Why Paintings Fail

A painting is like an investment. Sometimes, your investment pays off, landing you wealth, happiness and a tidy sum for the future, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Whether its down to a bad decision, an unstable market, or perhaps just bad luck, you can’t always predict whether your investment is a ‘sure thing’.

It’s exactly the same with painting. Now, I may know nothing about investments, but I know a fair bit about painting. And what I’ve come to realise is, no matter how much you paint over it, how much you fight with it, sometimes a painting will fail, and you won’t immediately know why. Given the time, energy and money that you’ve put into a painting, from sketching away furiously to scribbling down notes, mixing and discarding colours and sweating at your easel, to finding that the fruits of your labour have failed can be a damn hard feeling to swallow. If a painting is going badly for me, you’ll know about it. Even the dog will know about it.

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My faithful assistant Luna, keeping guard

I have discarded numerous paintings over the years, probably more in the last two years than the previous six combined. Not because I’m becoming a worse painter (far from it, I hope) but because I’m becoming more selective about the paintings that I carry to full term. Many others transform into experiments, giving me the freedom to try out a new style, a new mix or brushstroke when I cannot get a clear idea in watercolour, or as a sketch.

You can learn a lot from paintings that fail; from why that colour mix didn’t work, or why that composition looks so….wrong. It’s all research, warming you up for the next one.

I thought I’d talk about this in more detail, by sharing with you a few of my recent failures, and why I think they went wrong.

(Also, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have kept much of a photo record of the failures!)

Lack of Coherency

Deer

I love the idea behind this one; the intention was to create a big, rich, forested scene with the deer merging into his background, in a similar vein to my Palaeolithic Inspired paintings. The composition is dominant, it works, but I didn’t define the planes and the lines clearly enough before I started, so what should have been a coherent abstract/cubist canvas became a busy, cluttered mess.

No Planning

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I had the vision of painting Malta’s national bird, the Merill, or Blue Rock Thrush, in a paint-by-numbers style – letting each colour sit beside each other with a subtle shift in value to create a flat yet rich painting. Yet I didn’t know what I would do after that. I used to love paint by numbers, but when you have to choose the values and draw all the little shapes, it’s not so easy! At this early stage, I have to admit I loved this painting. Then, I got stuck – I didn’t know how to get my rocks to look like rocks, and I feared that the feathers would lose their effect the more I painted. I think I painted over him now, but I’m not sure. I will try him again one day soon.

Painting Under Pressure

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Never, ever go and paint live without a plan. Granted, the passers by were thrilled watching me paint as I threw colours here, and there, and here again during a Notte Bianca event in Malta’s capital city of Valletta. But I didn’t know where I was going; it was dark, uncomfortable, I was painting out of my comfort zone, trying not to spill paint on a 16th Century floor. If you’re going to paint live at an event, or for charity, or go plein air, make a sketch beforehand, start putting some colours down a few days before. Get the basics in, and know where you’re going before you arrive.

Thanks in no small part to these three pieces, painted between 2015 to just a couple of months ago, I’ve learned to plan my paintings better. In fact, I would say that I paint less now, as I spend a good month or so gathering resources, backtracking on ideas, scribbling notes, snippets for blogs, taking photographs and producing concepts and colour sketches. Planning takes away some of the trepidation of diving in head first, even though often the temptation to just plunge in and start painting is overwhelming. Don’t do it!

So there you have it, three reasons why I think many painting, including my own, fail. What are your thoughts on paintings that you feel didn’t turn out like you expected, or those that ended up being the underlayer to an entirely new piece?

Cosmic Thoughts – Awe

Ever since I was a little girl the aesthetics of the universe had a Sisyphean hold on me. I owned many big books and encyclopedias about astronomy, where I was amazed by the way galaxies whirled and how bright and colourful nebulae always were. I looked at the planets on our solar system and learned their Roman names. Saturn’s rings, in particular, reminded me of a princess wearing her crown. And Jupiter – the king of all gods, isn’t he? – always looked pissed off to me.

I had lost that connection with astronomy as I grew up and nature – earth’s nature – took more of a hold on me. But by a personal Darwinian evolution I went from religiously watching David Attenborough documentaries to watching Professor Brian Cox. Attenborough’s natural heir. He re-kindled my infantile passion and sense of wonder at the great beyond. His Wonders series are a masterpiece in themselves. And when I feel that mixture of awe and curiosity the only way I can subdue that wonderful itch is to paint.

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Who’s Listening? Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Expression

No matter what medium you use to paint cosmic scenes – be it oils or watercolours in my case – they are full of inimitable expressiveness. Van Gogh painted his mythical night sky, Starry Night, using oils so thick it made the painting feel tactile. It’s as if Van Gogh was inviting you to touch that bright moon in a way you can’t in life. In watercolours, I find, the night sky feels more fluid. As if you can swim in the unreachable depths of space. As if the night sky is a free-flowing seascape. I don’t know what to choose, so I keep alternating between the two. Happily, may I add.

Swan Nebula Galaxy Watercolour Painting
Swan Nebula, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Calm

Nothing is more calming than painting the night sky. A scene which is deceptively static yet full of unfathomable concerts of movement, death, rebirth and evolution. I was never one for meditating. Never followed the fad of yoga or Zen. Sometimes I feel guilty. But then I paint the night sky and I see those fads in a new perspective: they’re bullshit. All those stars, those long-dead supernovas of radiant colour, all the immeasurable galaxies, an ecosystem beyond imaging, a symphony of exo-planets possibly filled with life – all those thoughts inevitably go through your mind as you paint, and really, there is no greater joy.

Barn Owl Watercolour Painting
Waiting For Wings To Take On The City, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Four Inspiring Examples of Rock Art

Whenever you hear the word ‘cave art’ or ‘pre-historic art’ your mind instantly wanders to those great wonders like Lascaux or Altamira. And no one can blame you. Those two sites are the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art. But sometimes, the more subtle, more humble examples of art can be more numinous. Just as, say, a small, intimate wayside chapel can feel more spiritual than the Sistine Chapel, so a lot of cave paintings can be more inspiring than their better-known cousins.

So here are, for your pleasure and inspiration, four locations and their unique pre-historic rock art, which you’ve very probably never heard of, but will definitely want to experience.

Iran

Iran Rock Art

We tend to forget Iran’s long, inestimable history when we hear about it. We just tend to think insane Ayatollahs and nuclear deals and, you know, cranes. But Iran, let’s not forget, is the heir of one of history’s oldest, proudest and most civilizing of all ancient empires: Iran is the daughter of Persia. But even before Persia was ever born, human beings lived in Iran and witnessed the very dawn of agriculture. In Iran and the Middle-East mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. So it’s no surprise there are so many cave sites embellished with rock art there. Sites like the Warwasi rock shelter in Western Iran, or the impressive engravings outside the village of Khomeyn, believed to be the oldest known rock engravings ever found. Interestingly, 90% of all rock art found in Iran includes a depiction of the ibex deer. It is to Iran what the eland is to South Africa.

Dabous 

Dabous Giraffes

I couldn’t help but be blown away when I discovered these, in a part of the Sahara desert known as the Tenere – literally ‘the place where there is nothing’ – but this unremarkable, hostile, Martian landscape hides an other-worldly secret. The largest known rock engravings anywhere in the world. Created over 10,000 years ago when, scientists think, the Sahara was far greener it is than today. The two rock engravings depict a pair of giant giraffes. And I do mean giant – the larger figure is over 18 feet tall. They are engraved in the sandstone using a variety of techniques including scraping,smoothing and deep engraving of the outlines. This masterpiece of pre-historic art deserves as much recognition as a Guernica or the Fate of the Animals. And we should be far more in awe of this wonder created in such harsh climes rather than the blood-churningly arrogant works of a spoiled Damien Hirst.

Alta, Norway

Alta Norway Rock Art

From the over-heated dunes of the Sahara to the frigid Nordic landscape of Norway; one of my favourite places on earth. The Alta petroglyphs are perhaps among my personal favourites. A great lover of anything Arctic, these engravings depict scenes which I’ve long been depicting in my own paintings. Engravings of bear and cub. Elk. Northern lights – yes, even the northern lights were depicted, faintly, but it’s no surprise that such a miracle of nature would have captured the imagination of those Neolithic painters. Hunting scenes. Reindeer. It’s all there. And, as a painter, it’s interesting to see these rock engravings on a different colour background – away from the usual yellows and browns of caves, here they are depicted on a greyish-blue canvas!

Argentina


The ‘cave of hands’ of Cueva de los Manos in Argentina is an almost Baroque piece of pre-historic art. A cave system with, as the name suggests, a great amount of painted, red ochre hands, the hand-prints of people who lived well over 9,000 years ago. Alongside them there are depictions of felines, rheas, guanacos and abstract patterns. You wouldn’t normally associate Argentina with pre-historic art, but maybe we should, that country of gauchos, barbecues and strong liqueurs has been inhabited by artistic minded people for thousands of years – and they’ve left us souvenirs to die for!

Images: Bradshaw Foundation

These are just a few of the little snippets of inspiration that made, and continue to make me a painter. What is it that inspires you most as an artist? In my next blogs I’ll be sharing some of my smaller Palaeolithic inspired paintings, and talking about their making.

Betelgeuse and a Bee

We can’t predict the future.

But, in some cases, we can make fairly accurate estimations for situations that are extremely likely to occur, thanks to diligent research and hard science.

Betelgeuse, the red and brightest star in the constellation of Orion in the night sky, may be barely perceptible to the naked eye, but this cosmic orb is actually a super massive, unstable star reaching the end of its life, and ready to explode. It could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now. But one day, it will happen, just as sure as our own Sun will die. Betelgeuse will grow, and grow, using up the very last stores of its energy, and will explode in a fantastically cataclysmic supernova. It will shine like a second Sun. We may as yet be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle, and we are, thankfully, some 430 light-years out of harm’s way.

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But not every scientific prediction and eventuality can be so epic and so benign to us as the fate of Betelguese. The humble bumblebee, an annoying summer visitor to some, a problem-solving, dancing, geometry-wielding genius to others, has a fate that seems to be hanging in the balance, very much as the stability of the red star in the heavens. Yet the fate of the bumblebee is much closer to home.

Bumblebees have seen a dramatic drop in their population levels, with as much of a third of their US populations having decreased in recent years (http://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684). Bees are not only vital pollinators, allowing countless species of plants and flowers to pollinate and reproduce, but they are also an important part of our own elaborate food chain. From honey in its raw form to soaps, lip balms, syrups and more, bees have been powerful contributors to our desire for sweet tastes, soft skin and juicy lips.

But at what price? Climate change, growing use of harmful pesticides and invasion of foreign species are speeding up the crisis bees face, but ultimately we may be their biggest threat. It’s difficult to predict how soon such a population could crash, whether it is a local crash, or restricted to vulnerable populations or even entire countries. A small, colony-dwelling animal such as a bee is no doubt hard to study, and hard to calculate in terms of accurate numbers and breeding success. With only handfuls of dedicated beekeepers to help with the maths, once again it seems science can only predict what may be around the corner.

I’m not suggesting we throw away that little jar of honey that we love to spoon into our cereal, or to soothe a sore throat after a rough winter, all I am suggesting is that we stop, step back and switch of the lights. Crane your neck up, as high as you can, and see if you can spot Orion among the tango-haze of light pollution. Next time you hear the soft bzzzzzz coming towards your eye, don’t flap your hands to shoo it away. Stay still, stay calm, and take a look.

Frida Kahlo – Columns, Colours and Chronic Pain

The painting left a lasting impression on the depths of my mind, one that I’d perhaps quite forgotten, the same way a haunting piano solo never fails to move me as I remember and sway to its decadent rhythms. The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo is more than just a painting about pain, and more than just a woman in pain painting about pain. It is about what painting does to us all.

Frida Kahlo is the kind of painter that a lot of female artists, myself included, aspire to be. That hard-headed, self-reliant, independent, driven woman that approaches her art as she does every aspect of her life; from her politics to her philosophy, fashion and eventually, a painting on canvas. And yes, she can have a man if she wants, but she doesn’t need one (or maybe she does).

The Broken Column, 1944

The Broken Column is a painting of insight, but also of outward influence. This painting is a deeply intimate portrayal of her struggle; a bus accident in her childhood left her for a time, bedridden, and forever unable to bear children. Frida’s life was sadly cut short at the age of 47, after she endured years of chronic pain, operations, miscarriage, amputation and ultimately, alcohol and medication dependence, not to mention her tumultuous relationship with muralist Diego Rivera. Whilst The Broken Column is undoubtedly a personal piece; we can feel the artist’s shattered insides and feel like we should put our hands to the canvas to put support the crumbling column, it is also a painting of external forces. The artist is in control of the paint colour she chooses, the depth and texture of the canvas, even the way she holds the brush, but ultimately, the painting is out of her control. We are all driven by external forces that dictate what we do, what we say, and much as we try to avoid these external chess moves, we are all dictated by them.

We all have our own Broken Column, a piece of us that may be a little more fragile than we let on, a deep rooted fear that prevents us from taking a leap off the edge, whether figuratively or literally. Many of us have an unseen column, a disability we haven’t shared, a poem we haven’t shared or a story we never dared tell.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Frida Kahlo