Being Happy with the Little Bits—or Keep on Pushing to See Where It Goes: Part Four

June 18, 2009


Above: The entire page spread showing the fourth (left) and third (right) sketches in this series. Originally the previous page spread was still wet and I worked on the brush-only-sketch on the right while holding up the previous page to allow for drying. The black ink notes relate to the fourth sketch on the left.

This is part four of a four-part series of posts, begun on Monday, June 15.

After completing three quick sketches (two with brush pen, one painted directly with a brush and gouache) I still wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting but was so intrigued by the reactions of the Lukas gouache that I wanted to push forward and see what else I could make happen. This is what it means in part to enjoy and savor the “little bits.” You are so encouraged by your observations and experiments that you keep on pushing forward, moving forward with more experiments.

With that in mind I looked down at my tray on which my materials and tools rested, and saw two Neoart watersoluble wax pastels.

I decided that I would draw and lay in color with these crayons first and then add the gouache on top of the crayon, dissolving the crayon strokes as desired.

Why? Just ‘cause—because I wanted to see how the Neoart would work with the gouache on this paper; because I was looking for a certain line quality I couldn’t articulate to myself yet, but thought this might be a good way to go about finding it. Ultimately, just because I was still so energized by what the paint was doing that I couldn’t stop.

So what are we looking at here on the left page of this spread? Often when I work on something in my journal I will leave a sort of archeological trail so that I can see the stages again later, just in case in future I want to stop at an earlier stage.

Often, when doing demo pieces for classes I will also only push and finish one portion of a painting so that students can see what the different stages were.

Why? Because I find that many people stop out of frustration just before they get to the next breakthrough. Looking at pieces in process can help visualize the stages by which something is accomplished. Such a view can help the artist structure his own work so that he can achieve different results.

I also think it’s important for people just starting to work in paint to clearly see that there are choices every step of the way that take us in different directions. The fun of painting is that you get to choreograph those choices.

Finally, I think it is important for people who are just beginning their work with paint to push things BEYOND where they come up against frustration, or beyond the point where they worry the next step will "ruin it." I think the best approach is to actually to push to the point where things fall apart. (And I think this is good for painters at all levels. I mean really, isn't part of what we love about Turner his ability to push beyond the point of any hope of recovery and then at the last moment when he walked away from the paper, show he's pulled it out completely, come back to something new and wonderful and vibrant on the other side?)

When we push beyond "where we should have stopped," or "where it was just starting to look good," there sometimes will still be ways to recover from that point (this depends on the medium and your skill, but it's one of the ways you get skill). Other times the work is not salvageable—but that doesn’t make it less valuable. Only by pushing right up to the edge and over sometimes, do you find where that edge is.

I find this a particular problem with my colored pencil students. They tentatively go so far and no more. They produce works without complex color, texture, and value relationships. They are unhappy with the results but unwilling to suck it up and risk ruining all that work with the wrong choice. Since colored pencil is such a labor and time intensive medium I advocate many small studies that get pushed over the edge, before work on a final piece.

090608DFace Left: Here is a detail of the fourth sketch alone. Read about the layers of work below.

Let’s look at the various stages still visible in this sketch. I began with a crude sketch, more of a scribble, using the blue and orange crayons mentioned above. You can see remnants of the crayon strokes (not fully dissolved) in the eye on the right, at the right edge of the nose, at the top of the forehead, and in the neck. I started dissolving these Neoart lines at the same time I was applying washes of ultramarine and cadmium yellow light gouache. I knew the moment I touched brush to paper that I wasn’t going to be happy with the result but I kept PUSHING and decided that it would be the first layer of many, hence the green areas in the painting.

While that was drying I got to thinking that the real problem with the entire piece was that my sketch was woefully off. I went back into the sketch EVERYWHERE, with the Faber Castell Pitt Artist Brush Pen. This leaves a dark and firm line that you can’t really back away from. You can see these lines throughout the right side of the sketch. They did help me define some of my ideas about the sketch more clearly, but I wasn’t being precise enough and the looseness still bothered me. I also hadn't mentally committed to how I would shade certain areas with line work. The result was blocky and too rough. The entire sketch looked like this right side at the end of this revision.

Since I had come this far I decided I didn’t want to stop until I got “one” thing the way I wanted it. And for me that one thing became the eye on the left. I just started painting over the background color layers and crayon strokes and black ink lines with gouache. And because I was pushing, and had narrowed my focus to just one eye (I mentally told myself I would stop after that, not paint all night—which is a great way to encourage yourself to keep working in small bits of time!) I found that I really got involved in what the Lukas paint was doing.

The next thing I knew the area around the eye was becoming more developed and I found myself asking, what would happen if I used a strong red in this area? Since I wasn’t invested in completing a final painting I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by pushing ahead and trying out my mental suggestion. Another reason to push. You’re happy with one “little bit” and that grows and the next thing you know you’re pushing forward, even more. Now if your “risk” doesn’t pay off, you’ve still got those little bits to savor, or do you?

Here comes the rub. As I started to expand onto the entire left side of this face I had to paint over several gorgeous and delightful “little bits” that I was quite attached to. Wonderful little blips in the washes, perfect values…. But here’s where the pushing pays off—you make a decision to go forward and find new pleasant bits to savor. It’s like making an agreement to see what’s over the top of the hill. The things you’ve already done are the walk to the top of the hill, and, well you can do those again; let’s go find some new stuff.

090608DFaceEyeCrop Left: Detail of the eye on the left side of the face.

As I worked on the eye on the left I found several things to enjoy: the opacity of the paint as I applied it in thick dry-brush layers to obscure the ink lines; the play of non-natural colors and my refusal to use black paint; the way I allowed some ink line edges to show (edge of nostril); the stark contrast of the pure ultramarine blue against the reds, browns, and yellow.

Because I was enjoying this so much I kept working until half the face had been converted. I stopped then, because I had a commitment that evening, and also because I thought I had a complete sense of what I could do with these paints, to build something up, beyond the first sketch level I started at.

090608DFaceFinishCrop Right: Here is the completed left side of the drawing which I find holds together in a satisfying way. It's cropped so that you can view the built up portion of the sketch without the distraction of the various layers on the right side of the image. When you look at this cropped version squint to see how the values hold together even though the colors aren’t naturalistic.

On another day I might have been tempted to work up the entire painting and obliterate most of the earlier layers, leaving only those passages which supported the end “look” such as the brown mix under the eyebrow on the left, which is a first layer, but is left visible underneath the blue and yellow.

Here’s my point, if I had stopped with the wax pastel sketch which didn’t work, or the ink sketch which still didn’t reinforce what I wanted to get at, then I wouldn’t have arrived at this more detailed “look." I wouldn’t have learned much about the handling of this particular paint in relation to my painting methods. Also I wouldn’t have had as complete a sense of satisfaction.

I look at this sketch as one which I pushed way beyond what looked interesting or good. I was able to pull it back to something that I actually would have enjoyed finishing off.

Enjoyment of the “little bits” along the way makes this possible. Pushing is essential to get where we hope to go.

Note: When doing sketching exercises like this select brushes which work with your goals. If you are primarily going to work in the field with a Niji waterbrush, practice with one. If you are thinking you’ll work with these paints in the studio and use sable brushes, work with them now so that you are also getting accurate feedback on water/pigment ratios. For me, exercises like this in the studio help me transition back from the Niji to my “real” brushes.

Still haven’t tried working on a series of quick sketches that you push, and push, enjoying “little bits” on the way? Well, now you really need to sit down and try this with your favorite tools and medium. Pick a model, an object, or an old portrait photo like I did for this experiment, and dig in. Don’t give up after the first sketch. (Or even after the first layer of the first sketch.) Try another approach on the second sketch, and yet another approach on the third. For your fourth attempt consciously focus what you’ve observed and learned on the three previous attempts. Push to some sort of completion at least one portion of that fourth sketch.

I say “some sort of completion” because I’m not going to dictate whether you go for polish, loose strokes, hyper realism, minimalism…it’s up to you and your muse what you want to explore today—just be sure to go on an exploration; go all the way to the edge, over the edge, and come back a little. The next time you have to do a finished painting (or another sketch) you’ll have oodles more choices.

  1. Reply

    I loved this post. Lately I’ve been working hard to develop as an artist. When I was younger, and doing art far less than I am today, I would quit when the going got rough.

    Slowly I’m discovering the joy of process. Through daily reading of your blog I’m uncovering the wonder of “unperfectionism” and working through problems, which almost always results in a better piece than it might have if I’d done it perfectly the first time.

    Thank you again and again for being my inspiration on journaling and art process!

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