If At First You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail Again!

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I went to Navaro State Park back in September, and panted in this location. Heaven! The park is up the rural northern coast of California, past Booneville. It follows a river, and the air is rich and humid and warm under the trees. The duff on the forest floor is so deep that walking on it actually becomes spongy and soft. The fragrant, heady smell of bay trees and redwoods is everywhere. Deep in the quiet woods… the creaking of the redwood boughs high above. An easy place to get suckered in to painting terribly difficult subjects! Hahaha!

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Here’s the little sketch I did on site. I had to jet, and it was towards the end of the end of the day. I might have spent 20-30 minutes max. I just wanted to capture the mood— that sense of deep recession under the redwoods and bays, like a vaulted ceiling. Little did I know, however, how hard it would be to get a completed painting out of this.

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Later that week, I grew the painting to a quarter sheet, wondering if making them more vertical would capture that sense of a vaulted cathedral that I got there. But to me, no love…

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What was so hard was that the foliage up above is really just an ambient texture. It’s hard to add it in and make it read as leaves attached to a branching system.

A few weeks later, I decided to try it again as a half sheet, adding more visual texture to the canopy while also focusing on that stretching, arching feeling by changing to a wider format. In an effort to increase the sense of depth, I also tried to preserve some highlights on the ground plane plants, to help separate the values between the foreground and midground some.

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I finished it, and although I liked it better, I still really wasn’t satisfied. There wasn’t a sense of cast light on the floor of the forest, nor a sense of vibrant light pushing through the canopy. Where were all those deep shadows I remembered?

In answer to these issues, I did it a fourth time a few weeks later. I brought in the edge of the canopy on the left, to help create an “umbrella.” You can see that I’ve retained some new highlights on the upper canopy, as well as a greater set of vibrant highlights down below, on the little ferns and leaves.

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Once again… better, I thought, but even so, I still wasn’t really satisfied. Where was that vibrant light? The heady smell of a humid forest floor? The deep, magical, recessive shadows that I wanted to wander off into? After 4 attempts in a month, I let it go. Sometimes, you just can’t get an image to work. You have to learn more, or change, or fail in some other new way to get that special key you’ve been looking for. I set it aside, and two months later…

I came back to it.

I just couldn’t let it go, and my attitude about paintings I’m dissatisfied with is to go for it. Who cares if I screw it up? I didn’t really find it successful anyways. From here, over the next few weeks, bit by bit, I sort of snuck up on the painting, doing a half hour here and there, thinking I was done, propping it up so I could look at it from a distance now and then while doing stuff in the kitchen, only to still not be sure, and jump back in again.

First, I dropped deeper blue shadows into the shade, cast shadows from the trunks on the right, deeper shadows in the foreground, etc. I also added more opaque highlights in that area, trying to get a sense of depth and layering. Again, better, but still I wasn’t satisfied. I set it back into the discard pile and worked on other things.

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Here, I decided that the image was too “far away” and cool. I wanted to be down under the canopy myself, and that warm lime-green light, not looking at it from afar. I dropped in a wash of yellow-green over the sunny foliage, to warm things up. Then I brought the branches down from the top left to close the composition off and bring the foreground into the top as well. I added highlights and bits of scruffiness to the lower foreground too. Once again, I did a scruffy glaze in the deep shadows along the horizon line, getting it a bit darker again.

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In the next step, I brought the foreground foliage down around the front left, pushing all those cast shadows and backlighting in. Thank you to my wife for the thought! :) Now, I could finally see, after a few months working on this on and off, that I was getting somewhere. Failing a lot is hard. It’s disheartening, but if you’re doing your job right you’re atleast exploring and trying new things. Often, succeeding is when the painting process is most difficult creatively— because you begin to want to play it safe. You don’t want to ruin it! But this is just when I think you should go for it!

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I figure go big or go home. What are we here to do, if not to share and express our inner selves as truly as we can? How can be do that tentatively? Bah!

I decided to push my darks even farther down within the canopy. Screw it. I wanted those woods to be deep and murky and full of texture, and for the foreground to be bright and sunlit by comparison. Did I push it too far? I don’t know. But the final affect is strong, and there’s no going backwards. This is where I set down my brush on this one, and taped it up on the “recently finished” wall.

If I decide I’m not happy with the final results, there’s nothing to do but paint it again!

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