Starting Over: A Conversation with Acrylic Artist Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone

Acrylic Artist Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone talks about starting over, with a fresh painting that is.

Acrylic Artist: Giving up on a painting you have been working on isn’t easy. How do you know when it’s time to start fresh and begin again?
Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone: The first thing to know is that starting over isn’t an admittance of failure—it’s confirming that you know you have the ability to create a better painting than the one that is baffling you. It means you have the courage to let go of something that doesn’t work no matter how many ways you could try to fix it.

Acrylic Artist Starting Over

Down in the Valley, by acrylic artist Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone, (12×16, acrylic on canvas)

AA: How does the way you approach painting influence when you are ready to start fresh with a work in progress?
ORSL: For me, painting is an expression of energy that moves through the heart more than through the head. When I am tied up in the mental planes—the mechanics—of trying to salvage a painting, I know I have lost my connection with energy and with what I am trying to express. When I see that I am just changing things around and am not coming up with anything that looks or feels any better, I know it’s time to start fresh. This is when I paint out the entire canvas. In my experience making this decision frees up something within me. It proves to be liberating and I feel energy start to move again.

AA: When did you learn that sometimes you have to start over?
ORSL: It began when I became more objective about my paintings and realized that I was capable of producing better work if I worked hard enough at it. At the same time I realized that my best work happens when I allow the painting to move freely—that is, not analyzing every stroke I put down or wondering if doing this or that fit the accepted rules of painting. I learned to let go and just put paint down and accept that the painting would work out.

AA: This seems like a bit of a contradiction. How do you balance working with energy and critical thinking?
ORSL: Ah, you noticed that. Arriving at this point requires dedication and lots of hours of practice to have some basic understanding of what works in a painting in relationship to color, composition and values. It’s like a musician having practiced enough to have an understanding of harmony, melody and scales before having the freedom to play spontaneously.

AA: What was that like, the first time you decided to start fresh with a painting?
ORSL: First you have to know that I paint large pieces, so it’s not uncommon for me to invest 20-30 hours in a work. To walk away from all that time and creation (even if it’s not great work) isn’t easy. The first time it happened, I was motivated by sheer frustration. I simply painted over the entire work with white paint. Now, I make the decision to start fresh a bit more consciously.

AA: What happens when you whitewash a painting like that?
ORSL: What happens is something that has made starting over much easier. A ghost image bleeds through the layer of white paint and always suggests a new painting and a new direction. The light and dark values of the original work show through with varying intensity due to the white paint being applied so loosely. What survives from the earlier piece is very abstract, but it suggests a new place to begin fresh—be it a cloud or a part of a landscape. I feel the excitement of painting again when I see these whispers of a new idea because I have done something to free myself from the attempt to find some kind of little fix for a painting that isn’t working. For me, there is little joy in painting when I am trying to control all of the parts of a painting. Marc Chagall said, “If I paint from the heart, nearly everything works. If I paint from the head, almost nothing.” I know this to be true.

 

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