Overcoming My Painting Stumbling Blocks

Acrylic Painting

Roses Cot­tage: Acrylic on Linen 8x10 in.

EVERYONE AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER faces try­ing times; finan­cial, fam­ily, oblig­a­tions, com­mit­ments, sud­den tragedies and more. But some­times there are strug­gles I’ve expe­ri­enced as an artist over the years, and a few seem to boomerang over and over. What are some I have faced? I’ll tell you about a few then talk about how they applied to the paint­ing posted here.

I For­got My Tube of X

Every time I have com­pany over for din­ner, I for­get some­thing. It is usu­ally the plates (yes the plates;) but­ter dish, spoons or bread. But it never fails. With all the plan­ning I do ahead of time, I have to excuse myself from the table to get this or that.

This hap­pens when I paint out­doors as well. I spend hours replen­ish­ing my paint­ing bag upon return­ing from one trip so I am ready for the next. If dri­ving, I take a spare bag of extra brushes, can­vas and paint. But some­times — oh brother — some­times I for­get just one color! I was really rat­tled the first time this hap­pened. But now, no mat­ter what col­ors I have, I paint (par­tic­u­larly true if paint­ing with pas­tels.) When I finally had a firm grasp of how to mix color I could sub­sti­tute and workaround my for­get­ful­ness. When with a col­league to paint with it’s eas­ier, espe­cially if they are using the same media…I sim­ply bor­row from them or they from me. But when alone or using media dif­fer­ent from my buddy this is what I do…

Say I have for­got­ten white (good­ness knows you need this, even if it’s the last thing you add to your paint) I use the next light­est color, Lemon Yel­low et. al. If miss­ing Cobalt Blue, I mix Ultra­ma­rine (if I have it;) with a touch of yel­low and white. It’s not exact. How­ever, if I get the val­ues right, the inten­si­ties and tem­per­a­ture right, it works. I’m no longer a slave to this problem.

I Don’t Know How to do This or That…

As a kid grow­ing up, I learned how to knit and perl. It was fun until I “got it.” “But now what do I do, it’s get­ting bor­ing?” Well, you buy a pat­tern and make some­thing. So I did. First a scarf, then a sweater. I found it easy to fol­low the instruc­tions that oth­ers had dif­fi­culty with. Point was, that all I needed to do was research pat­terns so I could use the two stiches I knew how to make.

When I was learn­ing to draw and paint the same thing hap­pened. I would take a work­shop here and there, the lights would go on and I would “get it.” But once I returned home, I had trou­ble imple­ment­ing what I had stud­ied and thought I had learned. (I now tell my own stu­dents to prac­tice as soon as they get home so what­ever they learned “sticks.”) So that’s what I began doing. Once I really under­stood the tech­ni­cal aspects of painting/drawing, say, per­spec­tive, I could apply the same techniques/concepts to any­thing I rendered.

So just as with knit­ting, I can now pickup a book, view a paint­ing, watch a demon­stra­tion, and learn how to do just about any tech­nique needed on my own. That’s why I also tell stu­dents that “I am try­ing to work my way out of a job.” The job of teach­ing them “this or that.” Once I had a firm grasp of most paint­ing concepts/principles, it was easy to add a new tech­nique, mate­r­ial, medium or other to my grow­ing artis­tic tool­box. That’s very free­ing. Don’t know when that cross-over hap­pened, but it was early on, after tak­ing a Daniel Greene work­shop and sub­se­quently an Impres­sion­is­tic pas­tel work­shop with the late Her­man Mar­gulis. Being able to work through artis­tic issues is now a plea­sure rather than a struggle.

Top­ping My List: Stop­ping & Starting

The most chronic dif­fi­culty I face is when I stop paint­ing for even a day which can turn into weeks. Some would call this pro­cras­ti­na­tion or lazi­ness. And it is a form of both, but not all. After hap­pen­ing to me so many times I think I’ve iden­ti­fied the cause. Fear of suc­cess and fear of fail­ure wrapped up into a neat lit­tle pack­age. With a life­time liv­ing with low expec­ta­tions of myself, I often give into these arti­fi­cial but very real emo­tions. I have talked to many artists and have found many who don’t even know what I am talk­ing about, while oth­ers say it sounds dead-on with what hap­pens to them.

When I paint every day, I have no prob­lem – I’m on a roll! I can paint up a storm and not think about the out­come of how a paint­ing will come out. I also derive plea­sure from learn­ing with every stroke thus build­ing my con­fi­dence. So why, when I stop for a time do thoughts of fear or fail­ure creep in to halt me?

It’s a blend of not feel­ing like start­ing a paint­ing and fear of fail­ure of the out­come. You might be say­ing to your­self, “That sounds dumb.” Well, you’re right it is. It’s silly. But it’s a very real event inside my head. I have noth­ing to fear from an inan­i­mate can­vas, brush or paint. It can’t speak, move or do any­thing for or to me. I am in full con­trol – if I take that con­trol. I use one of two options…

Option 1:
Instead of paint­ing some­thing impor­tant like a com­mis­sioned piece or a sub­ject that means so much to me, I choose some­thing sim­ple to prime my pump. Some­thing that imbibes no pres­sure to do men­tally. It might be a small piece with a famil­iar sub­ject, or some­thing just for fun. This usu­ally works. But if I have been away for longer than a week I reach for…

Option 2:
Ok, I don’t feel like paint­ing. I paint for a liv­ing, so this can­not be allowed to threaten me. With brush in hand I just say with my will, “I will paint.” And as many researchers have proved, if you start an activ­ity and do it for about 20 min­utes with your will, your feel­ings will fol­low. It really works! When I do this, I some­times don’t come up for air for hours! Voila, I’m in the game again. And most of the time, the paint­ings come out just fine or even bet­ter than I could have imagined.

Case in Point

The paint­ing posted with this mes­sage is an exam­ple of all three of the above strug­gles wrapped into one. Rose’s Cot­tage, was cre­ated years ago on Salt Cay Island (in the Turks & Caicos Islands.) I had arrived to the 1 mile island a few days before con­duct­ing a plein-air work­shop. I had to “warm-up.” I delayed a cou­ple of days reluc­tant to start a paint­ing, much less fin­ish one. For some rea­son, I did not feel like paint­ing for fear of mak­ing a mess of it. So I walked around and shot pic­tures (that’s always safe – hide behind another activity ;)

Know­ing I had to get crackin’ I took my portable paint box, found a wall along the island’s sandy one-lane roads to sit on and start with my will, to paint the old tat­tered cot­tage (later learn­ing the owner’s name was Rose.) Took awhile to get going but things smoothed out until real­iz­ing I was miss­ing a par­tic­u­lar red. Momen­tar­ily halted, I decided to emu­late the reds I saw using the only red I had, mixed with other col­ors (back to a very lim­ited palette ;) Bingo, sec­ond hur­dle overcome.

Lastly, I had never painted the type of roof­ing this house had. Could not dis­cern what the mate­r­ial was. “What do I do with this?”, I thought. Ok, no prob­lem. What do I already know? I know that I can mix color, that I know per­spec­tive, and the way light oper­ates on a sub­ject. I did what I instruct oth­ers to do and was taught many times: observe and paint what you see, not what you think you see. View things as as shapes and col­ors not as a “roof.” Duh!! Last issue overcome.

I ended up hav­ing a fan­tas­tic ses­sion of paint­ing on that wall. Folks strolled by curi­ous about what I was doing. I painted a few more pieces that sim­ply flowed from my brush. I was ready for my stu­dents and the piece became so pop­u­lar at a gallery I could have sold a dozen. That’s incen­tive enough to paint more regularly :)

There are many other stum­bling blocks to paint­ing, but I’ll share more in a post down the road.


L Diane Johnson

American plein-air and studio landscape painter in the U.S. & Europe. Love teaching about art privately, through my workshops and blog. Former founding editor of PleinAir Magazine, juror and writer. Passionate about working with collectors and artists. Member of the Pastel Society of America, Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of the Southeast, and more... Thrilled to interact with you all here at Painting On Air!