Friday, August 3, 2012

Trying Too Hard

If you're an artist, do you ever paint a scene, and then paint it over again to try and improve it? If so, does it work? I often find, much to my frustration, that the first attempt is better than the second one, and many of my artist friends report the same thing. This seems contrary to common sense because a painting should get better with practice, rather than worse. What's going on here?

I encountered this phenomenon yesterday, painting at Greenlake in Seattle with my watercolor meetup group. Below is attempt #1, depicting my friend, Christina, sitting on a dock painting.

First version. I liked it in general, but noticed that the three trees were similar in shape and size.
It came out well enough, but I thought the composition could be improved, so decided to give it another go to see if I couldn't do better with a second try.

Second version. The tree sizes were better, but nothing else. In fact, the painting didn't turn out as well overall as the first version (in my opinion, anyway). 

Oh dear. That didn't work! What happened?

Well, for one thing, my paint was starting to dry out in the fresh breeze that had been blowing all afternoon. So I should have added some fresh paint from the tubes to my palette. (For more about painting with gushy paint, see Overcoming Fear of Paint.)

But that's not all. Something happens to creativity when one stops being receptive and starts being analytical instead. Although very useful in certain situations, such as figuring out why my second painting came out poorly, being analytical requires a critical frame of mind. The artist must decide between bad and good, okay and good, good and better, and so forth. In the judging process, creativity flees, or at least hides behind a bush, because it has a very hard time coexisting with criticism. Brush strokes become more tentative, less confident and sure, as the artist wonders, "Oh, is this really the best place to put this stroke? Did I get the color right? Is there enough paint on my brush. Oh my!"

It seems that the time to be analytical comes after the act of creation, and not during it. For my next do-over, I'm going to try and remember this (without being too analytical about it!) and see if I can maintain a non-critical mindset while painting. Here's the process I'm going to try out:

1. Draw the scene.
2. Critique the drawing and make adjustments.
3. Paint with a non-critical mindset.
4. Critique the painting, deciding what I like and what I  want to improve.
5. Go through steps 1-4 again.

We'll see how it goes.