Inconvenient paintings and their lessons:
Contemplating the Nei Jing NOT all done
It sometimes happens
in painting, especially on bigger pieces, that I'll be feeling finished and then a month later will return to see my work is not done. It happened on my 40" x 60" Taos Valley Sunset painting (see below right): a month after I wrapped things up, the light on the field needed more...and a year later the tree needed more. And it happened on my 40" x 40" Bella Lucia painting (also below right): after moving to a new studio I had to return to Lucia's face and figure to make the painting "her." Now it's happened with Contemplating the Nei Jing (also below right).
One of painting's big lessons, for me at least, is non-attachment -- that in being attached to any particular stage of a piece, one risks losing sight of the larger "meaning" (or appearance, structure, flow, feeling). It usually happens with a flavor of obfuscation and constant bargaining with myself. I'll try to quell the quiet, persistent, nagging feeling that just wont leave -- the one that brings my attention repeatedly back to a place where I don't want to look, a passage that wont lay down into the piece. In the case of Contemplating the Nei Jing
, I wouldn't really look at the model's thigh; it bothered me after I redrew it at about Day 7. The simple fact was that when I redrew the thigh, I took it from being pretty much correct to being mis-drawn. Another lesson of painting: really, really often, the first pass at something -- which for me is usually in the flow and without "overbearing mind" -- is the best pass. This leaves any artist who has a "nagging feeling" about a piece in a bit of a risky position -- to complete that which is incomplete while retaining that which already is fully "itself."
I've noticed that if my desire to return to a piece originates from wanting to almost unconsciously "touch something up," it usually takes the piece away from itself. If, however, my desire is to complete or resolve something nagging that leaves me not wanting to look at a piece, then it usually brings an important passage to resolution. The trick is perceiving the difference, which brings me to a third lesson of painting -- to act only after I have been patient and spent time with a piece. Sometimes a painting is just too revolutionary within my growth as an artist for me to perceive its quality right away; my mind needs to catch up and adapt. And sometimes a piece isn't revolutionary at all, it just isn't working. Usually a month is enough time to tell the difference. But even then, sometimes I need a push from an outsider to address the problem -- sometimes I've bargained too much and am on the verge of losing a piece. Lesson #4: it takes a village. Good friends (or partners) who say what they see and feel are invaluable, so long as they share enthusiasm as much as criticism. Without them much great art would never have been made. And lesson #5: oftentimes behind the resistance, attachment, bargaining, or even the desire to "fix it," is fear. A really valuable question here is: what (within a painting) are we so scared of losing, and/or what do we really think we'll gain?
And so it was with Contemplating the Nei Jing
. I came back to it, and from memory and a few photos, looked again over my drawing to see where I went amiss. After all that resistance, the month of subtle dissatisfaction, resolving the piece only took a few hours (see photo on right). Lesson #6: it's rarely as difficult as one fears to resolve a challenging passage (and relatedly, it's rarely as easy as one imagines to finish a piece that begins from an inspiring start). In resolving Contemplating the Nei Jing,
it didn't help that the actual angle I chose to paint is a strange one. But at least now I know
the drawing is
right - no matter how it may look - and my real focus can move to the "bigger picture": whether the painting moves as a whole, what drove me to do this to myself (i.e., become an artist), and so on.