Perfectly Imperfect

Fence & Shadows, Lambertville, NJ - studio watercolor, 9x12 in.

Fence & Shadows, Lambertville, NJ – studio watercolor, 9×12 in.

I often hear people say “I’m a perfectionist” in reference to their approach to painting. Quite often, these are artists who work in a manner that is very tight–not always correct in terms of form, value, perspective and proportion–but always very tight. Perfection has nothing to do with the way an artist renders their subject, rather, it has more to do with whether or not the end result is compelling in terms of color, composition, draftsmanship and creativity.

For me, a perfect painting is one that is packed with life and energy. The fewer strokes it takes to create it, the better! In order to work this way, you have to have a lot of confidence in your drawing skills. There’s nothing like a perfectly straight line (drawn with a straight edge) that goes in the wrong direction and kills all semblance of depth and space! However, if you understand the principles of perspective and use gesture to draw your lines accordingly, you can get a beautifully correct drawing that pulls your viewers right into your painting without making it stiff and stilted.

Another misconception is that every stroke has to be blended and smooth. Says who? I like my paintings to look like paintings. If you start out with a correct drawing you can be as expressive and loose as you like with color, brush work and texture. The structure underneath, if drawn correctly, will support as much deviation or enhancement of reality as you want it to, and will still read as whatever your subject happens to be.

The key is to not confuse drawing with rendering detail. You have to get your drawing blocked in properly first–big shapes, correct values, correct proportion and perspective. Once you have that, you’re free to be as experimental and creative as you want with color and texture. I find watercolor particularly suitable for creating spontaneous effects–once you get used to how to move the paint around, you can easily allow the medium to take over and create beautiful, loose effects without losing a sense of depth and space. How? Always go back to your drawing, if the painting starts to get away from you, pull it back with the overall drawing by going back to your darks and creating the unity that will make your painting cohesive.

If you have trouble with this concept at first, try working monochromatically for awhile. It will help to only focus on values rather than color and value simultaneously. If you need help with things like perspective and proportion, take a drawing class! It’s worth what it will save you in time and frustration if your paintings are not looking as perfect as you would like them to!


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