and working for the last 3 years.  The new studio is much smaller, does not have air conditioning (this is Texas…’s June), and is located at double the driving distance.  The space is shared with other artists, so we can’t turn up the music the way we like (the way I need?).  In short, the physical environment where I make art has changed.

While the change in scenery and space seems to have lit a fire under Michael – he is working on over a dozen beautiful paintings for a show opening on July 13 – it has affected me negatively.  As I wrote in this post, the practical details of art-making are very important.  This single practical, private detail – the familiar, friendly, safe, fun, music-filled surroundings of Michael’s old studio – seems to be very important to me.  His old studio was my hearth and home, where I’ve learned, discovered, and grown for almost three years.  This ritual wasn’t visible or even knowable until now.  Unfortunately, I can’t reverse this one and return to the old studio – how I wish I could!

So, dear readers, do you have any suggestions for how I can acclimate to the new surroundings?  Have you ever had your work affected by such a change in environment?  If so, what did you do?

Second, somehow, without realizing it, about halfway through this painting I altered my approach to it.  Instead of concentrating on value, shadows, and shapes, I became fixated on the details in the photograph.  The result was disappointing:  very precise, hard lines, overly-blended paint, flat surfaces, little contrast between foreground and background, and an exaggerated use of one color that led to one element popping off the canvas.  All of these are contrary to my impressionistic style of capturing the essence and movement of the subject – NOT the details – through visible brush strokes, emphasis on lights and darks, and soft edges.  Michael was vocal about this, and I heard him, yet I kept making the same errors.  The painting does not look like one of my paintings and displays a clear lack of concentration.

While I know I altered my schema, I don’t know why.  Why did I focus on details all of a sudden?  Does it relate to the first reason, the change in environment and lack of concentration?  I’m not sure.  By the time I stepped back from the canvas on Sunday evening, I knew I had to do things differently moving forward.  Fearful I would take a huge brush loaded with pthalo blue and swipe it across the canvas out of frustration – to put it and me out of our misery – I decided to set the painting aside indefinitely.  I think the best strategy now is to start a new painting right away – one where I carefully and consciously return to my good habits and practices, and regain confidence and concentration.  I’m also counting on you and am confident you’ll give me some great tips to address the change in my learning environment.

It will be interesting to see which painting winds up on this blog first.

5 thoughts on “Confronting a disappointing piece

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  1. As current students leaving the safe confines of their schools, and recent graduates getting booted out of the house to venture forth at college (these days seemingly to return home in a few years saddled with debt), a change in ‘learning’ environment is an external force for maturation. This spring I am passing, whilst on my daily bike rides, numerous artists painting lovely canal and boat scenes outside. Have you ever tried to do some rudimentary work (sketching) outside in different locations? Maybe that would be some practice to divorce yourself from the comfy confines of the art nursery? I remember my first year away at college when everything was new, and some things comfortable were deeply missed, but it was a forced transition that was critical to moving forward in the world.


  2. I think getting out of the “comfy confines of the art nursery” is spot on. I often find parallels between running and writing (or art, in general) and this comfort zone notion is one of them. You can run every day on flat ground and get to feeling pretty good about yourself. Then one day you head into the hills and running is hard all over again. You feel like all of that flat-ground progress was meaningless. But as you spend more time in the hills your legs and body get stronger, and you realize going from flat ground to hills was just part of the journey.

    It’s the same thing with art, isn’t it? Learning to do your art in inhospitable places makes you a stronger artist, I believe. Every artist needs a place of their own to work, sure, but I think we get stronger by practicing our art in places where it makes the least amount of sense. Goldberg, LaMott, or Cameron — I don’t remember which, maybe it was all three — talks about writing in the “nooks and crannies” of your life. I think in this way you come to live with your art, rather than (only) making a special place and time for it.

    So maybe the trick is to let go of your judgment of your progress and recognize you are getting stronger by practicing your painting in a place you would otherwise choose not to. Whether it’s the painting you’re having trouble with or a new one doesn’t really matter. This doesn’t mean you can’t go back to and appreciate “flat ground,” but maybe you’ll be that much stronger when you do.


    1. JD and PBK, your assessments and advice were spot-on. I wrote about this same problem in my Morning Pages post, that I have trouble writing anywhere at home besides the kitchen table with a cup of coffee by my side. Feeling a little OCD! I have taken the advice to heart and started both writing and painting outside the “nursery”.

      It’s working. I got back into Michael’s studio (still a furnace in the Texas heat without A/C) and was able to start a new painting with vigor and ease. I set the previous one aside and will come back to it after some time, but for now, I’m jamming on the new one. I’m also carrying around my journal and sketching in the back of it in the oddest places: waiting for my car inspection to be completed, at the community pool in my neighborhood, while getting a pedicure. Thank you for responding with such understanding and thoughtful words.


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