They can’t all be winners. That’s what the law of averages says. Some are good, some are bad, and in the end there is an average. Everything can’t be above average. I bring this up because I just spent the day making a bad painting. Maybe “Failed painting” is a better phrase but either way, in the end, the piece was a disappointment to me. I hate when that happens. It’s not a great way to pass a day.

More often than not I like my paintings. I have been at this for quite a while now. I think they are successful at fulfilling whatever vision I had of them. Of course some are better than others. I have my favorites but even when a painting is not my favorite someone else may like it. I know that and try not to judge them too harshly. I’ve finished paintings and thought, “Eh, that doesn’t really do it for me but it’s still okay”. Some paintings I learn to like more over time. The opposite happens on occasion too. But a bad painting, a failed painting, that’s a whole different story. A whole other level of muddled confusion. Where did it all go wrong?

I can often feel it when it’s happening. Something is not quite right. It’s different than feeling bad when making a painting. At times I’m not in a good mood as I paint but my mood isn’t necessarily reflected in the painting. I can make a good painting while in a bad mood. Sometimes making a good painting can even get me out of a bad mood. Other times I can’t even tell if it’s a good painting until my bad mood has left me. No, making a bad painting is having nothing I do be able to make the painting better. It’s a feeling of helplessness.

Paintings all start out the same. Blank. And it takes a while for a painting to come together. I start off by making a drawing. Usually I have the drawing already done and I transfer it to the canvas or paper. Then comes the paint. This is the part that takes a while. There is a lot of painting to be done where it all looks like an unfinished statement. I’ve heard artists say that a painting should look finished at every stage but I think that’s wishful thinking (and usually comes from an abstract painter).

An unfinished painting often looks like an unfinished painting. If it looked like a finished painting then it would indeed be finished. Why would anyone work for another three minutes or three days on a finished painting? It makes no sense to me that whole “Finished at every stage” thing.

It’s during the various unfinished stages that you have to have confidence in your abilities. It helps to know what you are doing. You have to know that the painting doesn’t look like much right now but after some of the other steps are taken it will look nice. It all pulls together in the end. That’s how things are done. When you’re young this is the hardest part. That’s why a lot of young artists never finish things.

What happens with a bad painting is that things don’t pull together in the end. In fact there is never an end. There is just stopping. I go through my steps: drawing, color sketch, underpainting, painting, details, finishing touches, and then nothing. No pay off. The painting doesn’t come alive. Instead it just lies there looking dull. Sometimes at this point I can recognize what’s wrong and change things. I can pull out a late fourth quarter victory when things look like a defeat. It is possible. But not always and not today.

A bad painting is different than a bad drawing. It’s easier to either figure out or abandon a bad drawing. At least it is after you’ve learned how to. That’s one thing I, and others, have had to learn through experience. I’ve seen it and felt it before. As a young artist after you’ve worked for a couple of hours on a drawing you don’t want to give it up. You want it to be right even if you know it’s not. You work and rework the drawing trying to make it better. To give up is to lose all that work. But you gain more by giving up than by continuing.

In that situation there is usually something so fundamentally wrong with the drawing that you’re better off staring over. That’s the hard part to learn: when is it easier to start down a new path rather than continue down the one you’ve worked hard to get down? Most artists do learn this lesson but it’s only after quite a few times of trying to make the unworkable work. Knowing the right and wrong times to give up isn’t an easy thing to learn.

When I make a bad painting it’s a lot harder to put my finger on what’s gone wrong. Structure is only one part of a painting and I usually have that worked out before I even start. What is it? The color? The texture? The brush strokes? The image itself? That’s what is hard to figure out. I can’t always see how the water is getting into the boat.

I think a lot of the times when a painting doesn’t work for me it’s the image itself. There are some drawings that work as drawings but can’t be made into paintings. They work in the simplicity of black and white but not in color. There can be a balance between black and white that is lost when I try to add color. It usually happens when the shapes in the foreground and background interact in a certain way. They almost blur together with edges becoming parts of both. Adding color to that defines the space in a way that often makes the image less interesting. But once again this is something I can recognize fairly quickly in the color sketch stage. Not always but a lot of the time.

Nope, I have no idea what made this painting bad except that it never came together. Though I have made bad paintings into good ones in the past. But that doesn’t happen the same day I make the original bad painting. That happens after I put the painting away and come back to it. I forget what I wanted to do with it in the first place and make it into something else. I start over just not with a blank piece of paper.

I use the bad painting as a launching point. It’s much easier to completely let go of a painting after I’ve forgotten about it and after I’ve forgotten how much time I spent on it trying to make it good. It’s the time that kills me right after I finish a bad painting. I sit around and think of all the better things I could have done with the time. That’s a little exaggerated. I don’t think of anything specific. I just think there were better things I could have done in general than make a bad painting.

Writing this has given me a little hope that maybe I can eventually transform this painting into something else, into a good painting, in the future. I’m going to pack up my paints and put them and the painting away. That seems to be an important part of the process to me. Putting things away and clearing off my drawing table. It helps clear my mind. I could go for some clear mind right about now.