plateau

my painting hit a plateau, not the first but the worst so far.

my "style" was drifting toward a sort of realism, modeling objects as they appeared. i wasn't happy when a painting didn't turn out looking like the subject i was trying to paint ... but that was a negative definition of what i was trying to do.

i think i was using realism as a gauge of technical control: if it looked like the subject, i must have done everything right.

well, i still had a lot to learn about everything, and not really enough time to practice, so my paintings started turning out with a half hearted feeling to them. i was still going after gift images when they happened, but they weren't happening as often.

i was sliding into realism as a way to go for images i picked, rather than images that picked me.

the purse vase is a recognizable painting of a real vase and flowers, and the active scatter of the stems in the original. it was fun to paint. but the background is weak and sentimental (i have a problem with backgrounds). and the whole painting feels timid or unadventurous.

i was trying to learn to paint skies at this stage, paintings of a sunset carpeted in red clouds, and a freak sunset that hid the sun next to a black hole in clouds, iridescence all along one side. i wasn't able to paint these. i got annoyed.

terry would say, "yeah, you should see how many failures i paint," or "for every good painting of mine you see there's 10 bad ones you don't see." i still go by the 10 for 1 rule and try not to get my shorts in a bunch about paintings that don't work.

but a plateau is, you know, a bummer.

i can't explain the plateaus but they seem to be a kind of loss of balance in the overall progress of learning. learning seems to work like this. there is usually a kind of breakthrough painting that seems to pull techniques together in a new way, as a harmonious combination of skills. that's great when it happens! so now what?

the next step has to be either to add another skill to the mix, or change how the skills are applied, or apply the skills to a new subject or motif. all these things usually disrupt the balance between the skills and the painting, which makes the painting that results less satisfactory.

i find an effective balance, but then can't change the balance without falling down.

of course i could keep doing the same motif in the same way, over and over (as i'd already done in the painting series — and as many professional artists do for a living). and the energy of a really good painting can carry me for a while. but eventually i get bored because the paintings don't get any better. i try something new.

and that disrupts the harmony, and the paintings go down hill.

now comes the gotcha part: i can't just go back to painting exactly the way i did before, because that would feel like defeat, like giving up, like going back to a broken relationship. so i'm back in trial and error, trying to gain a new balance, trying to find a new relationship.

it seems like the plateau is actually a searching time, i may be trying to do things i can't do, trying different combinations of color effects or visual codes or brush styles, the way chess players work out new combinations ... trial and error, many variations, patient analysis of why it doesn't work.

this is where the technical exercises really showed their worth. no matter how screwed up my painting style was, i still could do a paint wheel. i still could paint small fantasies. i still could knock out a quick sketch.

art books really come to the rescue during a plateau. i would go back to a book i liked, pick the first project that appealed to me, and just do it. even if the technical problems were familiar to me, it was worthwhile trying to reproduce the technical result in the book.

it kept me productive, and kept SQUID from screwing with my head.

but the only sure cure i've discovered for a painter working alone is to keep slogging and not worry about it.

i discovered long ago that i never got into a relationship as long as i was looking for one. i've never gotten off a plateau by trying to!

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