So You Made A Bad Painting?
It seems like there are a few superstar artists out there who never make a mistake. Every painting, drawing, or sculpture seems flawless–perfect strokes, perfect gestures, perfect anatomy; perfect temperatures, perfect manipulation of the picture plane, plus a composition to die for.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be that good. Why do I even try? What’s the point of making art if a lot of what I create is far from perfect? People will see my mistakes. I probably shouldn’t put my work out there until the day I don’t make so many mistakes.
If you’re like me, you’ve had these thoughts run through your head many times. And those impulses can be useful. Being your own toughest critic can push your work to new levels of creativity and craftsmanship. Carefully placing your best work in public shows can drive expectation (your own and your clients’) and open career opportunities again and again. But it’s easy to let those impulses get the better of us. We all know artists who put off promoting their own work because of self doubt until finally their dreams of an art career fall by the wayside.
When my own bad work gets me down, I remember two things:First, a visit to the museum of the Louvre. One of the paintings there, of course, is the Mona Lisa–arguably the most famous painting in the world. As I worked my way through the museum crowds to catch a glimpse of the painting, the critic in me expected to be disappointed. It couldn’t possibly be everything it’s cracked up to be. And then I saw it. It was perfect. Unbelievably perfect. Wow, Mr. Da Vinci! How did you do that? But down the hall is another painting by Da Vinci: a painting of John the Baptist. I saw it and it didn’t move me. Not that it’s horrible–it has some of the same marks of genius, the brilliant sfumato that make the Mona Lisa such a standout piece. But the figure of John the Baptist seems to lack structure and understanding of anatomy, and the finger ends on such an abrupt point as to lead the eye to a black hole. It seems ghostly and makes me think Da Vinci spent all his time on the face–pasting the feminine visage he painted on previous works into an otherwise bland composition. It made me wonder, how could the quintessential renaissance man, the creator of the most famous painting in the world–how could he have also created THIS? Well, there could be a lot of reasons, and I’ll resist the urge here to venture a guess. (And you may disagree with my critical analysis of the painting.) That said, my point is: Leonardo Da Vinci had a bad painting. Probably many. And this wasn’t one of his early paintings. It was one of his last paintings. BUT he also had one of the most perfect and celebrated paintings in the world. That gives me hope.
The second thing I remember is an interview I once saw with Brad Pitt (and this was a long time ago, so I hope I remember it correctly.) When asked about working with Edward Norton on the movie Fight Club, Mr. Pitt talked about what an excellent and consistent actor Edward Norton is. In contrast, Brad considered himself to be hit and miss. One take might be totally off, but another take might bring just the right result. What a relief! Someone as successful as Brad Pitt owns inconsistency. And aren’t we glad he persists in his career regardless? I am glad.
A favorite art teacher once pointed out that work of Bouguereau, worshiped by many as the most skilled painter to ever paint, was relegated to a back corner of many museums. And, according to my teacher, rightly so–because above all, the skill of Bouguereau’s work often overshadowed its content. In a time when painters were taking up social causes and revolutionizing art for art’s sake, Bouguereau was simply being the most skilled. He represented the pinnacle of a tradition that would soon become irrelevant to the art world around him. Now I fully expect this idea to bring down the ire of many contemporary academicians and classical devotees. And I’m convinced that Bouguereau’s work will only become more popular and revered over time. AND, I don’t think my teacher was urging his pupils not to develop skill. Rather, he urged us not to court skill at the expense of meaningful content and experimentation. How many slick works of art without error or risk have fallen into obscurity? Many. Just because a work is perfect doesn’t mean it is moving–doesn’t mean it will rally the human soul. Searching and experimenting are important ingredients. And searching breeds inconsistency. Experimentation breeds bad work in search of the best work.
So you made a bad painting? Well, you’re probably on the right track.