The Evolution of a Painting: The Work Is Always in Progress

If a painting isn?t working, you don?t have to abandon it. Put it away for awhile and then re-attack it. Here?s how one artist created a masterpiece in three tries.

Sometimes we artists will create a work that?s perfectly presentable but lacking a vital spark. Other times, if we?re struggling with a painting, we may feel it?s better to abandon it than to force an arbitrary resolution. My philosophy is to take risks. Often when I?m teaching, I?ll do a demo in the morning that everyone is pleased with. Then I?ll tell the students, after lunch, I?m going to destroy it. Create/destroy: that?s the dynamic. Sometimes when I?m painting, I can make things happen fairly easily, and sometimes I like that. Other times, I?ll want to take the work to another level. I was talking to another artist, Barbara Nechis, and she said she never throws a painting away. It may take years but someday, she feels, she?ll take it out again and re-attack it. I feel the same way. As long as we can see what?s wrong with the painting, we have the opportunity to fix it. Blue Crows Fishing (watercolor on YUPO synthetic paper, 30 x 40), the painting that won the Silver Star and Purchase award of the National Watercolor Society in 2001, was a third version. I actually reworked the initial painting two times. At each stage of the painting?s progress, I took photographs. Looking at the three versions now, I see that the evolution was an organic one.

First Stage: Primarily a Portrait

The painting shown here looks simplistic, if I take into account how it eventually evolved. It started with a visit from a friend I?d known for years; we had been to junior college together. He came down from Oregon for a visit. He was sitting on the patio at the house of a mutual friend, and I had one of those throw-away cameras at hand. I took a picture, and then I forgot about it. Weeks later I was looking through the prints and thought, ?There?s old George.? I?d been painting a lot of pairs and doing a lot of paintings on YUPO. When I started work, I was planning shapes, getting a likeness, working intuitively?primarily looking for a gesture. I got to the point when I thought, ?that?s my painting of old George,? and tucked it away in a drawer.

Second Stage: Adding Visual Metaphors

It was one of those days when I felt restless. I thought it?s time to push this painting of George?to destroy it so something can be born of it. I?d been playing with the idea of including visual metaphors. I was thinking, ?What could you call old friends? Old birds.? Now it became a matter of taking literary phenomena (puns or metaphors) and transposing them into a visual context. To find the visual equivalent of a metaphor, I started playing around with wings?seeing the shapes of wings and placing those shapes. I thought, ?What kind of birds?? We have all these wonderful crows on our front lawn and up the tree in our yard. They?re cranky and loud-mouthed. According to Celtic myth, crows are truth-tellers. In visual terms, in this painting, the crows are recessed, pushed back rather than dominant. Layers of glazes created layers of translucence. I wanted those layers to resonate. I wanted a lot of visual activity in those washes&#151so there would be passages of visual interest.

Final Stage: Blue Crows Fishing

YUPO?s unique characteristics (see Taylor Ikin?s article on pp. 50-53) allow you to do whatever you want. You can work with your intuition. If you saw only this one version, you?d never guess at the progression. Usually only the artist who is doing the work sees the progression. For the artist, it?s all process. For the viewer, however, the painting is an artifact. When I studied the second version, it was obvious that the birdbath in the middle wasn?t working. I had to think of the birdbath as a shape and flatten it. Then that shape had to be balanced. It became obvious that the bottom of the painting was too dark, so I pulled out all the light of the white shapes by going back into the painting with a wet tissue. I also used crosses: a cross is a symbol but it?s also a visual device to lock shapes in. Here the crosses are linked to the idea of conversation. You know how in comics, swear words are denoted by those signs !#**!#*. I wanted to suggest words with crosses. The picture then is, in a way, a record of a conversation.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of the ASTM International?s subcommittee on artists? materials

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