When unexpected things happen - "Shrike-thrush"
Have you ever encountered that point in a painting where you might either completely ruin it by the next few strokes, or, if you're very lucky, they will make and define the painting for you? Have you ever been unsure whether to stop right there, or to perhaps continue down that less trodden path?
Art to me often seems to be to be a struggle between trying not to 'overwork' paintings, and yet still being open to taking 'risks' that might take your art further overall. Inevitably, often you'll make the 'wrong' judgement, but sometimes you can be lucky and unexpectedly you come to really appreciate the result.
This has been an unexpectedly eventful and busy week for me.
On the work front I had my first week of giving lectures (for a 3rd year Ecology course) on predator-prey and host-parasite interactions. I also designed and ran my first 3-hour computer laboratory on matrix projection modelling with the students. While it was nerve-wracking at first, the students are an amazing bunch, and they particularly excelled in the computer lab - I was super impressed with their enthusiasm and ability to interpret results on their own! I feel that I'm becoming more comfortable with giving lectures overall too.
In other news, I finally received word from my PhD thesis examiners, some 5 months after I submitted the thesis! I have been extremely fortunate, and one examiner recommended that the thesis was outstanding and should be passed without correction or amendments! The second examiner thought the thesis was excellent and just suggested some minor textual corrections (consisting of fixing unclear figure legends)... So despite all my worry, and waiting for ever and ever, I may eventually get my PhD degree! Yay! :)
But, enough of that, and back to the art...
Some months ago I started a painting of a shrike-thrush, while out camping at Girraween National Park (see WIP 1). I quite enjoy using 'down-time' while camping to paint, because I generally find painting quite relaxing.
So I started by blocking in the colours of the background, then the shape of the bird. Whenever I start a painting these days, I'm always aiming to build up the background and foreground together, because this is a bit of a weakness with my current approach - if you finish the foreground first, it can often seem disconnected or out of place in a background that is added later on. So I tried in this painting to start with both at once. Unfortunately I failed! I became too distracted (as per usual) on the details of the bird's face and legs (see Figs. 1 and 2).
Sadly, the camping trip ended, and I didn't have much time to spend on art for a few weeks, so the painting sat around partially done (as so many paintings do, unfortunately). This is another one of those problems of being a part-time artist - too often it can be almost impossible to get back 'into' working on a painting when you've been away from it for a period of time. So the pile of unfinished works builds up in a corner of the studio, and in the next little break of time you have, instead of being able to go back to one of them, you usually find that your inspirational muse has passed on to a new subject!
So the next time I had a few hours for art was actually on a trip to my parents' rainforest retreat. My mother and I usually set up with our pastels whenever we get the chance, and encourage each other in our artistic endeavours. Art can often be an isolating venture, particularly if you don't regularly participate in group art sessions, so we always mutually benefit from the time spent discussing our work and painting side by side.
I decided on this occasion to try to get back to the shrike-thrush painting... it really was high time that I started moving some of these unfinished works to the 'finished' pile! I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous, however, so I simply blocked in the rest of the bird's legs, and the branch she was standing on (see WIP 2).
But then came the real challenge and the moment of truth... whatever was I to do with the background now? Because once again, I had accidentally left it until last!
So I took the plunge and tried to add a loose-feeling background behind the bird...
...and it was a disaster (see WIP 3)!
When I tried to add in the greens I saw in the original photo, they didn't at all complement the browns of the bird, and the piece ended up far too busy and distracting. That is too often the case with using photos for reference - it is all too easy to become caught up in the photo-realism of the scene, and copy the details from the photo rather than considering the painting as an entity on its own.
So I discussed the problem with my mother, and after a while we came to the conclusion that subduing the background with some gentle unsaturated sky blue might help draw it back and away from the bird... I still wasn't happy with the painting though, and added some blues to the foreground as well, to tie the background and foreground together (at the suggestion of my excellent mother; see WIP 4).
So with a few unfortunate strokes at that earlier decision point I was convinced that I had ruined my painting!
When I said as much in a message to my sister though, and she replied with: "I love it, go and ruin some more paintings!".
Sometimes you end up going in circles with a single problem, and can't see your way through, but occasional advice from other artists can really help to put things in perspective!
I can see now what my sister liked about the painting with the scratchy blue background - it's not a technique I ever would have discovered had I not made that earlier mistake of overworking the background.
Sometimes you just have to take the risk... maybe something unexpected will happen! :)
Have you ever gotten to a point in a painting where you're not sure whether you should stop or not? Do you ever find that your paintings are too conservative and that you're not taking risks? How do you decide when to take those risks, and when not to?
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