There’s a moment in every painting when you have a choice. A choice to carry on or move on. You’ve put in hours of thought, sketches, colour studies, and laid out the first marks on the canvas. You’re now fully invested in the painting in front of you, but for some reason, something just isn’t clicking. Your vision and what you see in front of you don’t align, like when you accidentally brush against your telescope and lose the last half an hour’s delicate fiddling.
Painting is an intricate process, and the muse can be fickle. After more than ten years of painting, most of that self-taught, I still haven’t figured out exactly what makes a painting work, or not. Some of my best works have come together with little planning, little vision yet have emerged far better than I expected – maybe because I didn’t pre-plan? While others, with the best will in the world, are destined to be unfinished.
Halfway through painting the grey lake, that scene in Patagonia that I’ve talked so much about, I hit a wall. I’d gotten the easy bit done, the imaginary Milky Way sky. Putting down what I wanted was easy, but trying to capture the essence of the place as it was – with the icy drops of mist landing on my face to the sound of silence that reminded me of when holding a seashell up to your ear as a child. With so much and so little sound, the immense space, the claustrophobic clouds, the charcoal grey and the chilling cold, to me it was more poignant than any great sunset or waterfall.
I don’t know if it was my fear of not doing the scene justice, the unreliability of memory or the sheer sadness I felt as I was no longer stood beside that beautiful, surreal landscape. It felt as much the surface of another planet as it did home.
The most beautiful places are the hardest to paint, in the same way that poets find it so hard to write about happiness. Familiar is easy, abstract thoughts and powerful emotions are hard, particularly when we don’t fully understand them.
So sadly, I moved on. But just because a painting goes in the bin, doesn’t mean it can’t teach something valuable. Two and a half years later, and I’m still learning from these painting failures.