Monday, 14 May 2018

What to do when your painting fails



Painting is such an emotional process, and although the euphoria of finishing a good piece is one of the best feelings in the world, there are times when the opposite happens too.  When our paintings go wrong it can bring up all kinds of feelings from frustration to anger, and even on occasions going as far as knocking our self confidence.  We can sometimes find ourselves assailed by those awful inner voices too, telling us 'you're not good enough' 'this is awful' and that sort of nonsense.  We are, by default, our own worst critics and quick to reproach ourselves when things don't turn out right.  We can also feel a sense of disappointment or despair and one of our first instincts is to throw the lot out or tear it to shreds.

But wait...

There is sometimes a way back from these 'Lost Paintings' which I'll share with you now as I've recently had the very experience I'm writing about.


Last week, deeply inspired and excited by the sudden swathes of bluebells in our nearby woods, I felt the call to start a new painting.  I got quickly to work laying down the base coats, building up that tantalising indigo amid the fresh lime greens.  My idea was to create a piece with a winding path through the flowers, leading out onto a sunny meadow beyond.  And so far, so good.

And then I went back to it and added in the trees.  And whilst I was painting the trees, I felt a sense of dissatisfaction creeping in.  I added a few more leaves and stepped back, eventually acknowledging that I wasn't happy with it.

So what happens next?

I've found to my detriment that throwing a painting away or tearing it in half in a fit of remorse is the worst thing we can do.  Later on we might come to regret that decision as sometimes there is a solution to be found, but of course by then it's too late.  

The first step is tuning in to the feeling that something isn't working out or doesn't feel right. 

A cup of tea at this point and a ten minute break can be useful to assess what the problem might be and whether or not there is a way to put it right.  If you know right off what's gone wrong then you can try and steer it back on track.  

If you're struggling to figure it out and you hate the entire thing at this point, the next step is to simply give it time and stop.

As frustrating as it is to walk away and leave a painting in limbo, the sensible thing to do is to turn the fellow towards the wall and ignore it for a while.  Every now and then you can check in on it, see if you're ready to give it another go. 

My Bluebells are now sitting with a half finished Blackpool Sands painting at the back of the studio, and truthfully, I've no idea at the moment whether or not they will ever get finished.  Sometimes with the passing of time apathy sets in, and in this case it's often best to simply accept it wasn't meant to be and paint it over or throw it away.

You might be thinking that hours of your life have been needlessly wasted on a piece of work that was only fit for the bin - but no!  I think each painting I create brings it's own lesson.  The ones that are successful help me to identify what worked and why.  I can take this information forward and use it in future work.  In the same way we can apply this critique to the ones that fail.  We can ask what went wrong, and why - was it the colours? The composition? The subject matter?  

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Back to the Bluebells...a couple of weeks later, I am feeling that my composition was wrong in parts, and I was working too tightly again.  Of late, I've begun working in a much looser style which I am really enjoying, and now I can see that for some reason, I had reverted to working in my old manner. 

I know now that it will be one of those panels that gets painted over, or thrown away.  And that's OK.  Bluebells was a lesson in letting go of ways of working that no longer bring joy.  It felt restrictive and dull and that was never going to come across well as a finished piece.  I strongly believe that paintings are infused with a sort of energy - you'll know exactly what I mean - it's when you see a piece of work that seems to shimmer with a special magic, it draws you in and you intuitively know that the artist absolutely loved creating it, and invested their heart and soul into painting it.  In the same way you will also be able to 'feel' when a painting is missing that magical ingredient, it will be dull and lacklustre, it won't affect you in the same way.

So, don't be afraid to make mistakes in your work.  Use them as lessons to grow your creative tool kit, to learn what works and what doesn't.  Practice tuning into your emotions as you work - do you feel good? Exuberant? Excited?  Or are you feeling a bit distracted? Flat? Bored?  
Learning to tune into your feelings will become second nature in time, and will save you hours of fretting over your failing artwork as you come to understand that these lessons are all just part of the process.

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