It should go without saying that it isn’t possible to knock it out of the park with every painting. I think I exceed my own skill or knowledge level in a notable way maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I’ll sit back and say to myself, “Way to go, fella. You really nailed that one.” The rest of the time, it isn’t that. Now, this isn’t false modesty or any of that “you are your own harshest critic” nonsense. There are plenty of paintings I’m perfectly satisfied with. Many, I would say, are pretty good. But to expect grandeur with every brushstroke isn’t statistically realistic. If a painter feels like each painting is a masterpiece and they can’t find any flaws, they simply aren’t looking closely enough. On the inverse, if they never feel as if they’ve made an artistic breakthrough, they either aren’t applying themselves enough in the process or they are the tortured artist type (read: misanthrope) who is sure to liven up a party with their brooding demeanor and fun facts about baby seal clubbing. While acknowledging that every personality is different, I think the perfect balance is somewhere in the middle. I can confidently expect that with a little elbow grease and a critical eye, my work will improve over time. They can be steady, incremental gains, or they can come in big waves. The latter is often when I’ll think I’ve really outdone myself. On this rare occasion, it is customary to offer up a sacrifice to the Painting Gods. It could be months before the next “ah ha,” moment, and the Gods must be satiated. They’re partial to baby seals.
What happens far more often is that paintings fall short of this personal masterpiece status. Some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly. I’d like to focus on the bad and the ugly for a bit. There are many, many reasons a painting can fail that run the gamut from poor preparation all the way to 20 mph winds splattering cow manure on your canvas (that might be a real thing that happened once). I’m going to document some of these examples in a series I’m calling When Paintings Sh*t the Bed. So here goes!
Part One: That Photo is a Damned Liar!
Using photo references for painting is a double edged sword. On the one hand, they don’t move. You can manipulate an image digitally for varied effects. You can refer back to the photo for as much time as you’re willing to allow. You can sing that Nickelback song while hitting yourself in the head with a DSLR. For all the wonderful benefits that photos can provide, there’s a major item in the con column. Photos lie. Depending on your skill level as a photographer—I’m securely at infant level—it can be difficult to capture what your eyes are seeing with any usable accuracy. Darks tend to be even darker, and they lose detail. Along with that, you lose the richness of those darker colors. Light values tend to be overexposed, again losing detail and rich colors. To make matters worse, digital cameras gather and interpret visual information which then gets put through a second filter, your monitor, which further skews everything. It’s like a game of telephone. Another problem with photos is that you see everything all at once, and that isn’t how our vision works. Your peepers can only focus on about 5 degrees out of 360. Your periphery can cover a 60 degree field of vision, but that’s all blurry. With a photo, everything is in focus. It’s detail overload, which can be problematic if you’re trying to zero in on a focal point.
Here’s a painting from a few years ago, about the time I was becoming aware of this concept. The water in the foreground was partially in shadow, but the reference photo didn’t capture much of a distinction between the shaded and sunlit areas. I went over that spot several times before realizing I had no idea what it should actually look like. What resulted was an saturated blue next to desaturated, chalky-white highlights. Similarly, the greens in the trees were mostly my best guess for what was actually there. The trees in the photo had very little variety in hue, temperature, and saturation. Speaking of saturation, what’s going on with that shoreline? It’s so grey! It’s sandwiched between a super warm burnt sienna at the bottom and a weird, unnatural green above it. And the value contrasts way too much with the surrounding areas. Whether or not that was in the photo, it should have been spotted and corrected. The drawing is good, but the way the values lead your eye around the painting is just disjointed.
One thing I got right—and if I recall correctly, the thing I was most excited about—was the ridge with the rim lighting at the bend in the river. It’s subtle in the value and temperature shifts. It believably portrays the depth of field, but it’s a moment that kind of gets lost because of the discordance with everything else.
Now I won’t be too hard on myself for this one. Even at the time, it wasn’t one I was showing off. I did learn a lot with this painting, however, most notably not to trust an iffy reference photo.
I took a few minutes to tweak some things in Photoshop. Just changing the values in the foreground make that background focal point pop so much more. It allows the eye to travel back into the painting rather than get stuck on that obnoxiously bright foreground.
It’s fun to look back at older work and give it a solid critique. I’m glad to say I’ve learned some stuff since then.