I had just spent 3 weeks working on a watercolor based on a photograph I took back in 1982 when I was working as a waitress at Lutsen Resort during my college years. Discovering the photo of a shallow river bed glued into one of my sketchbooks, I must have seen something in how the leaves floated on the water, the arrangement of rocks, and the way the water moved through them enough to make me take a photograph and save it where I did. This would make a great piece to include in my River Divination series, or so I thought.
The watercolor became too brown. I should have stayed with the color palette I established ahead of time. Overall, it was too chaotic with no place to rest the eye. I should have applied my design sense to the composition. Maybe looking back into the past was not such a good idea. This was the second “failed” watercolor of the summer, both of which I spent way too much time on.
Since I left my business as a graphic designer in 2020 to pursue fine art full-time, I was having a fairly high success rate in terms of the work. I felt good about what I was producing and it was work worthy of sharing and exhibiting. I had not prepared myself for the flops.
I Am Not Alone and Neither Are You.
I was recently reminded of the “failures” that other artists have made. For instance, when Pope Leo X forced Michelangelo to remove the scaffolding from the first section of the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo discovered it was all wrong. The figures were too small and the compositions were too crowded. Shit! I don’t know the Italian equivalent for shit, but I am sure there was a shit-storm. When Cezanne had a bad plein-aire day, he threw the “bad” painting in a tree where it could hang from a limb. Merde! (I do know the French word for shit.) I haven’t gone there…yet. I mean, cursing out popes or throwing paintings into trees. I was also reminded that watercolor paper does have two sides.
The Importance of Play.
How was I to rebound from a string of crappy work? Instead of diving into a new piece, (I’ve got ideas and plans for series work set to keep me busy for at least two years), I decided to give myself some slack and play. Giving myself time to play is a gift. For one, I am 60+ years old. I feel time ticking and that I have finite years left where I can physically paint and create. No time for play!
For a while, I’ve been meaning to take a break from the large detailed work and just play using up those 5 x 7-inch watercolor sheets. In the last doomed watercolor (shown above), in the upper left-hand corner, I found a spark. Out of the flop came a little illustrated river story series. These are nothing special or serious, just studies and a perfect way to shake off my feeling of failure.
“River” is both an illustration and story series about a river exploited and dammed, the river suffers and everyone suffers along with it. With the removal of the dam, the river is left alone, regains its health, and soon the salmon return, too.
Remember Your Manifesto.
Back in 2009, I wrote and designed a series oftruths, the stuff for creatives, makers, and artists alike to live by. Originally I wanted to make large letterpress posters out of them. While the manifesto enjoys a very small fan base, I have yet to see the series have its day in the sun. Still, the manifesto proves useful for what I have been dealing with. It’s not a failure. It’s a prototype.
I’m also reminding myself it’s why it’s an art practice. Thoroughly dusted off, I am ready and eager to begin again.
YOUR TURN. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with failures. How do you deal with failure, artistic or otherwise? What did you learn by failing? Have good things resulted from your self-proclaimed flops? We all learn from one another so do tell in the comments.
I used to balk at doing studies before embarking on a large piece. I was afraid they would take some of the enthusiasm, the freshness away. A “successful” study might make me rigid and want to replicate my efforts exactly large scale.
Well, That’s Silly Lazy Thinking.
A study for me is a blessing. It saves me from making huge mistakes or disappointing myself on a large expensive sheet of paper. It gives me a chance to play, try out different angles, colors, patterns, and compositions in a short amount of time. (Have I mentioned it takes me upwards of 60 to 80 hours to complete a piece?) In the end, I have a little series of painted notes that not only help me in the immediate piece ahead but can be added to a personal library of watercolor technique trial and errors. Or happy mistakes.
In short, art studies take the pressure off. It’s not like I am goofing off or not accomplishing anything as I once thought. The other thing is that people really enjoy seeing artists’ studies, their art journals, witnessing their process, how they solve a visual, medium, or technical problem. We all learn something.
A Sample Study To Illustrate My Point.
STEP ONE: Ultimately this will be a much larger piece (30 x 22) and I know what effect I want. That is, high contrast between the various yellows, browns, and oranges of the fallen Aspen leaves and the dark paved pathway. To avoid a flat black surface, I paint a wash of cerulean blue mixed with a bit of indigo around the leaves. Then I paint the leaves. It was also important to give a sense of perspective. To see the leaves right underfoot larger and the leaves that have blown ahead on the path to be smaller. This will (hopefully!) give the viewer a sense they are standing right there. That may not come across in a small-scale study but it is what I am striving for with the large-scale piece.
STEP TWO: Like the caption reads, I inked in the pathway as a pattern with specks of small stones to add texture. I was pretty pleased with the effect and the contrast. After finishing the study, I feel really good about starting (which is in the works) the larger version of Aspen Leaves on Pathway in Autumn. Inspiration for this piece came from an overcast autumn morning while walking in Thomas Lake Prairie Preserve. The leaf color popped on the dark pathway. It was like a “follow the yellow brick road” moment.
YOUR TURN: How do you feel about doing studies? What do you learn? Do you like your studies more than the final piece? (it happens sometimes) Don’t be shy. Tell me your thoughts in the comments.
When asked “what do you do?” I will say I am an artist. (Note that I answer “who I am” versus “what I do.” Art is who I am and art what I make). The first question is followed by “what kind of art?” To which I typically answer with a medium. “Watercolors” I’ll respond. “Oh! they’ll say, Watercolor is so hard. You have to work so quickly. I could never do watercolors!” I smile. Everything takes practice and lots of it and I will encourage them to try.
I practice a lot at my art and I am never too old, too experienced, or too perfect to seek out instructions or new techniques. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon YouTube videos on negative painting. Instead of painting inside the subject, you paint around it. I’ll show you the process so it makes sense.
There you have it! Super effective once you get the hang of it. I did not get too fussy about pencil lines but you might want to erase yours with a kneaded eraser (no eraser shavings) so your lines are much lighter. It was pure play and I can see incorporating this method of negative painting with layers in my work. I am a little bit on the fence though with these studies. They were such a joy to make yet at the same time they feel a little like a Hallmark formula. That could be because I started super simple and trying this out for the first time.
Project Notes: I used 300lb Fabriano Bright White hot press watercolor paper. The thickness of the paper held up to all the paint layers really well and did not buckle from the water. Watercolors are Winsor Newton and some inexpensive cake watercolors – any brand of watercolors will do! It is important to mix colors and not just use colors straight out of the tube ~ you get a much richer effect that way. There were really small paintings, too, about 5 x 7 inches.
Terra Kind Studio is the creative working home of visual artist, writer, apprentice poet, and graphic designer Kristin Maija Peterson.
“I write stories about of my work to bring you a connection and understanding of the thinking that goes into my work. As a self-proclaimed “Beauty Hunter,” I seek to represent the wild, the messy and the misunderstood places and spaces that are either ignored or destined to be controlled or developed. There is such beauty in the natural chaos of things. I hope your visit here is an inspired one.
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