Three questions to ask when a painting isn't working.
There are many things you can look at when a painting is not working. For example, is the composition strong enough?
Are the marks and shapes varied? Are the colours harmonious? But sometimes it can be simpler to ask a different sort of question, one based not on technical reasons but a more emotional approach.
This is one of the few pieces left from my series Headlands and Rock pools, or at least how it looked until recently. I've had it sat in my treatment room while working and something about it was bothering me.
I finally realised that there was nothing to link the foreground to the background. I had come to this conclusion before but couldn’t think quite what to do about it.
I originally painted this piece in lockdown and I called it 'Held', in reference to the safe space a rock pool provides as the tide goes out, but also in acknowledgement of the importance of feeling held both emotionally and physically. A feeling that was sadly lacking for too many people during that time. However a tide returns, bringing fresh oxygen and life, and without it the pool would stagnate and life would die. And being held too long becomes smothering and claustrophobic. My pool needed a connection to the sea beyond, to allow this piece to really represent the positive feeling I intended it to be about. True support and shelter that is constant, and the freedom to grow and expand.
Life needs a balance of adventure and calm, risk taking and rest. Too little of either will surely lead to burn out or boredom and stagnation.
This is so true of the creative process itself, as well as in life in general. Many artists talk of experiencing a lull in creativity when they have finished a creative project or body of work, feeling uninspired, not sure what to work on next. This can be unnerving when you first start to paint seriously, but it is a natural part of the creative process. The need to refuel the creative tank, often by doing something completely different is essential. However if you take too much time away from the studio it can also feel a struggle to get going again. (That is a whole other topic for another time.)
Taking risks in your work is also an important part of growing and developing as an artist. Without it your work will never evolve. I recently took a course at the St Ives School of Painting with Jill Eisele. I love this quote she gave us,
Your work should be 70% doubt, any less and you are not learning.
Something I know I need to remember at times.
I found all this, by looking at what this painting needed on another level- that of intention, rather than just looking for technical faults. This isn’t to say that a knowledge of composition and technical skills aren’t helpful. Its just another way to approach a painting you are struggling with and can be a mine of information for yourself too.
At the time I was resisting writing a blog and sending a newsletter to launch a new collection. I needed to take those risks and step out of the safe comfort zone of my studio.
3 questions to ask yourself when wondering how to move your work forward.
1. What is it I want to this painting to be about and why?
You may have had a clear idea at the start of the painting or it may appear or even change as you work. Look at external circumstances. The pandemic and coming out of lockdown is a clear influence on this piece although I did not set out to consciously make a painting about these strange times.
2. How successfully is this painting saying this?
Do the shapes and marks hold the energy I want to convey, look at the composition and design, as well as colour.
3. Where in my life am I not doing the things I want the painting to be about?
This can be a such a useful question to ask. Everything in our lives, especially those things or people that trigger us, can reflect back our shadow selves (those parts of ourselves we do not like or want to own) or how we are blocking ourselves. It is called Mirror theory and was first identified by the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. Art can be a mirror just as much as people can, not only our own but other art which we connect with too.
It can be really helpful to journal about these questions, especially if really stuck, though it is not essential. Often just having the painting in a different room to which you made it in, but in a place you will see it frequently, is all the space that is needed to get the answers you need. The insights may not appear when you are contemplating these questions, but when you are doing something unrelated or mundane. In my case I think I was washing up.
So this is now how my painting looks. A few brushstrokes, a bit of glazing and there is now clear path carved into the rocks, for the sea to gently trickle in. There is still the calm sanctuary of the rock pool to retreat to if the surf gets too wild, but there is also an option to slip into the sea and explore new adventures.
I now love it and I got this blog post written too - yay.