01 March 2015


I started this painting of a scene from France at Keiko Tanabe's workshop with a plan to paint it in the style we were attempting to learn there. Five hours of work later, I realize that I did not succeed in that goal, and that in fact I could not succeed because I still don't have an understanding of how to paint like that. I understand the theory; but in practice? I'm still painting like me.

In this one, that nearly defeated me, because the amount of itsy, confusing detail in this reference photo is overwhelming. Keiko would have determined the salient details, simplified vastly, and produced a masterful work that completely resembled this scene without literally being this scene. I didn't do that. I drew everything. I got halfway through this painting and put it aside for a few days, and I almost decided not to finish it because I couldn't face all that. (I don't know how people like John Salminen plan out and work on a painting for 40 hours straight, reveling in the placement of beautiful minutiae--that's definitely not me either!)

Parthenay: 12x16, watercolor

I'm not saying it's a bad thing that I paint like me, or that this is a bad painting. It does have its problems: I forgot about saving all the whites I wanted to keep. I didn't decide soon enough where my light source was coming from (the photo was taken on a cloudy day that produced few shadows or clues), so there are some awkward results here and there when I remembered or forgot to think about that. I definitely need practice painting foliage that looks realistic! And I am apparently an absolute literalist when it comes to color. For the life of me, I can't look at a picture, as Keiko does, and see tone and value. What appeals to me about a reference photo or a scene is its colors!

Given all that, what is the purpose, then, of taking a workshop such as Keiko's, if you don't really learn to do what she does? Or if you discover you have no affinity for it, or, worse, that you have the affinity but not the ability? As I found out while making this painting, it can be discouraging, or it can be revelatory. (Or, in this case, both.) What this painting revealed to me is that yes, I can make this kind of painting adequately, or even fairly well, but also that I have a long way to go.

I'm not saying that I want to learn to slavishly copy the style of someone else because I admire their work; but my admiration of their work has made me understand that my own body of work is so small that I haven't had the time to work out the kinks. I don't yet know all that I can do, because I haven't done it. When I said to Keiko at the workshop, after my notable failure to produce a believable drawing of a car out of my head, that I would have to take my sketchbook to work with me so I could sit in the parking lot on my lunch hour and draw cars until you could tell a Prius from a Jeep, she absently remarked, "Yes, at one point I realized I did not like painting water and it was because I didn't know how to do it, so I painted only water for six months." That would be six months of daily paintings.

It would be easy for me to say, Yes, but I work a full-time job, so I can't do that. The truth is, though, that you do what matters. Last night, for instance, I had the choice between watching TV or finishing my painting, and I chose to finish the painting. I could make that choice every night, and have, perhaps not a daily painting, but certainly a lot more than I am accomplishing now on the weekends, when I am done running errands or reading a novel. I make the excuse (about reading, and television, and putzing around in shops) that I need to recuperate from the week that's past and gear up for the week to come, but you have to ask the question: What is better for one's psyche than doing something creative? The more you do, the better you get; the better you get, the more fun you have. So there is a mountain range I need to climb, and the first few slopes are called reluctance, lethargy, and fear, but the peaks are wonder, delight, expression, fulfillment. Time to do a little more hiking.