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.
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.
I have worked with watercolors for decades. It’s my first love next to drawing. Gouache, which is more or less a cousin to watercolors, never piqued my interest until I saw what other artists were doing with it.
2021 is my transitional year. Since I made the bold move to end my tenure as a full-time graphic designer working on projects for clients, I knew I wanted to devote a portion of my studio practice to pure experimentation.
Then I started to breathe. I remember the quote from Ira Glass from “This American Life,” who said something to the effect that you are not satisfied with your efforts at first it’s because you have taste. Your taste drives you to keep practicing, and through practice, you will reach the level of your taste.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” — Ira Glass
I settled on my experiment. Since I knew watercolor and what it would do when paint hit paper, I would create a comparison painting with gouache. I chose a simple subject, our Christmas Cactus optimistically sprouting pink buds. I would paint the cactus first in watercolor and then in gouache.
At first, I thought I would be bored painting the same subject twice. (I never do that!). It turned out to be a good exercise. For one, I had been doing large-scale detailed drawings for some time and had such a limited color palette it was liberating to get back to a lot of colors.
After those earlier terrible first stabs using gouache, guess what? I like the gouache version of the Christmas Cactus best, enough to use it in a thank you card.
A couple of practical notes: It’s a good idea to paint a swatch set of your colors – no matter what medium you use. You’ll have a visual reference of what a color looks like on paper, which can look different than what the color looks like in the tube. Make a note of whether the paint color is transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque is helpful, too.
Your results are so much better if you don’t use color straight out of the tube when painting with gouache. Mix your colors and establish a color palette for your painting before you put brush to paper. You’ll be so happy you did.
What to do with the results? Make a greeting card, of course! Hope you enjoy it. What mediums are you experimenting with these days? Jot your questions or comments below. I’d love to hear what you are working on.
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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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