A funny thing happened on the way to a finished painting the other day...
Seriously, I was out with my good friend Ray on a miserably hot day. We both got cranky, and we were both ready to throw in the towel on our semi-finished paintings. But then I plunked down on a stump next to Ray’s easel, and suddenly I could see exactly what was wrong with his painting and how to fix it. I blurted out to him (he's so patient with me!) that the values and colors on the upper half of the painting were completely different from the lower half, making the two halves seem disconnected. Within 20 minutes or so of what looked like wild-abandon-Ninja-artist-pastel-sticks-flying-through-the-air, he had transformed the whole value pattern, unified the color scheme, and was well on his way to yet another great painting. Then he turned to my painting and showed me exactly what was wrong: All my values fell in the medium to light range, with no darks to anchor the composition. And again, once the lightbulb went on, it only took a few minutes to solve the problem so I could put in the final details.
Ray and I had a good laugh about this because it’s a common problem Ray likes to call “the ugly teenage years.” In other words, you’ve usually started off with a nice baby (a good design) and have developed it into a charming adolescent (with value, form, and color)... and then you hit that horrible stage when nothing seems to be working and you just want to quit. It’s just like an awkward teenage on the verge of adulthood, no longer cute and cuddly but not a compelling, mature work of art either. And quite frankly, you just don’t know how much more time you can stand to spend with this strange thing you’ve created that suddenly has a mind of its own!
The lesson--Ray reminded me--is to never give up. Expect to encounter that awkward phase and be ready for it. Calmly step back and evaluate the basics of design, value, color, and so on. Chances are good you’ll soon see what it will take to bring that painting to beautiful maturity. And by the way, the answer is almost never more detail.
So now I’m curious: What are your tactics for seeing a painting through the ugly teenage years?