Mutability and Revision

The more I draw, the more I learn about painting. That statement is both blindingly obvious and paradoxically elusive for me. I am about to finish my current sketchbook (so expect to see more drawings soon), and through it, I’ve learned incredible amounts about structuring a painting and attaching ideas to forms.

One aspect of oil painting that I’ve been reluctant to embrace is its infinite mutability. I used to resist making any changes to paintings, preferring to map out a composition at the inception and more or less stick with it to the end. More often, I would discover a compositional fault that I couldn’t get past and abandon the painting entirely, intending eventually to get back to it, but almost never doing so.

Grad school was very useful for loosening up my resistance to make changes, as in-progress critiques helped me identify the parts of compositions that were resolving problematically for viewers or in some other way failing to provide the appropriate structure for the ideas I was trying to layer onto images. Unfortunately, however, it also let me find a way to avoid having to make changes, as I moved into water media and embraced the unpredictable, fluid shapes formed by water in my ink paintings.

Now I’m trying to use what I’ve learned about structure from drawing to enact greater control over my oil paintings. I have a tendency to sketch out a vague form using washy lines, then plunge right into modeling curves and shapes without stepping back to consider the overall composition, scale, or bigger movements of the canvas until it’s too late. More importantly, I need to ask myself if what I’m painting actually matches what I’m thinking about, or if instead I’m getting lost in some lovely swoops that will ultimately feel shallow or frustrating to me.

I have this big blue painting that has been sitting next to my easel for months. I was hesitant to move forward on it because something felt imbalanced about the composition. I had intended for this painting to be a meditation on rippling, folding matter, a sort of undulating consideration of this idea from physics that everything is made of something, and there’s no such thing as nothingness, as even space has certain properties and forces to it. Less abstractly, when you look at a flower and see shadows, you’re not seeing darkness or absence, but rather a part of the flower that is occluded, yet present. Each petal has both a top side and an underside, just as curves in nature have insides and outsides that are part of the same surface.

I wasn’t getting that feeling from this painting as it was, and I was frustrated that it felt like a bunch of impulsive decisions, without the organizing principles I’d intended.

It’s always with some trepidation that one revises a composition, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my first stab at this painting, in light of how easy it should be to change.

Using cadmium yellow and darker blue, I started essentially correcting the areas that stuck out to me. I thought more about the central idea, that everything comes from something, in terms of existence, spirituality, matter, physics, math, psychology, and on and on, thinking through what movements of this form could evoke these sensations. I knew I wanted the form to be more centralized and inwardly-focused, rather than jutting off the edges haphazardly as it had done.

It’s not accidental that the painting started looking more and more like a greenish-colored rose, as I’ve always used roses as a sort of shorthand for postmodern introspection and layers of meaning folding out from themselves. My undergraduate thesis project used details of roses and other organic forms to get at some of these same ideas, so I shouldn’t be surprised to come full circle and use them again, with different inflection. I think of dimensions as petals, so a treatment of some unfolding facets of existence logically follows blossoming flowers and wave forms.

I don’t know if I’m done revising this painting’s composition yet, though I’ve lived with it for a while and find I am mostly satisfied that I can work with this iteration, with small adjustments that will be sorted out while painting. It’s fun to consider an object in flux, wobbling toward what it will become.

I’m planning for the color to shift toward teal, with creamy highlights that pick up the yellow, and deep blues and browns that push the depths into sharper, clearer contrast.

I’m excited about what this painting could become, and I’m both relieved and encouraged by the revisions I’ve made. I haven’t typically kept track of revisions in the past, as I think there exists the risk that previous versions looked better and I’ll be able to see the ways I’ve ruined something good. I think the value of discovery from change is worth the potential ego pitfalls, and I must learn not to regret the changes that insist on being made.


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