Last week, I wrote about emotional ups and downs of the process of painting study. This week, we return to the technical side of things (even though these two can be hard to differentiate).
Facing the blank canvas is one of the “low points” of what is sometimes called “painting curve”, but often not the lowest. This moment may be filled with fears and doubts, but there is also the potential, the expectation of the journey ahead.
Once you start, the curve goes upward — the painting is beginning to emerge, and at this stage, there are really no “mistakes”, because everything is but a hint, and everything can change still. But the roller caster of ups and downs is inevitable, at least if you are trying to learn something, to make something new happen: there will be moments when the painting seems ruined and hopeless, that you have work yourself into a dead end. The key is not to be afraid of these moments, and not to get discouraged by them, but rather to welcome them — quite often, they are the most fruitful moments of the whole process; blessings in disguise (although the disguise can be really good). If it seems that you have worked yourself into a desperately hopeless situation, and you don’t know how to deal with it alone, don’t hesitate to take a photo and to write to me immediately!
This applies to any painting process (as you probably know yourself) — but today I want to focus on some special ways the painting curve can play out in the process of painting study.
There are mountains of painting mastery in the painting you are studying, which means that, in a sense, it embodies perfect (or near-perfect) answers to some questions you might have never known how to ask. You might have heard about “four stages” of a learning process:
1. Unconscious ignorance: there is something you don’t know, and you don’t even know what you don’t know. There is no question in your mind to which this unknown knowledge would be the answer. That’s how children draw — with complete innocence.
2. Conscious ignorance: there is still something you don’t know (and/or) don’t know how to do, but now you are aware of that. The question has emerged in your mind, but you don’t have the answer. In painting, you begin to notice, and become frustrated, with flaws that have never bothered you before.
3. Conscious competence: now you know the answer, but you have to pay conscious attention in order to put it into practice (for example, in the beginning stages of learning how to drive, when lots of attention is needed to manipulate the car properly, when you still need to “think” about the process of driving).
4. Unconscious competence: the answer is now fully integrated into your brain’s neural machinery, so you don’t need to recall it consciously; your attention is freed for other things (so you can drive the car and listen to an audiobook, or enjoy the view, at the same time).
The process of painting study “short-circuits” the conventional learning curve, and brings the student directly into the realm of unconscious knowledge with regard to the deepest (and most sacred) secrets of composing a painting. Your brush will (re)create an incredibly strong composition without your mind being necessarily aware of all the sources of its power.
This is because a masterpiece of painting embodies compositional “solutions” that often belong to the realm of conscious or even unconscious ignorance for a beginning painter (and compared to masters, we are all beginners). That’s what creates the potential for learning in the process of a painting study, and this is also the major source of joy in this process: the painting that emerges under your brush is stronger, more powerful than you know how to do, and you don’t really understand how. Some answers are given, and are now embodied in your painting, even though you didn’t ask the right questions. This creates a miracle-like experience, a sensation of magic happening on your own canvas.
But what about learning, then? Isn’t it the case that if we don’t understand what we are doing — if we miss the stages of conscious ignorance and conscious competence — then we haven’t really learned anything we could use in our own paintings later on? Not necessarily. The truth is, there are lots of skills and knowledge that we acquire without the “conscious” stages involved at all. This is, for example, how we acquire our native languages just by listening and trying to talk — all the incredibly complicated analysis which goes into the process of “learning” a language happens unconsciously. Or, probably more to the point, that’s how we learn to interpret raw visual data to create a coherent picture of reality in front of us.
Something like this happens in painting studies, too (that’s why copying from masters has been such an essential part of artist’s training over centuries). There is a place for “conscious ignorance” and “conscious knowledge”, but a lot can be learned “without thinking”, without “learning the rules” and consciously applying them till they become ingrained. In the process of your painting study, your first connected with the masterpiece — with your eyes and heart, and now your hand is re-creating it. Your body, and your unconscious mind, are learning by doing — and this unconscious competence will stay with you for your further work.
Of course, some aspects of painting composition will rise to the level of conscious awareness — that is, you will “notice”, consciously, how something works; this is also a part of the learning process. And one of the most efficient ways for this to happen is to make a mistake, and then to notice it: you change something accidentally, and you see that the painting becomes weaker because of this change. This comparison helps the newly acquired knowledge to become better ingrained. This is just one reason not to be afraid of mistakes in this process, but rather to welcome them — to accept their inevitability and to learn from them.
So what to do when you notice such a mistake? You step away to look at the painting from a distance, or return to your study after a break and see it afresh — and you notice something like a line going at a wrong angle, or a wrong colour, or something like that. Something went wrong, and the whole painting looks not like you have expected. What now?
I have three general bits of advice to offer here.
First, take this step back from your painting quite often — even if (and especially if) you feel like everything is going very well, like you are “in the zone”. If necessary, use a timer (about fifteen minutes at the most) to remind yourself of this need to step back often — but don’t wait for it if you feel this need yourself. This is because if a mistake needs to be corrected, it is much easier and less detrimental (both to the process and to the result) to do it as soon as possible.
Secondly, find a balance between working the whole canvas (and thus seeing it as a whole) and focusing on specific areas. If the area is challenging, or particularly important, you will need to focus on it — but switch back to seeing it in the context of the painting quite often. It is very easy to make mistakes in proportions and colour without taking the context of the whole picture plane into account.
Finally, not all mistakes need to be corrected; it’s often better to have a bold brushstroke or line, even if it isn’t exactly right, than to fuss with it in a futile attempt to make it perfect. Use your own intuition, and — if in doubt — take a photo and write to me about what bothers you.
In fact, the further you go into the process of painting study, the more important it will be to get regular feedback; send me a photo, and write about your own impressions: what do you think work, and what doesn’t? Where do you see problems? What are you uncertain about? Writing about this will help you to bring your thoughts and impressions “in order”, and it will help me to give you the advice you really need.
This post is a part of online program, “The Making of a Painting Masterpiece”.