This little painting of a freesia is my first attempt with oil paints for quite some time.
I was so energised starting this painting. As soon as I got out the easel and set it up, as soon as the paints came out, as soon as I opened the tub of turps and the smell of pine trees filled the room it all came flooding back to me. This is where I’m meant to be, among these smells, in the depth of this charged silence, infused with the calm tension that precedes a painting session.
It all came back.
All of it. So did the fear.
Fear of a blank canvas
What if this painting is a failure? What if it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten how to use oil paint? What if I can’t judge colour accurately any more? What if I just make a crap painting?
I write a lot here about how to get over those kind of fears and get started. So I took my own medicine, along with a deep breath, and just laid out the drawing.
This is how I usually work on little still lifes like this. I usually work sight-size, although the drawing out is fairly rough and ready. The little viewfinder helps me draw out more accurately more quickly, audition and refine the composition and also helps me focus on the subject.
At each stage of this little painting, the fear came rushing back in.
- When I’m about to start putting the first strokes of paint down: What if I mess it up now? I’ve only really got today with a quiet house (Michelle had taken the kids out for the day). What if I mess it up now?
- When I’m beginning to lay in the shadow areas: What if I get the values wrong?
- When I’m deciding which part to paint next: Should I finish this bit, or try to get it all covered and go from there? What if I make the wrong decision and screw the whole thing up?
After roughing in the main values of the main flower, I decide to finish each petal, one at a time.
After a while, I’m painting and I’m into the zone. I’d forgotten how completely enveloping a painting session can be. I stop painting when I’m at the end of the usable light for the day.
I suddenly realise I’m exhausted, although I’ve only been painting for about four or five hours. I mean, really exhausted. Like I’ve just worked 12 hours straight.
It takes me a little while to realise why. The time has passed almost without me noticing it, I’ve been so absorbed in what I was doing. I know of no other activity that affects me in quite this way, being so completely involved that I don’t notice time passing – for a whole day.
The following day, I come back to the painting and finish it off. I’m suffering a kind of hang-over from the day before. I can’t seem to lock into it in quite the same way as I did the day before. But I finish the painting, glad that I did the main focus of the picture to a finish yesterday.
The mystery skill
So, what is that skill I mentioned in the title of this post? That’s probably obvious by now: It’s focus.
Although it’s been some time since I painted in oils, my memory came back pretty much in tact. I didn’t struggle any more with any part of this little painting than I used to.
But what has become weaker, like a muscle I haven’t used for too long, is my ability to hold a high level of focus for a long period of time, and to hold onto it for more than one day.
I’d got to a point before, when I used to paint regularly, where I found that fairly easy. I realise now that I’m going to have to develop it again.
That’s one thing they don’t talk about in the art books. But I can clearly see in this painting how much stronger my focus was on the parts I painted on the first day.
And I remember, too, the intensive sight size practice I used to do, and how exhausting that was at the time. But I wonder if the real skill I was learning then wasn’t so much accuracy, or how to handle charcoal.
I remember feeling at the time that intensive sight size practice had given me something that I’ve struggled to define since. The nearest I got previously was to say that it increased the resolution of my eye.
But perhaps it was just this: It was simply that it stretched my ability to focus, way beyond what it was before.
So if you see realist work that you’d like to emulate, but struggle to do so, perhaps try bearing this in mind. It may not be entirely the level of drawing skill that makes some realist artists stand out. It may also be that this way of drawing and painting – traditional, classical, whatever you want to call it – is so demanding, it develops an almost superhuman ability to focus for long periods of time.
Perhaps that’s the skill we need to work on most.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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