Mind the Gap

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good . . . but your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase  … We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have … And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work … It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions … It’s gonna take a while … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
— Ira Glass

That’s how I felt starting my first acrylic painting class at RumRiver Art Center. I’ve had a secret desire to paint for a long time. Fear has kept me from it. (I did dabble in watercolors earlier this year, finding it daunting!) My college minor was art history, and I’ve spent many hours looking at art — mostly paintings — and being fascinated by them. And I knew that whatever I’d try to create would fall far short.

Some of the fascination comes from my desire to understand the painter’s imagination — what made them want to paint THIS? Did their painting live up to their vision? I’m more interested in paintings that are not realistic. While I can admire art that is incredibly detailed and appears more real than a photograph, that is not the art that draws me in.

The paintings that intrigue me leave more to the imagination — abstractions, impressions, approximations, deconstructions of the visual, shown through the filter of the artist’s mind.

Most painters who are great at creating interesting abstractions first mastered their materials and techniques. They do not paint abstractions because they are unable to produce detailed realism, but this is a CHOICE. It’s the artist’s choices that fascinate me.

Our teacher, Paul T. Boecher, told us that he’s been painting since he was 12. He appeared entirely comfortable with his materials, playing with paint and brushes deftly as he explained what he was doing.

He made it look incredibly easy. But that gave us courage. He showed how we could change what we painted if we made a mistake. He demonstrated how to begin a landscape, how to choose a horizon line, and to divide the picture into thirds, horizontally and vertically.

Paul had us begin with one color mixed with white gesso. I chose blue and experimented with differing amounts of gesso on the canvas, choosing a horizon line and trying to imagine a scene. The idea was to create a value study; to develop the varying shades of light and dark that would exist in our painting.

The class began painting with enthusiasm. The students had varying levels of experience, so I felt comfortable knowing I was not the only beginner! Some students used a photograph or other source for inspiration, while others experimented with only a vague idea of what we might create.

The instructor showed us that we could be very free with how our brushes applied the paint (and use much less paint than I expected), and how to hold the brush in different ways while covering the entire canvas with our base color.

All I knew was that I wanted the source of light to be the upper right corner, and the horizon line at the lower third portion. I started to imagine water at the lower right, and that the left might contain trees. The dark area at the top left I imagined as storm clouds. I was not entirely clear on this from the beginning. I mostly enjoyed the sensation of mixing colors and watching what happened while I played with the paint on the surface. It was easy to get caught up in the movement of the brush and forget that I was actually trying to make something!

The second week, we added a second color to our paintings, to let more of the background take shape. The idea was not to add detail, but to provide color contrast, deepen the values where we wanted darkness, and to formulate more of what we were actually painting. I had a vague idea what I was starting to see on the canvas, though I doubted my ability to pull it off the way I wanted.

I started adding a contrasting color to the blue — burnt umber — mixed with gesso.

It seemed like I was making things worse. But I reminded myself that we were still just working on the background, and that paintings need depth and layers of color.

We started to add other colors to our paintings. I tried to create colors I wanted from the three primary colors available — red, yellow and blue — plus white gesso. It’s a lot harder to get just the right hue than I thought. Sometimes I’d make a bit of one color, but would then be unable to duplicate it when I needed a little more. I played with browns for trees, shade, depth; yellow for light and sun; different blues for sky and water. Yellowish greens. The picture kept changing as I experimented, and I didn’t always like it.

Sometimes I got caught up in the sheer fun of swirling the paintbrush around and messing with the colors.

Paul was encouraging to everyone, even if we seemed disheartened by our efforts. He reminded us to get up and step back from our paintings once in a while to be able to see them fresh.

I got up from my tabletop easel for a bit; everyone was busily at work

After this I really needed some greener green for the trees and ground. I had trouble mixing exactly the colors that I wanted. Paul came by and showed me where I could add glimmers of lighter paint to draw the eye — showing where light from the sun might catch, or there might be spaces in the foliage.

Then I wanted to create gray for the impending storm cloud. Paul told me which colors to use, but my ratios were all wrong. I was not happy with the result. By the time it dried, it looked more brown than gray.

By the time I made the version on the right, I’d added more yellow for the sun (probably too much), and managed to cover up the cool swirly yellow lines that I’d liked on the earlier version on the left. I did have more green, but I was not entirely happy with it. I liked the reflection of the hills in the water, but my trees were odd and the overall colors did not please me.

By the time class was nearly over, I felt like I was making the picture worse every time I added more paint.

I reminded myself that I could still add to it, whether at home or the next class. Or simply start anew! Yesterday I worked on it again:

I’m still not delighted with all the colors, and I may tinker some more. But it’s much more pleasing to my eye than it was before. I like the layers, and the sense of movement. I have no desire to make a detailed painting; yes, it’s partly because I doubt my ability to render details with any level of skill. But the truth is, I like paintings where you see the brush, the colors are not necessarily realistic, and what’s interesting is the vision that’s shown you.

Works like this one come to mind (NOT that I’m comparing myself to Paul Cezanne, mind you!) —

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne c. 1905

What I like are the planes of color, the lines, and the obvious brushwork. You can see brushwork better at a museum than in a photograph, but you get some idea if you enlarge the picture and look closely. This sort of painting fascinates me.

I look forward to further painting adventures this month and next — stay tuned! If you paint, tell me about your painting rewards and challenges.