When life gives you lemons, draw them, 11 x 14 inches dry pastels, graphite on paper

"When life gives you lemons, draw them". (Nikki)

"Trust your intuition, it's just like goin' fishin'; you cast your line 'til you get a bite." (Paul Simon)

"Color! What a deep and mysterious language..." (Paul Gauguin)


Perpetual Painting: experience to learn


Like music

where silence between the notes sets the rhythm,

not painting is half the work.

Neighborhood Heron, 11 x 11 x 3 inches acrylics on canvas, wrapped sides paintedFor all artists, the most mysterious question of all might be “is it finished?” , but for the sake of clarity and the examples here I’ll just refer to painters. One popular opinion is that the best painting is one that’s finished quickly; one that retains the artist’s first fresh impressions, otherwise it should be painted over or tossed in the garbage and a new one started immediately. There are solid reasons for not lingering too long on a painting, but in matters of the Art I’m always suspicious when I hear the word should being used in a sentence containing advice. Some art rumors are accepted as absolute when they could stand some explanation. It can be confusing enough for the experienced, but especially for beginners looking for ground rules and a map to follow.
In Art though, for every should there is another option. The same suggestions don’t work for everyone. Have you ever felt guilty or embarrassed – even ashamed – because you took a painting too far? I have, but it’s only when I’ve compared my work and methods to others’ judgment that I should’ve quit while I was ahead…and guilt has no business hanging around in our daily work if it isn’t useful! Frustration can be an excellent motivator if it’s allowed to be.
If it’s going to make sense – not exclusively the sole intention – every painting reaches stages where we need to make the call to leave it alone and say it’s finished, or proceed; stages where placing one more mark means the entire painting has to change and be brought up to par around it. If things that need correcting are not dealt with honestly, the work will not be as successful as it could be. There are phases in each painting that are truly intimidating, when painting is anything but leisurely; when we’re faced with: do we climb that mountain or not?

Myrtle at the Zoo, Crepe Myrtle branches, Phase 01, 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas, wrapped sides painted Myrtle at the Zoo, Crepe Myrtle branches, , Phase 04, 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas Myrtle at the Zoo, Phase 11, 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas Myrtle at the Zoo, Phase 15, 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas

A lot of Plein Aire artists swear that their methods of painting outdoors on-site produce the highest quality work. The limitations of sunlight, location, outdoor temperatures and so on, mean that to finish successfully they need to splash down a lot of information within a short period of time. Doing so, when the thinking brain is disengaged and just responding to the subject, a lot of amazing unintentional surprises show up in the painting. Spontaneity and spurts of enthusiasm for being fully in the present tense can bring great results that need no further efforts at the end of the day. Plein Aire artists are in a field of their own (literally too!).
It’s a curious thing how creativity warps and reforms into amazing things when pressure is applied. Many people who aren’t artists will agree that the greatest ideas can occur when under pressure to produce them. For those who have orders to complete, at its best the challenge is like a beautiful sort of panic, where there’s an understanding of the time restrictions while fully trusting that whatever needs to happen is going to be successful. The abilities are less trustworthy when the pace and demand for finished work increases, time allotted decreases and the quality of the product diminishes. If this imbalance continues over extended periods of time, like years, sloppy and care-less habits take hold too easily. If there is work that must be accomplished though, these things can be controlled to some extent –this is one benefit of pushing personal boundaries: it puts tenacity to practice – but creativity is fickle and that’s a fact.

What has all that got to do with the question about finishing? The best paintings are not necessarily those that are finished in a few hours or a day. There are other purposes for painting besides finishing it to admire, be admired or to sell. Nothing replenishes the quality of our creative energy like being lost in the timeless, pure enjoyment of study and detail for no reason in particular. “The Zone” is like an addiction where the high is fairly elusive but we’re compelled compulsively to track it down again and again, discovering and rediscovering the source of it all. One painting could be someone’s lifetime of work.

I’m saying that if you personally feel you’d like to keep going with a painting for days or years… or never finish, then you ought to follow your own intuition about it. I’m not saying you should. I just recommend considering what other artists say, but also consider each painting as a new experience with new rules, new goals and new circumstances.
Experience, masterpiece to failure, will always apply to future work somehow. That’s the great thing about painting: no time spent searching for answers is ever wasted. It’s all recyclable material! Every decision about finishing – or not – is relative to individuality, and relative to each new painting as it develops your way.

Pushing the boundaries

Myrtle at the Zoo, Phase 18, 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvasMyrtle At The Zoo, first version, Phase 18, unfinished – Crepe Myrtle branches and seedpods – 20 x 34 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas, gallery wrapped.

Work daily March 10th through April 2nd, 2008:

Finished for now…this one needs a rest, and I may or may not return to it. Regardless, I’ve learned a lot ad enjoyed playing with different ideas. It’s been interesting teetering back and forth between frustration and fun, but sometimes that’s what painting is all about. There’s been such a tension over this one as with no other painting, where the urge to throw it away is pitted against the determination to see what could happen. I still like a lot of things in it, such as the technique of dripping paint down the front that I’ve tried in previous paintings. Dripping re-energized the painting and me, and took the work in unexpected directions.

Myrtle At The Zoo, Crepe Myrtle Seed Pods and Zebra in January, Fort Worth Zoo, TX - 11H x 11W x 3D inches acrylics on canvas, sides paintedMyrtle At The Zoo, 2nd version – 11 x 11 x 3 inches acrylics on canvas, gallery wrapped sides painted. Many of the issues were worked through on the previous larger version, and I’m pleased with this boxy little painting…still not completely satisfied that I’m finished with this subject because it’s so complex, and it’s like a puzzle that’s nagging at me to figure out, so will probably attempt this same painting at least one more time.


Perpetual painting

Painting animals with distinct and specific characteristics calls for a different approach from start to finish, for example, compared to generic landscapes. The boas are one of my favorite exhibits at the Dallas World Aquarium, downtown Dallas, Texas. The phosphorescent green skin has striking black and white scale patterns along the spine and a turquoise mother-of-pearl overall sheen that’s most visible at certain angles where the body delicately curls and bends, so this painting accumulates finer detail than is typical of my work, except in graphite illustrations.

Emerald Tree Boas, 24 x 57 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas, wrapped sides painted, a study in progress, almost finished

Emerald Tree Boas, 24 x 57 x 2 inches acrylics on canvas, wrapped sides painted (August, 2005 – ? )
As shown in the thumbnail above, there are only a few small things left to do, a little on the skin then some barely visible brushstrokes in the background like ones that were there in earlier phases, thumbnail…so it really is just about finished, but I’m not in any hurry. Of course I’ll stop in my tracks if you want to buy it!

  Left detail, Boas' Christmas, construction paper, cotton balls taped on Emerald Tree Boas, 24 x 57 x 3 inches acrylics on canvas Right detail, Boas' Christmas, construction paper, cotton balls taped on Emerald Tree Boas, 24 x 57 x 3 inches acrylics on canvas

I like having one painting around that’s going to get the full treatment! Emerald Tree Boas has become like an old friend, even hanging out celebrating holidays in the dining room with the rest of us. It would be nice if this painting could carry enough potency to alter the automatic responses of fear and disgust that are associated with snakes. It just occurred to me that it might be fun to offer the buyer an assortment of hats and hearts and ribbons for different occasions. Where I used tape, instead I’d put magnets on the back and magnets on all the little hats and accessories. It’s a little nutty maybe, but it also opens up the target market a little doesn’t it!

Nature is perfectly imperfect. I paint with acrylics, so if the surface is washed back and scrubbed regularly in areas that need change. Scrubbing paint away with a pot scrubber or wet cloth used to remove paint helps texturize, give atmosphere, and also ensure that paint won’t cake up in areas, unless that’s the intention. More debates about spending too long on a painting are that it stiffens the whole look and feel because 1) it tidies things up too much, and 2) due to the plastic properties of acrylics, if they are allowed to pile up they will harden and shine, no longer catching the tooth of the canvas.

These are all things that can also be used to advantage though. In sports you need to know your opponent… well the same is true here. You can use the buildup to create the effects it produces if that’s what you want to achieve. To keep the canvas texture for as long as possible, paint diluted with gels or water is perfect to start, then as confidence builds, so can your applications of paint. My philosophy is that if things need to change they do, until the word “finished” is loud and clear.


…practice and even failure can be applied to future work…