Don’t overthink it

A couple weeks ago I did a small painting of a cow and calf (I know — shocking!). I sketched it quickly, excited to amplify the blues and purples on the Hereford’s head and on the healthy black calf trotting at her side.

Though it’s far from perfect, I love how the little painting came out: bold brushstrokes generated energy and movement. The dark burgundy on the cow’s neck drew my eye to the blues in their faces, and swirls in the sky and grass made it lively. It’s impossible to recreate the impulsive energy in pieces like this; nonetheless, I tried to duplicate it on a larger canvas. In an attempt to get the second painting “more right,” I carefully drew the cattle with a pencil. I premixed most of my colors. I prepared for problem areas.

It was no fun to paint.

Don’t get me wrong; the second painting works, and some may think it better than the first, but it lacks the spontaneous joy and the wonder of exploration the first painting evokes. The colors are brighter, but it feels more flat, homogenized or manufactured. The first painting has flaws and places where the story of its creation is visible. The second painting is drawn more correctly, but lacks character. Imperfections tell stories.

Where the first painting calls to mind dancing with a paintbrush, singing, “Wow, what a glorious light shines on her hip!” the second is hunched over a notebook, musing, “a mix of Cad Yellow and Brilliant Rose with a touch of Dioxazine Purple, in a value of eight, should represent her hip.”

The second method is not wrong; study and practice is critical to improving skills, but I’m finding that for in order for my expressive style to shine through, I’m better off utilizing analytics prior to painting, and employing them as I paint with a measure of “carefree (not reckless) abandon;” otherwise, my work doesn’t feel like my own.

Even though most are beginners, nearly every person in my two-hour painting workshops has their own style of brushstroke, which often matches their personality.

We should never try to change that authentic nature of expression within us, but find ways to enhance that individuality as we learn and grow as artists. Some class members get downhearted when their painting doesn’t look like the others’, but their paintings are my favorites, because they represent a unique expression — something new and exciting. I want to show these people images from MoMA, to verify that I’m not lying when I tell them, “That is a work of art! I love it!”

Like those students, I’m discouraged when my art doesn’t look like I want it to, and — like them — when I correct the little, perceived mistakes, it often smothers the very thing that made the painting interesting. In high school, I wanted my work to look photorealistic, but recalling my very first experiences of art — the CM Russell prints that Uncle Aubry picked me up to show me up-close on the walls of my grandparents’ home — the strokes of unexpected colors put in the right places, evoking feeling as much as subject, mesmerized me. My artist statement today refers to the experience of seeing a realistic painting transform into simple, abstract shapes of values and colors as you approach it.

Artist Beverly Kleiber (the granddaughter of Hans Kleiber) calls me a “Wyoming Expressionist.” When I think of what the original Expressionists were doing — painting emotions and feelings with distortion rather than exact renditions of the world in front of them, I’m flattered to be considered as such.

I hope we all remember to follow the advice I give in my classes, to “let go and have fun — it’ll turn out fine.”

May our little perceived mistakes remain as visible reminders that nothing on earth is perfect — the beauty of art is the feelings it evokes in the one creating it, and in those who experience it.


Sonja Caywood

By |Jan. 16, 2019|

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