watching myself paint

i began to recognize what seemed like a deep paradox in the task of learning to paint. it went something like this:

— i don't know enough about painting to know how to get an effect i want
— i can't identify the right solution because i often don't understand what the problem really is
— the only way to learn what i don't know is through trial and error
— but most trial and error is a waste of time, or has me running in circles
— but painting advice limits my trial and error by giving me a premature answer
— so most advice limits my learning, or sends me in the wrong direction.

i could not see a way out of this dilemma: either i would be wasting time by exploring on my own, or stifling creativity by following the example of others.

i disliked the prominent streak of technical imitation that runs through most watercolor painting ... artists borrow technical tricks and even subject matter from one another, inbreeding their watercolor development.

when these artists reached the limits of advice, they stopped growing; they just got more subtle and refined in their technical tricks.

despite all this blather, i found that reading books helped me after all, in two ways:

first, the demonstration paintings, and the finished paintings of major artists from cotman to chamberlain, gave me insight into how images emerged from specific techniques. i sometimes spent half an hour looking in detail at a good reproduction of a single painting, mentally painting the picture, step by step.

seeing some paintings up close in the original made this kind of study possible ... for that i have to thank claire at the met. she showed me the homer and sargent watercolors ... with this experience i could decode the reproductions of works by other artists as well.

second, different artists in the many books i read raised similar technical issues but described in different terms and solved through different recommendations. these variations in the descritpion and solutions helped me see the problem from different perspectives.

muddy colors. value structure. color harmonies. controlling a wash. adjusting values. mixing on the paper. mixing green. i only "got it" after reading about it several times.

the books' only shortcoming was that they failed to make clear how much of painting depends on repeated adventurous individual practice, practice and more practice.

i was surprised to realize that many modern watercolor books are actually misleading, because some published painters have apparently not had a thorough art education.

in contrast, some of the out-of-print art books, particularly the wonderful tutorial by the late rex brandt, are bursting with memorable rules and deep technical insights, all presented with a fine sense for how art gets made.

i still did not see what was or could be my painting style: i lacked the wholeness of skill in using paints to create an image, i lacked a personal taste for the icons or images that justify a specific selection and handling of materials, and i did not assert any relationship between this representation and the viewer — as illusion, sign or symbol.

i was just watching myself paint, breaking off small technical challenges to work on as separate studies or exercises, and throwing myself into "gift images" without much worry for how the painting might come out.

i was an unfledged bird flapping its stubby tips but not making much headway toward flying.

i learned at a gut level that watching myself paint meant really getting inside the painting experience. i learned the most this way, and made the most valuable accidental and beautiful discoveries when i was not really worrying about what happened with the picture or how i was going to "make happen" some specific effect.

i had to watch myself without supervising myself, which i found to be a very hard balance to maintain. (a little like watching a child run into the street, and not yell at him to watch out for cars!)

and this was, i came to realize, the likely solution to my paradox: artists teach by telling students what to study, not by telling them what to learn from it. students learn by following the lessons, and learning from them whatever their senses and intuitions discover of value.

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