It's an observation I've often made that was reinforced in the painting class I took last month at the Ottawa School of Art: that visual artists experience frustration if they have to backtrack and re-do parts of an art piece during its creation. 

Each artist in the class at some point didn't like what they had painted. We sometimes got stuck. We didn't always know how to move forward or how to fix what we had painted. We were irked when we liked something, took a step we thought was right, then realized we had wrecked what was good. Visual artists and fibre artists for the most part highly dislike having to "re-do" parts of a picture they thought were done. Oh yes we should be looking at these as learning opportunities, but it's still an exercise in frustration.

Our instructor reminded us throughout the week that painting is a process, it's about playing, adding layers, about the work evolving. She said anything can be fixed if we don't like it or it doesn't work. We just need to step back, re-assess, determine what colours, shapes, etc. are needed, then decide on the next step. Then the step after that. We are not perfect and we only improve with practice. If we change one section, it affects other sections. Keep going. Take a break when needed. Sit with it for a bit. Consider that we may not have had a strong enough vision when starting to create, or that the picture needed to reveal what it wants to be. Not to focus on the end result but to enjoy the process. Don't get discouraged. All great messages.

Yet still frustrating. 

I've seen many painters give up when something isn't working, the frustration of knitters when they realize they've made a wrong stitch and need to go back a row or sometimes more to fix the error, sewers when a piece doesn't fit or the machine is giving them trouble. A weaver friend felt she had ruined an entire piece of fabric she was making on her loom when she discovered an error in the pattern. She could not find a way to salvage it or make something else from the weaving and dreaded having to start over after spending all that time on it. It felt like a waste.

Perhaps we feel the frustration because we are left with something tangible on which we've spent time and money, and because that unfinished piece sits in front of us every day. We can save multiple versions of writing on a computer. We can 'undo' changes to a digital photo. We can move on from a piano practice when we can't see or hear it. But a painted canvas or knitted piece is harder to hide from view, we can't save an earlier version. 

And yet artists of other art forms seem to understand that changes and corrections and edits are part of the process. At least I think they do. Writers go through several edits before they are satisfied. They expect this and seem prepared to work through the changes. Yes, they know their first draft won't be perfect, that it will need a re-write, enhancing, then polishing. That first draft is more like a mind dump, then it can be reorganized, rewritten, polished, words changed up for others, polished some more.

Why can't visual artists think like that, whatever our medium? We may have a vision in mind, but often our vision will evolve. Usually into something better if we keep working at it, but it's hard to see that while we are in the process of creating.

Writing and painting and other art forms require learning of techniques, practice, allowing the creativity to flow, planning, and understanding the principles and elements that go into creation. But somewhere along the creative process, backtracking and re-doing and correcting seem like too much of a burden for us visual artists.

Yet, it's like tuning an instrument. We need to play with the colours, decide on the composition, understand the elements of good design. We may start boldly but as the piece evolves we can get drawn too deeply into details and begin to overthink the work.

There were times in the class I was taking that I didn't think my pieces were going to work out. Take the garden painting, for example. I started with a photo. I wanted to add my own vision by using more colours, interest, adding some mixed media pieces. Part way through I wasn't sure it would have a cohesive look. I'm very glad the instructor was there to give feedback on composition, colour selections, paint layers, tones and contrast, where it needed a pop of colour, etc. I got there, step by step. I haven't been painting much the last few years, focusing instead of fibre art. So practice is what I need, just like a dancer or a musician who will practice for hours before the recital.

It's not perfect, but it has much more colour than the photo, it's vivacious, fun and catches the eye. And that's what I wanted. Some sections have several layers of paint. It was easy to make corrections
Related posts:
Does Practice make Perfect?
Lessons Learned when our Art doesn't turn out
Getting Past the Hump in a Creative Practice


"Music is full of longing and movement.  Painting should be the same." I read this quote in Hundred and Thousands: The Journals of...