Question: I want to paint more expressively but how do I loosen up?
Answer: Failure is the Best Teacher
Perfection. The word brings to mind overly manicured gardens at historic French villas, straight lines that you’re not allowed to color outside of and predictability.
When you are learning to paint you struggle for years just trying to make your stuff look like stuff. You spend time trying not to make mistakes, hoping you’re doing it right and figuring out how to make your stuff look darn good.
One day it dawns on you that your stuff actually looks like stuff! Then you spend a whole lot more time (a lifetime, in fact) trying to make your stuff look as amazing as possible.
The path I’ve found most effective is to embrace destruction or deconstruction. Every studio painting I’ve worked on this year has almost been wiped entirely off the canvas. What seems to happen in this, I do some sketches and color studies, then I transfer my idea to a larger canvas, I block in all my big shapes and then I passionately hate every single inch of the painting.
The dark side of my brain whispers, “That’s it, you lost it, you can’t paint worth a damn anymore. Hang it up. Sell off your equipment and go back to work as a graphic designer.”
Then my stomach reminds me that it’s lunch time and I’m “hangry.” I get very “hangry” (that’s hungry and angry mashed together in case you weren’t aware) and tend to be negative until I’m fed. After eating I remember that I love painting, it’s my compulsive obsession and I don’t want to be a graphic designer again. So I take a look at the painting.
I still hate every inch. I plan on wiping it off first thing after dropping my kids off at school the next morning.
However, I refuse to let it be a complete loss. I plan to experiment with it before wiping it off just to see what I am able to learn by pushing paint around. More specifically, I plan to destroy parts of it by breaking edges, scraping away large areas with a palette knife, drawing on it with a pencil, slapping thick paint through passages where I see a sharp line and using tools can only be found at a home improvement store.
Why not, right? I was going to wipe it off anyway.
And that’s when it happens – the interesting stuff, the stuff worth keeping, the stuff that makes the painting worth looking at – the fun stuff. The more risks I take the more interesting the painting becomes until eventually I don’t hate it anymore and I don’t plan on wiping it off anymore.
To do this I have to be willing to fail spectacularly. I have to be willing to sacrifice passages of the painting that I like for the good of the whole piece. It can not be precious or I won’t take any risks.
Do they all turn out well? No. I wipe off my fair share but, at least in the process I learn something from each one.
One thing I keep in mind is this, every single artist I admire has painted a lot of truly horrible paintings. Most of them are never shown in a museum or printed in books, so, what we see of their work is only the best. Ask any living artist you admire and I guarantee they will tell you that yes, they still paint bad paintings, maybe with less frequency than when the first started out, but they still make some.
So, the next time you’ve spent hours working on a piece and find you hate every square inch of it, take a break, eat something and then see how far you can push it and what that painting will teach you. You might be surprised at what you learn.
For more information about Kim and to see more of her work visit www.KimVanDerHoek.com
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