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Owl Lessons

This past Friday, I spent a good portion of my day in my studio. It was one of those sessions filled with breakthroughs and realizations about art and my process and all these amazing things. But I didn’t like the owl. So on the one hand, I learned all the things. And on the other hand, I didn’t like what it had brought me. This was weirdly frustrating. (And also probably just meant I was tired.)

I went to bed and woke up and still didn’t like the owl. Some days you get lucky and sleep fixes the art. Not this time. But having a good night’s rest did push forward all the things that Monday taught me about how I work in relationship to these owls…and the color yellow.

#1: Yellow is a tough color.

I’m obsessed with mustard yellow right now, but mustard yellow is tough. It looks different in my mixing bowl than it does when it goes down on the board. Plus, I work mainly in transparencies and mustard yellow is even more unpredictable on that front.

Here’s why -and Monday solidified this idea firmly in my mind: Color only exists in art as a relationship. For example, you could be holding the prettiest red. Beautiful. Luminescent. This red could be so pretty it makes you cry. It makes you think of flowers and you can almost hear a robin chirping this read is so beautiful.

But then you put it next to a green. A muddy green. A bottom of the swamp green and suddenly that red looks really bad. Not only does it make you start to hum Christmas carols months before you’re ready, it looks awful. It doesn’t matter how pretty that red was by itself. Unless it’s the only color on the canvas, the color is at the mercy of what’s around it. How you experience color in art is relative.

I now know how to mix a mustard yellow. That doesn’t mean I know how to make it work in a painting. That’s really useful to know and I can build on that the next time.

#2: Sometimes more doesn’t equal more interesting

My favorite charcoal drawings and acrylic abstracts are a product of layers. There’s a richness that can only occur after you’ve gotten so much medium (either paint or charcoal) down on your board. In my Blue Gaze faces, I’ve also found this true. The paintings are richer the more layers I get down before I start actually sculpting the face.

I also just really enjoy the process of getting down layers. It’s fast. It’s intuitive. It’s awesome.

I had assumed this was universally true. That creating a rich background will lead to richness in the final piece. But I discovered that is only so true with these particular types of owls. If I do 10 layers of background and then cover most of it with an opaque piece of paper, it may not matter that I put in two hours to create depth. Sometimes more work doesn’t mean a richer outcome.

That said, it is 100% worth it for my process and the final piece to spend hours on the papers I make and use. And I do. Half of my artistic life thus far is held on those thin sheets of deli paper. I’ve loved every minute of it. So even though I was disappointed that none of the background work paid off (or not as much as I had hoped), I did learn that I can spend less time in the future on board backgrounds and it still turns out great.

I just heard this great quote from watercolor artist Jean Haines. She says, “…We learn more from mistakes then we do from when things go right. So make as many mistakes as you can and that will make you a much better artist.”  And how.

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