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.

who is listening
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.

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

 

A House We Call Home

Sometimes, we feel at home, and sometimes, we don’t.

For humans, home means many things. Home means the place where we were born, or the place where our parents lived. Home is the house that we built with hard labour and machines, or the one we simply opened the door to. Home can be a particular corner of a particular room; somewhere where one can feel familiar, safe, and content.

Shelter is one of our basic needs; like food and water, but very few of us in the world live in just a rudimentary shelter the way some animals do; not even isolated tribes and cultures that still maintain a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer existence. We create artefacts, paint our front doors, decorate and re-decorate, or, as in Malta, we give our homes unique and often times questionable combinations of the husband and wife’s name.

Maltese House Name
A not so typical house name, including…a pet? Source: http://anecdotesfrommalta.blogspot.com.mt/2009/08/crazy-maltese-house-names-1.html
Ndebele Painted House
The beautiful geometric designs of the houses of Southern African Ndebele.

 

Like the bower bird’s flair for interior design to impress his mate, we too decorate our houses to show off our individuality, our ancestry, and to display our sexual and financial status. We choose unique artefacts that have symbolism only to us; we keep memories of childhood, of past and future. We show off our best and conceal our worst.

And of course, no home is complete without its lodgers!

Springer Spaniel

I wonder if I’ll move from the house I’ve come to call my own for the last year and a half; the one I helped design and finance. The English in me says I will; we’re like Monarch butterflies, journeying over the generations (most often returning to the same place where we were born!), the restless in me says I’d like to travel and try homes in other countries. The artist in me says I must.

House Sketch
Sketch of my childhood home, from memory.

In the final of this three part blog I’ll be pondering on animal houses, and talking about the paintings that inspired these blogs.

A Journey with a Kakapo

This week, I thought I’d delve into some detail about the painting that took up my easel for the last five months; for me, a marathon of a painting. I’m always fascinated to learn how other artists work, what inspires them, the materials and techniques that they use, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Starting with the initial watercolour sketch:

Kakapo Watercolour Painting

A lot of you have heard about that kakapo; its unique evolution, its quirky behaviour, mating habits, and of course, the threats currently facing it. There are few paintings of kakapo, and the majority of them are fairly traditional. I wanted to capture a different side to this remarkable bird that is something between an owl and a parrot, both in habit and appearance. Colour was going to be the primary motivation for these piece, using rich, bold hues and blocks of colour to set the scene, much as I did in my previous ‘Solutrean’ paintings.

Oh, and it had to be big.

(I apologise as some photos were taken in natural light so there’s some glare from the wet paint etc)

Kakapo Painting

 

When it comes to transferring a drawing from paper onto canvas, there are several methods I use; whether it’s tracing onto the canvas from an inked drawing, or creating a scaled-up sketch using the grid method. This time, I was feeling confident. No pencil in sight, I grabbed a watery acrylic mix and sketched the basic outline of the bird, some feather details and a few wisps of background.

Kakapo Painting

The underpainting; a thin mix of cadmium yellow light oil paint, and a touch of orange, I knew would be crucial to holding it all together later on.

Kakapo Painting

Next I started from the outside, in, getting in the darks of the background which will help bring the bird forward, and give the feeling that he is trudging through the dark undergrowth. I love that burnt orange. I experimented with a few hints of feathers too.

Kakapo Painting
After a month, I’ve darkened up the darks and increased the tones, but haven’t made much progress on the kakapo himself. It was important to have a solid framework behind it, before I started fussing over the bird too much.

Kakapo Painting

There comes a point in a painting which I call the hurdle; the critical point where perhaps you might have got lost from your initial sketch, and perhaps started throwing paint down in an over-eager anticipation of the finished piece. The photo above is where I reached this critical point. I wasn’t happy with the green; even though it is a fair representation of the light kakapo green, but it somehow, didn’t fit. Lots of standing, staring, taking photographs, and generally, taking a step back from the painting helped me through this tricky transition stage.

Kakapo Painting

You learn a lot about painting whilst you’re painting, and I’ve learned that mistakes can be a good thing. As you can see from the previous photo to this one, the kakapo has transformed. The white line running through the birds centre was originally a dark brown branch, but it was too dead centre, and taking up too much of a focus. But I wasn’t concerned at this stage. I started thinking of the kakapo more in terms of shapes, and bringing it back in harmony with the background.

Kakapo Painting

Almost three months since I started, here is the latest in progress shot. As you can see, that heavy branch in the middle has gone and the kakapo has started to gain some feathering in the tail. Now to work on the branch at his feet, refine the body, and bring in some darks back into the background.

You can have the best plan in the world, but sometimes, paintings just evolve all by themselves. I made sketches, notes, colour maps and had a clear idea in my head, but it turned out a little different. However, I am thrilled with the transformation. The kakapo has a special place in my heart, and now, so does its painting.

Five months in the making and featuring New Zealand’s endangered kakapo, this is much more than just a painting to me. This is what I strive for, why I paint for what I love, and why you should love the natural world too.

A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this piece and Kakapo Prints will be donated to the Kakapo Recovery.

Forest and Bird, Finished Oils on Canvas, 90 x 60cm and up for sale. Enquiries to cjwaterfield@gmail.com