How to Ruin a Painting

Hungabee Lake by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, acrylic, 24x30 (Webster Galleries, Calgary)

Do you ever take a moment to figure out how you painted yourself into that hopeless far corner with no escape? I took a moment to trace back my steps and try to figure it out. After all, how can we improve if we don't know what we did wrong?

I typically overwork a painting by going back into it over and over again in a sort of a fixing frenzy.  It's a strange cycle of cowardice followed by poor anger management. It all happens in my head and if I knew how not to fall into this trap ever again I would write a book just on that one subject. I am sure it would help many of those who have the same problem. In the meantime, I can write the little that what I know about it in a  blog! 

This thing attacks me periodically and it seems to get triggered by some unpleasant event that intrudes into my mind and prevents me from fully getting into the zone. The key to avoid the next stage is to recognize when this happens and do whatever it takes to get it out of the mind - meditate, exercise, read a book, take a bath. Just do not under any circumstances, work on a painting.

When I ignore the signs of trouble, what happens is that I start painting too timidly and half distracted as if my ears are full of water and my senses just can’t get a grip on the situation. From some bizarre reason I keep believing that the painting will find its own way if I just go along with it. What really happens is that I work pensively instead of confidently. The painting might even appear to start unfolding happily, like a joyful child frolicking in a meadow. But at some point, hours later, I realize that the thing is going nowhere, the child is now hungry and scared and it’s getting dark. The poor painting is begging for help. 

This is the second point where the best thing to do is leave the studio. If I can just notice this switch of emotions and be reasonable and rational, and make an exit. I wish! Instead, that's where anger takes control. I must protect my creation and I start furiously “fixing it”, and at the same time slapping myself for being so foolish to get into this situation in the first place. Needless to say that the brushstrokes are by now sticky-dry and bumpy and all in wrong places, soft edges are lost, composition errors  are laughing back at me. Someone may even ask the dreaded question:  “Why did you spoil it!? I loved the way it looked yesterday.”

If there wasn't just a delicious passage in it, it would be chucked away, but in truth, I have been able to salvage such paintings with decent success, so the battle isn't always doomed. The Hungabee Lake painting I posted here is one of those saved babies - everything that could go wrong went wrong with it, but in the end I was very pleased with the result.

My experience is that simplifying and strengthening the composition usually helps, even if the surface quality isn't impeccable any more. But when the composition is beyond help and the surface is ruined, all I am left with is a reusable stretcher. There is a landscape with a lovely creek and a mess of the background waiting for me in the studio. I think I’ll sleep on it.

Happy Painting!