Starting Over

In February, I started an exciting project, painting on a large piece of furniture. I’ve painted on furniture before, usually copying a painting by a well-known artist. And the furniture was always fairly small, the door of a cabinet or the front of a chest of drawers.

This time, I chose a media cabinet that stands over 3 feet high with doors 6 inches deep. And I’m not copying, I’m creating a composition based on the exotic primitive paintings of Henri Rousseau, with touches of my own. Which is much more impressive than copying, but also more daunting. I felt pretty confident about my ability, though.

Until I came to actually paint on the thing. It took me 4 days to get the sky right, because my paint kept drying and I couldn’t blend the colours properly. This forced me to look in all the nooks and crannies of my house and find my acrylic medium, better quality brushes and other artist’s materials I’d never assembled in one place until now. Once the sky was done, I sketched in the major elements of my design: orange tree here, fig tree there, palm trees here and here. I relied partly on images of Rousseau’s work, partly on photos of my trips to Morocco and from my parents’ gorgeous garden, which is now mine to care for and to document in photographs.

Then I painted the tree trunk and branches of the first tree, using a photo of an orange tree in a courtyard in Marrakech. The browns weren’t right, but I had limited selection. Oh well. I’ll buy more paint later, I said. I’ll just get the lines in place. Then I tried a few ideas I had about colour and contrast, which didn’t really work. I painted a few leaves after the photo. Not great. Well, I haven’t painted for a while, I’m rusty.

I did more another day. Still not great.

After 3 attempts, I gave up. For a month. Then in mid-March, I was online searching for a different painting, and up came another image by Rousseau, one I hadn’t seen before. I thought, “THIS is what I want that cabinet to look like, THIS is more like it!” I printed it off, took it downstairs and decided that this composition would work as I’d intended.

So, what to do about the branches and leaves I’d painted? Should I simply paint over the whole thing and start over? The sky is exactly right. I decided the position of the tree was right, the basic lines were right, but the leaves have got to go.

I didn’t want the ghostly image of what I didn’t want showing through. After some thought, I painted the leaves over with pure white, which has the most opacity of any paint. Then I covered the entire section with acrylic medium, so it’s all one smooth surface. Not entirely starting all over from nothing, but close.

As I painted over the leaves, I was thinking about a time in art school, more than 30 years ago, and the first time I made a piece in pottery class and decided I didn’t like it, scrapped it completely and started again. I was so pleased with myself. I saw it as an essential milestone in my development as an artist. I tried to explain this to my boyfriend of the time (who was not in art school and was a pompous guy who didn’t know as much as he thought he did about pretty much anything but it took me another year to figure that out). He just couldn’t get my point and said he would NEVER do that, he would always rework any piece of carving he was working on even if he knew he’d done it wrong.

*I* knew I’d reached a new level of mastery when I made this decision. I knew what I wanted, I knew I hadn’t done it, but most importantly, I knew I *COULD* do what I’d set out to do, so I had the confidence to say, “nope, sorry, not working for me. Done. Start over.”

Yes, there is the saying that “the difference between amateurs and professionals is, professionals know how to hide their mistakes.” So having the humility to rework something is good. But when I first start doing something, I may think maybe all my work is a fluke, that if I don’t get it right this time, maybe I never will. Therefore, I don’t dare start over. Where ripping something out (as all knitters learn how to do!), tossing a failed pot in the slip bucket, painting over a painting, can be an essential step in knowing what I’m capable of, and that I just haven’t hit that mark this time. It means I’ve raised the bar on myself. And sometimes, it takes a lot of work to start over, but trying to rework a piece that’s gone wrong can be MORE work. Easier to start clean and get it right when you know it’s wrong this time.

It’s about knowing that you DO know. When I thought about it the other day, I realized that I would STILL see that as a milestone in my life, I still see it as a victory. More so now than I did then, in fact.

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