A couple weeks ago, I sent out my monthly (ish) newsletter, with an image of this frangipani painting … as it was then. There were one or two things that kept catching my eye however, so I ended up going back in and making some changes.
That can be such a slippery slope.
How to spot the mistakes
When you paint the way I do – not just doing a drawing & colouring it in, but blocking in colour intuitively & building up the image in layers, pushing and pulling and continuously refining the details – it can be harder to see what you have left to do.
This painting actually started as an abstract, but then I changed my mind, added a few glazes to turn it into a background and started adding frangipani flowers.
It can be difficult to know/decide when a painting is done.
You do get better at this with practice. However, it is always possible to “overwork” a painting. You fiddle around, second guessing your choices, and before you know it the painting has lost its energy.
Then you’re faced with a choice. You can either scrap the painting, gesso over it and start again, with more confident strokes, OR you can push forward. If you persist, you might be able to come out the other side with something even more wonderful than you’d first imagined.
But, you have to be willing to sacrifice certain areas that you liked, because if you hold on to them, treat them like they’re precious, the painting won’t flow, the image won’t come together as a whole.
I’ve developed a habit of photographing my work as I go along, not so much for sharing WIP images, as for me to get a different perspective on the painting.
We artists have several different ways of doing this, I think the most instinctual is to just take a few steps back … then maybe a few more.
When we’re in the act of painting, we are up close – literally painting the bark on each tree – and stepping back allows us to see the whole picture, the whole forest.
After looking at the same image for a long time, we can actually miss certain things that are obvious to a fresh set of eyes, either our own (by putting the painting away for a few days and pulling it out again), or those of an artist friend.
Another trick would be to look at the painting in a mirror, or to look at it upside down, sometimes both!
It sounds funny, but if you squint at the painting, you won’t be so caught up in the details, but can evaluate the values. I have even on occasion photographed a painting and looked at it in black and white, to see if any mistakes jump out.
Sometimes, you keep tweaking a painting, until you realize that you’ve pretty much painted a new version of the same thing. Different, but not necessarily better.
Or maybe even, you look back at the earlier version, and it does not actually look as bad as you thought. Or maybe there are bits of each version that you want to keep.
How to get it wrong, the more you try to get it right
This is where perfectionism comes in.
Many wonderful works of art would not exist if it were not for the artist’s attention to detail and obsessive focus.
But the process can be quite unhealthy for the artist who skips meals, sleep, hygiene, a social life and more in pursuit of their vision.
Excuse me for a moment … I really should go grab some lunch!
Ah, that’s so much better. Now where was I? Yes. Pushing through perfectionism.
How life is like a (frangipani) flower
If I were to try to paint the perfect frangipani flower, it would be symmetrical, each petal fresh and exactly the same as the last. An ideal.
However, if you spend any time really looking at a bunch of frangipani flowers (or any other flowers), you would realize that there are always imperfections.
One flower of the bunch is still opening out while another starts to fade, its edges browning. One’s petals have insect bites while another’s are torn from the movement of branches rubbing against it in the wind.
Reality is not “ideal”. A single flower might be perfect when photographed/painted in full bloom. But perfection is fleeting, and therefore not a worthwhile pursuit in of itself.
The wild, overgrown garden, often bears exciting visual images that you won’t find in the well groomed one.
In fact, there is freedom in imperfection.