One of the most important lessons I have learned from painting is that I learn more from my mistakes than I do from my successes. When a painting works out really well I tend to admire it, appreciate it, etc etc. But not much more.
However, when a painting doesn’t work out it bothers me. It’s like having a sliver, it irritates until I do something about it. With a painting this involves analyzing why it didn’t work out: composition, value, technique, colour. What is the problem(s). Then I need to figure out a way to correct the problems. Then I redo the painting with a better plan. Almost always the new version is an improvement and always I learn a lot by doing this.
I was reminded of this important lesson at this week’s Art In The Garden show and sale. I did a demo there and this year I thought I would work plein air by choosing some scene and painting it live. Normally I would work from a photo. There are many more potential problems painting live but it also can be a much richer experience.
I chose a scene with some people sitting under an awning. I started by doing a quick thumbnail sketch to bring some order to what I was seeing. This is the thumbnail I created.
The paper I took to do the painting on was 9 x 12 so when I did this thumbnail I used a little viewfinder set to 9 x 12. So far so good. This is the painting that I did. I started it on location and finished it in the studio that evening. Since I didn’t take my camera I only had my thumbnail as reference for the painting when I got home.
While I think there are a few positives about this painting I’m not happy with it. I like the sense of light behind the left side figure. However, I don’t think the composition works. The 12 x 9 format doesn’t seem suited to this subject. The main part (the figures) are more horizontal. The big problem with it, for me, is that it isn’t really a watercolour. There is none of the luscious glow that watercolour is famous for. It’s too busy and over worked. I got caught up in seeing all the things in it as separate objects, ie the people, the individual leaves, flowers etc. I wasn’t seeing things just as shapes and connecting those shapes to create a pleasing composition. In other words I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. This is a very common problem with beginning painters but we can all be subject to it from time to time.
I decided to redo it and began by making changes to the format. Instead of 12 x 9 I squared it up to 12 x 12. I also tried to see everything as just shapes that have a certain value and colour and as much as possible I tried to connect these shapes. I was also determined to be bolder in my use of paint so I could get those glowing washes the first time instead of glazing them over and over and losing that luminosity. This is the result.
I’m much happier with this version. As always I can see changes and improvements I would like to make but it does capture a nice sense of the scene. I has a much nicer composition and it is definitely a better watercolour technique. It was fun to do whereas the original version was work.
Normally, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to post a painting that didn’t work out but I felt that there was something very important to learn from this entire process so I said, “What the heck”.
The important point of this whole experience was that it showed that, indeed, we can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. For me I have found that this lesson applies to the rest of my life and not just my art life.